One summer’s afternoon in 1981, a factory owner, Christiaan Dudok, is found dead in his study having taken his own life. He has left no suicide note, but on his desk is a newspaper from 2 April 1942, reporting on the bombing of the north German town of Lubeck. The list of the dead includes the highlighted name of Julia Bender. As a young man finishing his studies in Lubeck in 1938, Christiaan is irresistibly drawn to Julia, a courageous German who has emphatically rejected the Nazi regime. But that same year he is forced to leave both Germany and the woman he loves, even though he suspects that he is making the greatest mistake of his life. Julia is the story of a life lived wrongly, of a love so great that it endures for decades, and yet still fails. Fear of life and loss of courage, and terrifying inhuman fanaticism are the compelling themes explored in Otto de Kat’s elegantly accomplished, elegiac novel.
I’ve had Julia by Otto de Kat on my bookshelves for a few months now – this review unfortunately missing the publication date by a few weeks – and although I’ve walked past the shelves daily, catching the title in my peripheral vision on numerous occasions, I’ve never been tempted to pick up the book and start reading. I couldn’t tell you why, just one of those things I guess, but one thing I can categorically say now, without hesitation; is that I wish I’d read it when it first arrived!
Physically it reminds me of another title from Maclehose Press I reviewed back in September – Good Offices by Evelio Rosero – and although similarly small in stature, Julia certainly packs a literary punch with an evocative and beautiful narrative that effortlessly reaches the hidden depths of your soul. It is a magical book, heart wrenching at times, and a tale of one man’s infatuation with a beautiful and intriguing German woman who always appears to be just out of reach. From the moment Christiaan meets the secretive Julia – a skilled engineer – at work in the company director’s office, he is captivated. Smitten and desperate to learn more about her he does his best to steal a glance here and a glance there. Julia is his story.
Was the frequency of her visits to the company director a coincidence? One day, on leaving Knollenberg’s office, she put her head round the door of his room.
‘Don’t work too hard, now. No need for them to know all our secrets over in Holland.’ She laughed.
‘As long as I haven’t deciphered you I shall stay right here, nose to the grindstone.’
She laughed again. ‘Not an easy code to crack, Chris. Keep trying.’
Their relationship is a curious one, on one hand playful, on the other hesitant and at arm’s length. Julia is an extremely cautious woman and with the Nazi regime growing in power the couple struggle to find time to develop a relationship that will always be at odds with the third Reich and the totalitarian dictatorship of the Nazi party. Over the course of the book we learn how their friendship began, grew and inevitably fails.
Beautifully translated by Ina Rilke – a prize winning translator of books including Cees Nooteboom and Margriet de Moor – Julia is a veritable work of art. Weighing in at a little under 200 pages my only negative comment would be with its size, I simply fell in love with the book and like all good relationships I wanted more. It was over far too soon.
The prose is an example of one of the most beautiful and heart felt books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. There’s something magical about it that simply draws you in, the combination of storytelling, a love lost and a country at the most uncertain of times effortlessly holding your attention throughout.
The book is written in two distinct timelines, the early eighties and the late thirties in pre-war Germany. Otto de Kat begins his tale with the discovery of our main protagonist’s – Christiaan Dudok – body in his study. Discovered by his driver Van Dijk, we remain with the pair until the doctor arrives to pronounce his death, an act of suicide, the driver recounting his final moments with his boss while scurrying around his house. Otto de Kat swiftly turns back the time to an era of major uncertainty and political unrest. Germany is about to go to a war it will inevitably lose and a time when the smallest act against a state is severely punished with banishment to one of the numerous concentration camps available to the tyrannical ruling party.
It’s very rare for me to give marks out of five or ten for any review but this book – for me – is faultless. With that in mind there’s only one score I could award this wonderfully evocative tale of lost love – 5 out of 5. I can’t say much more than that. If you’re looking for a little escapism on a dreary winter’s night then look no further than Julia by Otto de Kat, beautifully written, you won’t be sorry.