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This review is from: Julia (Hardcover)
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.
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.