Otto de Kat (the pen-name of Dutch publisher Jan Geurt Gaarlandt) did not publish his first novel, A Figure in the Distance, until he was 52, following it in the same unhurried way his stories unfold with Man on the Move six years later. His age is perhaps reflected in the quiet, elegiac tone of his work, its sense of looking back on a life with a keen awareness of the choices made, though it doesn’t quite explain his fascination with the 1930s and 40s where much of his work is set. He returns to the pre-war period again in his latest novel to be translated into English by Ina Rilke, Julia.
Julia is a novel of regret, a novel in which the central character, Chris Dudock, answers the question, if you had your life to live over again would you live it differently? with an unequivocal yes. This regret is so profound than the novel begins with his suicide many years later. Once this is established the novel rewinds to 1938 with the young Dudock working in a machine factory in Germany in order to gain the skills necessary to take over his father’s similar business in Holland:
“He was to succeed his father the following year. It did not bear thinking about….The idea of having to exchange Nietzsche for the financial pages made him choke.”
It is perhaps this desire to rebel that partly attracts him to Julia:
“If only he could be light-footed like Julia, a free spirit like her, untrammelled by duty or authority.”
But whereas his is an immature need to reject his father’s authority, her rebellion is serious. Germany in the grip of Nazism is not simply a colourful background to this segment of the novel. We see it demonstrated when Chris and Julia are in a cafe together and five brownshirts enter, compelling the clientele to sing the Horst Wessel song. Julia is well aware of the dangers of her rejection of Nazism:
“Hundreds and thousands of us. Only we’re all stuck in overcrowded barracks without permission to leave. Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, the mere mention of those places can get you into trouble.”
Julia soon loses her job under Nazi pressure and is on the run, with only occasional meetings with Chris. More than once he asks her to return to Holland with him. Eventually they meet for one last time on Kristallnacht when, having spent the night looking for her, he finds her waiting for him. She begs him to return to Holland the next day and he does, without her – and it is this regret that haunts him in the years ahead.
The novel continues to follow his life post-war life, including what he discovers about Julia’s fate, interspersing this with his final night. (An understated encounter with a neighbour’s teenage daughter experiencing her own first love resonates throughout.) This is a story where the telling is more important than the tale. As Dudock walks home to his death we sense the repressed memories constantly rising to his mind;
“It was always the same, just as he thought everything was safely buried under an unmoveable slab of Dutch reinforced concrete, Lubeck came rushing to mind.”
Dudock cannot forgive himself for not being brave or strong enough when it mattered. Ultimately, he is too ordinary, and that is what his life becomes: superficially successful but banal. While this is Dudock’s story, it is clear why it bears another’s name: Julia remains luminous to us in this wonderful short novel, while Dudock simply fades away as most of us are destined to do.