Posts Tagged ‘otto de kat’

News from Berlin

January 15, 2014

news from berlin

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.


July 29, 2012

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.

Man on the Move

December 4, 2009

I don’t know what the literal translation of De Inscheper is (I have a feeling there isn’t one), but Man on the Move is certainly an accurate description of the central character, Rob’s, restlessness in this short novel by the Dutch writer, Otto de Kat. However, don’t expect the narrative to undertake a similar journey; instead it circles like a dog looking for somewhere to settle, imitating the psychological nature of Rob’s travels which are as much about searching for meaning in his past as they are about finding a place where he feels at home.

Rob’s journey begins with a desperate need to escape his family and a chance meeting with Albert Schweitzer. Rob already determined to escape from what he sees as the parochial and predestined life of his home town:

“He was battling against the life there….He could not breathe, did not want to become like the others, his father, his brothers, his friends.”

Rob’s desire to escape is, above all, a desire to free himself from his father:

“His brave, tiny, unreachable father. How slowly he drifted apart from him, how unavoidably did he want to hurt him, shake him off, alienate him.”

When he hears Schweitzer, invited by his father to play the organ at the local church to raise funds for his work, speak of Africa, he makes a decision to go there. Schweitzer is not a role model for him – indeed, they might be seen as opposites. Whereas Schweitzer talks of “how he was bound by an overpowering urge to give meaning to whatever he did”, it is lack of meaning which haunts Rob. Whereas Schweitzer works in the remotest parts of the continent, Rob heads for South Africa where he hopes to make his fortune. His first act once on the boat is to tear in two the letters of introduction his father has given him.

When Rob arrives in South Africa he gets a job working in a gold mine. There he befriends a young black boy, Yoshua, one of only two friendships in the novel (the other being with Guus, a fellow prisoner of the Japanese). In both cases the friendship begins when they are close together in a dangerous place (“The treacherous, deadly mine, the lurking beast”), and in both cases the other person dies, to some extent saving Rob’s life. Yoshua shouts out a warning; Guus dives into the sea knowing he can’t swim, but encouraging Rob to save himself. Both deaths, to some degree, leave Rob rudderless.

By this time the Second World War has broken out and Rob travels from South Africa to join the Dutch army in the defence of Java, which quickly leads to him becoming a captive of the Japanese. De Kat describes the forced marches vividly. It is here that he befriends Guus, an alternate version of himself, whose mother is dead (when Rob thinks of returning to Holland, it is the thought of his mother that prevents him) and who enjoys a good relationship with his father. Whereas Rob finds objects that remind him of home almost unbearable-

“The desk, the curtains, the carpet, the objects everywhere, the pain it caused him was just too great.”

– Guus finds refuge in objects. Having played under his mother’s piano as a child, he continues to find comfort in playing the piano as an adult. They become close friends, talking to each other about their lives, though it is noticeable that later in the narrative there are things that he hadn’t told Guus.

After the war, Rob buys and runs a bar, meeting a woman there and developing the only other relationship in the novel. This he ends himself by selling the bar for no other reason than to move on, finishing his time in South Africa as an encyclopaedia salesman. He returns home as his mother is dying, but arrives only after her death. He seems at his lowest point:

“Why didn’t he tell him he was dying, that he was all used up inside, that the pain and the exhaustion had nothing to do with his back?”

A meeting with Guus’ father, however, seems to give him some hope for the future, or at least a sense of belonging to his new life.

Although brief, this is a novel which stays in the mind. This is partly down to the way in which it develops as a series of vividly realised scenes, scenes which we often return to as we travel around the chronology of Rob’s life. Rob is a character whose anxiety over the meaninglessness of his life is often palpable, though, as close as we get to him, we are never intimate with him – something that might also be said for Guus. The novel is series of journeys: by boat, by foot, by plane. When it begins he is on a ship and at the end he is on a train. The story starts with a fruitless night ride on a motorbike and finishes with him thinking of his return to Cape Town. Clearly, the searching does not end.