Otto De Kat (translated by Ina Rilke)
MacLehose Press, £12;
IN JUNE of 1941, Oscar Verschuur, a middle-aged Dutch diplomat whose status may or may not be more than meets the eye, has been posted to Berne in Switzerland. The war is raging but not yet in fullest flow: the Bismark has been sunk, the island of Crete is all but lost, but Hitler’s non-aggression pact with Stalin is holding. While Oscar is ostensibly safe in a neutral city, his wife, Kate, is in London, working as a nurse in a military hospital, and their daughter, Emma, is in Berlin, married to Carl, a secretly anti-Hitler employee in the German Foreign Ministry.
The novel skips deftly between strands, touching on the current situation of each family member. Each angle is, in its way, gripping, driven as it is by a sense of immediacy that echoes the life-and-death nature of the time.
As much as the trauma of war, Oscar’s somewhat clandestine lifestyle, and the demands that for years have seen him “dispatched on far-flung assignments that were considered too delicate or challenging for ordinary civil servants”, have caused his home life to fracture. He and Kate exist as a part-time couple, and although the marriage continues to endure, it is in certain crisis.
Driven by loneliness, and a craving for some sort of stability, something that can stand even as the illusion of a home, they have both turned their attentions to other people. For Oscar, salvation takes the form of a beautiful and mysterious Dutch woman that he meets in a small mountain hotel, and a dreamy romance that helps to dispel the sense of war. Kate, on the other hand, finds solace in nurturing a young Congolese soldier, Matteous, who has been shipped to London with serious wounds after saving the life of a Belgian officer. Even after he is released from hospital, she finds him room and board in the city and sits with him every day, teaching him to read and write. Oscar and Kate have found survival at opposing compass points, he pulling away from the fighting in exchange for an idyll, she striving to embrace war, albeit in a motherly fashion.
Meanwhile, Emma is in Berlin, happy in her vibrant new life with Carl, a man identified as ‘a good German’, and braced against the worst of the Allied bombing.
It is business that brings the young couple to Switzerland, “a tour of duty with Carl’s boss, Adam Trott”, with Emma permitted to accompany her husband as his secretary, a ploy they had used before. Being in such close proximity to her father seems too good a chance to waste, so she and Carl arrange a brief detour to enjoy a fleeting lunch date in an upmarket restaurant.
From here, the novel’s main point of tension hangs on a single dilemma. Oscar, dulled by his newfound love, is jolted from his daydreams when given a piece of vital information, the date earmarked for the German offensive on the Russian front, and is tormented over what he should do with it. Already there are watchers, as typified by the man with a newspaper who bows his head in a particular way when lighting a cigarette. The Gestapo are everywhere — they know of the restaurant rendezvous with Carl and Emma, and of the whispered snatch of conversation passed between father and daughter once Carl had momentarily excused himself. Only the content of that whispering eludes them: “Operation Barbarossa, Papa, June 22 order.”
The moral act would be to pass along this secret to the right ears, give the Russians a chance to prepare themselves against the onslaught. Emma has chosen to tell him because she wants him to act, and because she believes that with his many connections among the European seats of power he is capable of making a real difference. Oscar knows that sharing the secret will surely save thousands of Russian lives, but the leak will almost certainly be traced back to him and, by association, his daughter, and the consequences will not be gentle. The date is set, the clock is ticking, and he must decide on the best course of action. All the elements of a fine spy thriller are in place — the uncertainty as to who can be trusted, a sense that the surfaces reveal only a little of the truth, never everything — and De Kat’s trenchantly unsentimental, pared-back style heightens the tension. But this is a book that refuses to settle for the easy path. The prose, and the crafting of the story, represent a masterclass in subtlety. Like a great short story, less here is always more.
Ably translated by Ina Rilke — to whom a considerable proportion of credit must be due — the author considers the horror of displacement and dislocation, and, without passing judgement, the notional aspect of free will. Memory, too, plays an important part in this story, with the present being constantly weighed against the better days of the past, so that regret lies always just beneath the skin. De Kat’s real achievement, though, is the way in which he uses the shadow of war to present a treatise on the nature of relationships. The main characters’ lives are beautifully interwoven, and the idea of cause and effect lends the narrative a natural vitality.
News from Berlin is yet another impressive entry in a long line of releases by MacLehose Press, a publisher that strives to bring the very best world writers to English language audiences. Following on from the award-winning Man on the Move in 2009, and 2011’s widely acclaimed Julia, this is the imprint’s third release of De Kat’s work. Over the past decade or so, Otto De Kat (the chosen pseudonym of Jan Geurt Gaarlandt) has established himself as one of the Netherlands’ most compelling literary voices.
This latest offering surely cannot fail to further enhance his reputation.
¦ Billy O’Callaghan’s collection The Things We Lose won the short story section at last year’s Irish Book Awards
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