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.