Julia, By Otto de Kat, trans. Ina Rilke

Paul Binding
Friday 09 December 2011 01:00

Chris Dubok has never wanted to work for, let alone take over, his father's machine factory. He is happier on his grandfather's farm, or reading serious literature. But his is not, outwardly anyway, a rebellious disposition; his father has been ill, he has his recent economics degree to aid him, and so he yields to his fate.

But before assuming control he is permitted time away from the Netherlands, in Germany, working in a Lübeck factory with which his father's own has dealings: Lubercawerke. It is February 1938. Before long Chris, usually so quiet, finds himself possessed of unsuspected energy. Lübeck – "a town like an oyster. Hard to prise open, but once inside she enfolded you"- is "thrumming with excitement for the leader's new teachings".

A whole people has disconcertingly been galvanised into ceaseless activity, ever ready to break out into public shows of enthusiasm. But Chris's increase in spirits cannot be attributed only to all this. Its deeper cause is a colleague, a young woman engineer, Julia Bender. Her image will not leave him alone: "Lubercawerke became synonymous with Julia."

Julia cannot herself be abstracted from her time and place. She soon makes clear to Chris that she abominates the regime, with its pitiless decisions of who is expendable to its social experiment, and its host of self-serving acolytes, bureaucratic or downright thuggish, eager to carry them out. An evening at the theatre brings home Julia's precarious position. An agitprop-type performance is interrupted by the aggressive arrival of Brownshirts; Julia is in the audience, one of the few not to rise in salute, while the lead actor exits with an expression of contempt. He is Julia's adored brother, Andreas, to be punished for his insubordination by internment.

Like Otto de Kat's previous novels, Julia does not proceed chronologically. Presentation is directed by the inexorable logic of a confrontation with the past. In the opening chapter we witness the discovery of Chris's long-planned suicide, in a house bespeaking his prosperity, and in formal attire proclaiming his need to keep others at a distance. Subsequent chapters, interposed with great effect between those recounting Chris's Lübeck life, explore a mind intent on terminating the pains of memory.

Julia is the impassioned articulation of a profoundly tragic vision of life, grounded in detailed knowledge of modern history and compassionate awareness of nature. Evil - the wish to inflict suffering, the determination to deaden the heart against it - cannot be relegated to the Third Reich. It operated in the saturation bombing of Germany, or the cruel tenacity of Dutch in Indonesia.

De Kat's ambition of theme is served by astonishing tautness of construction and spareness of language, beautifully rendered by Ina Rilke. And, most movingly, the novel offers us glimpses of uncompromising virtue, not always in expected places.

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