Otto de Kat
Translated by Ina Rilke
Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
A brief flick through previous entries in this blog will show the reader that I have something of a fascination with the events of the Second World War. Not so much the war itself, but the individual stories that make up the fabric of time during which those terrible events occurred. Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s latest novel, Julia, is one such story, a surprising and heart-breaking vignette that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of a young, love-struck Dutchman.
Julia opens in the early 1980s. Chris Dudok, a man in his early seventies, is found dead on the floor of his study, apparently having taken an overdose along with his bowl of porridge. On his desk is a newspaper, an old German paper, dated 2 April 1942. On the front page, a list of names, circled in red. From there, we are taken back to Lübeck, February 1938, where a much younger Chris Dudok is working in a factory, sent to Germany by his father to gain some experience before he takes control of the family’s own manufacturing business. While in Lübeck, Chris meets and falls in love with Julia Bender, a young woman outspoken against the growing Nazi presence. As events culminate in Kristallnacht, in November of the same year, Chris flees back to the Netherlands, abandoning Julia at her command. It is a decision that will overshadow the rest of his life, and which will leave him filled with regret.
De Kat tells his tale in a series of flashbacks, the story coming together in three distinct time periods. Here is Chris in his seventies, on the night before he takes his own life, reminiscent and regretful. Here is the same man in his early twenties, full of life and love, in a country that is slowly succumbing to the grip of dictatorship, the world on the verge of war. And then there is Chris in the in-between years, trapped in a loveless marriage, possessing unwanted responsibility following the sudden death of his father and the passing of the reins to him. Behind everything lies the shadow of Julia, a young woman that we – and Chris, seemingly – know very little about:
Those moments in her company…Years hence it would be those moments, that time, that would count as the happiest he had known. Taken all together, what did they add up to? A few days, a fortnight?
We see Dudok’s life as a series of snapshots, as if we are seeing pages from the diary that he left in the car on his final night. De Kat shows us Germany in 1938 through the eyes of an outsider. Hitler is never mentioned by name, but his presence is felt in those pre-war scenes, and he is referred to as “the radio man” throughout. Chris watches his rise with the cynical and detached eye of the foreigner, unable to see what others see in him, why his ideas are finding footholds in the minds of the local population:
The radio man was a disaster, worse than Chris had initially believed. As for the never-ending palavers in Holland, the stultifying compromises, the wavering, all that was better than falling for the great lie of the national soul, the fixation on a mythical perception of blood and soil, the idiocy of one group being held superior to another. It was nauseating, loathsome, and also frightening.
There is an immediate rapport with Julia, an objector, the sister of a traitor to the cause, who becomes a shady underground figure and sends Chris away, ostensibly to keep both of them safe. There is an interesting juxtaposition of these two main characters – they share similar views, reached through different thought processes, yet one, in the eyes of the law, is a traitor, and the other not.
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
Gerard Brennan (www.gerardbrennan.co.uk)
Pulp Press (www.pulppress.co.uk)
Coming, as I do, from the wilds of West Belfast, I have an aversion to the Norn Irish accent on film and television; for me, there’s something distinctly cringe-worthy about it, a fact that is probably best exemplified every time Liam Neeson opens his mouth (who would have thought Oskar Schindler was, actually, originally from Ballymena? Or that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn might hail from the planet of Countyantrim?). Strangely, though, the same aversion doesn’t apply to the written word, so I find myself putting on my broadest Belfaaawst and enjoying the likes of Jason Johnson’s beautiful Woundlicker or Stuart Neville’s dark and wonderful The Twelve. So it was in that frame of mind that I picked up Gerard Brennan’s The Point and, as the locals might have it, got stuck in.
Paul Morgan is a small-time crook who has a habit of getting brother Brian involved in his schemes. When Paul is caught trying to steal from local hoodlum Mad Mickey, he is given a week to get out of Belfast. Choosing seaside town Warrenpoint – The Point of the title – Paul and Brian embark on one last series of jobs, breaking into student digs in an attempt to raise some cash. Upon arriving in The Point, Brian promptly meets, and falls in love with, Rachel, a girl with some psychotic tendencies. He gets a steady job, and gets ready to settle down, while Paul finds the local underworld and gets involved with the local big man who immediately gives him a job stealing cars to order. As Paul’s inability to stay out of trouble once again comes to the fore, things spiral out of control and the brothers find themselves in their tightest spot yet with no clear means of escape.
Brennan does an excellent job showing us the decaying relationship between these two brothers – the one who needs to be constantly in the thick of things, always on the run from somebody; the other who wants no involvement, but is unable to help himself when his brother is in trouble. It’s the classic noir tale of how the introduction of a woman can drastically alter the landscape of a close male relationship – be it best friends or brothers – relocated to modern day Northern Ireland and peopled by a cast of believable – if not always likeable – characters. There’s a dark humour running throughout the book, and it is easy to forget that this is, after all, noir. The parting shot is all the more shocking in light of the humour that has gone before and is handled with a confidence that marks Brennan, a relative newcomer to the scene, as one to watch in the future.
The packaging of this story is nothing less than perfect. Pulp Press have produced a small paperback of a size and style with the old 50s pulp paperbacks. The £7.99 price point might seem a little high for such a short piece, but the story is definitely worth every penny. Northern Irish slang abounds, but shouldn’t cause too much difficulty, but keep Google handy just in case. Short, sharp and shocking, The Point is Northern Irish noir at its best – dark, funny, gritty and, most of all, believable – and a fitting homage to the works of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and the swathes of others who defined the genre in the early-to-mid-20th century.