Ever since I began to travel abroad as part of my career, I have become more and more aware of the oddities of Americans. One of them is our gross discomfort in discussing the functions of the human body (including waste elimination and sex) and death. Those subjects are taboo in polite society.
All that was brought home to me again by a book I’m reading for review, Willem Frederik Hermans’ A Guardian Angel Recalls (translated from the Dutch by David Colmer; Archipelago Books, 2021). In this novel, told from the point of view of an angel, the bodily organs involved in urination, defecation, and sex are mentioned casually as are the acts themselves and the substance excreted. The story begins on May 9, 1940, the day before German invaded the Netherlands, and lasts through the first week of the German occupation. Consequently, death is common and is described without ado.
I am struck by the nonchalance of Hermans in his allusions to the body, its acts, its excreta, and its demise. His writing reminded me of my time in other nations across the world working with the citizens of those nations in their own language. Unlike Americans, they spoke of these matters as a part of daily life, neither special nor to be avoided.
We Americans can learn a lot from our allies.