Otto de Kat’s short novels are now a fairly regular occurrence since MacLehose Press published Man on the Move in 2009. This was followed by Julia in 2011 and now News from Berlin. Although de Kat (a pseudonym) was not born until the Second World War was over (1946), all three novels are set around that time. While the previous two novels begin prior to the war and continue past it, News from Berlin is unusual in that it is set over a much shorter time period, a matter of weeks in 1941, as the German army prepares to invade Russia. It does, however, share the same focus on how the war affects and influences relationships. A single date is of great importance in the novel: the 22nd of June, the date on which Germany will launch its invasion of current ally, Russia. Oscar Vershuur, a Dutch diplomat living and working in Switzerland, receives this information from his daughter, Emma, whose German husband works in the Foreign Ministry. The dilemma he faces is what to do with this knowledge. Who should he tell? Indeed, should he tell anyone when there is a danger the leak will be traced back to Emma in Germany?
“He was certain that his name would crop up sooner or later. There would be Russians making enquiries among German diplomats, asking about an operation code-named Barbarossa. Never heard of it, of course, whatever gave them that idea? Oh …some Dutch specialist in Berne. The Gestapo would do the rest.”
Oscar’s agonising over his decision unifies much of the plot, but beyond its spy thriller trappings, the novel is primarily about relationships. The novel begins with Oscar falling in love with a woman he meets in the Swiss mountains. Meanwhile his wife, Kate, is in London helping in a military hospital; she has become infatuated with a young Congolese soldier, Matteous, who has been sent to England to be treated after saving the life of his Belgian officer. This infatuation continues even once he is discharged as she finds him a bedsit to stay in and begins to teach him to read and write. The novel not only moves effortlessly between her experience and Oscar’s, but also spends time with Emma in Germany, giving us a panoramic view of the war and its effects. All these relationships are profoundly affected by the war: in Oscar and Kate’s case it is because they are thrown together with someone they otherwise would be unlikely to meet; in Emma’s case it is the circumstances she finds herself in having married an enemy of her own country. But de Kat is not arguing entirely for fate: all three characters make important decisions too. Emma risks her life to pass on the information to Oscar; he must then decide what to do with it – and that decision will affect his other relationships. All the characters also share a sense of statelessness. Matteous is marooned in London, desperate to return to the Congo but with no idea whether his home still exists. Emma is stranded in a country she is at war with; Kate is separated from her family, a refugee in London; and Oscar has lost all sense of home:
“Home? Oscar heard the word, but it had no ring to it. Berne, Berlin, London, he had lost his home long since.”
The German invasion of Russia is, of course, a turning point in the war. De Kat uses this ironically to conclude the novel – for the characters too, we fear, it is the “beginning of the end.” If you have not read de Kat before, this would be a great place to start.