translated by Ina Rilke
MacLehose Press are prolific publishers specialising in literature in translation. The problem is that they're so prolific (or have been so generous in making titles available to read and review) and their list so varied and wide-ranging that making a decision about which books to actually read can prove to be almost paralysing. What was it that made me finally opt for this slim novel from former publisher Jan Geurt Gaarlandt? (Otto de Katt is a pen name which to some English readers might make him sound a little like a cartoon character - or is that just me?) Perhaps that it was slim, or that something about it's cover and title immediately drew me in (de Kat himself has described it as the most beautiful edition he has seen of one of his books), or that the word masterpiece appeared on the front. Whatever it was that worked its magic I'm glad that I did finally open it up.
The story begins when Van Dijk, a driver, finds his employer Chris Dudok dead at home. A box of tablets and a bowl of porridge are nearby, 'suicide for the posh' he surmises before calling the doctor who when he finally arrives delivers a verdict of suicide with a single word
Still there must have been a fair amount of pain before getting this far.
The key to that pain is lying on the desk in front of him: a German newspaper from 1942 with a list of names on the front page circled in red. There is also has Dudok's diary, left on the backseat of the car the night before when he asked to be dropped off early so that he could walk the rest of the way home (this in itself might have been a warning sign from a man who would have been driven 'right into his study, had that been possible.') From this end point de Kat then goes back to tell Dudok's story in three different times. We go back to Lübeck, Germany in 1938 where Chris is sent by his father to gain some factory experience before taking over the family business back in Holland. He's sees the native fervour with an outsider's eye.
The spirit of the times seized him by the throat. Crazed masses rallied on a whim, marching and parading with soldierly discipline, Lübeck thrumming with excitement for the leader's new teachings. There was no getting away from the man. He appeared not to be taken so seriously in Holland, as though his ravings were put through a strain at the border. But the artist from Vienna was crafty, in his opinion, barking mad, but very clever. The radio seemed invented expressly for him, forever blasting into people's sitting rooms. Nobody thought to switch him off.
Whilst there he meets a female engineer, Julia Bender, who may be a German but sees the Nazi regime with the same distance as Chris - 'I don't belong anywhere; I have no desire to belong.' - and he falls in love with her. Any hopes of a satisfying love story are delayed by Chris's tentativeness and then interrupted by the provocative actions of Julia's actor brother who enrages the regime, putting them both in danger, at a time when Nazi violence is about to reach a definitive moment.
That night, Kristallnacht. The echo of his own name in the first syllable....it sounded so cheerful, conjuring visions of lavishly decked dinner tables with crystal glasses and burning candles, the epitome of bourgeois gemütlichkeit. A misapprehension. There were flames, but not of candles. Dinner tables, chairs, shops, homes, synagogues, Jews. All ready fuel for the conflagration. The stampede of jackboots in the streets, precisely directed, precisely timed. And the bystanders recoiling into the dumb silence, their passiveness never to be redeemed.Julia insists that Chris leave Germany and return to Holland, leaving her behind. His desire to please her means that he obeys her order, turning his back on a woman he was only just beginning to know and yet whose feelings he won't bgin to comprehend until many years later. This is to be the action that in many ways defines his life, or perhaps more accurately: his death. In the second strand of the novel we see Chris move into middle age at home, into a marriage that falters, into his enforced tenure at the head of the family firm, a life that seems to follow along a set of tracks as fixed as those that took him away from Germany and from Julia. The third and final strand follows Chris on that walk home on his last night as he gives his life a final reckoning. The way in which de Kat moves between these three separate viewpoints is as seamless and fluid as memory and his prose throughout is spare (as I have come to expect from Dutch novelists of late) but with moments of wonderful poetry. In a novel about freedom and its opposite he helps us to see that though Chris is fortunate enough to be able to escape the growing horror in Germany we have to question how much or in what way he was able to escape it at all.
The un-freedom he suffered from was of a different order. How to free yourself from the happiest months of your life? From memories of life-changing events, and of a parting that robbed you of your soul? How?