Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2018

News from Berlin, by Otto de Kat, translated by Ina Rilke

I love it when a book that’s on my wishlist waves at me from the new books shelves at the library!  There it was, News from Berlin which Grant at 1st Reading had so enticingly reviewed, so of course I brought it home.  And read it straight away because it’s only just over 200 pages long and I couldn’t put it down.

Otto de Kat is the pen name of Dutch author, publisher, critic and poet Jan Geurt Gaarlandt.  The book jacket tells me that his award-winning novels have been widely published throughout Europe and Man on the Move (2009) was the winner of  Holland’s Halewijn Literature Prize. News from Berlin is translated by Ina Rilke who also translated two books by noted Dutch author Hella Haase that I have read, so I knew the translation would be good.

And it is.  The translation is excellent.  News from Berlin is a sophisticated psychological thriller, exploring the moral choices that arise during war.  In June 1941 Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur is in neutral Switzerland engaged in a number of covert activities including assistance to refugees.  The Nazis (who seem to be welcome in ‘neutral’ Switzerland) are keeping a close eye on him of course, and he has to be careful because his daughter Emma in Berlin is married to a German called Carl who is also engaged in activities under the radar, and his wife Kate is in London (where she is absorbed in the care of an injured Congolese soldier caught up in Belgium’s support for the allied cause against the Nazis in Africa).  Right at this time Oscar has also met, and seems to have fallen for, a very gorgeous but enigmatic woman called Lara who might, or might not, be someone to be wary of.  And all these characters are in a state of flux, not only stateless, but also at risk of the war reaching them even when theoretically safe in neutral countries like Switzerland and Portugal.

But Oscar is very good at being careful:

Wherever he went, Oscar found ways of circumventing the Foreign Ministry’s rules.  Or of breaking them, laughing them off.  He was not supposed to consort with ambassadors and ministers more than was strictly necessary, but for reasons unknown, objections had never been raised to his presence among them, nor for that matter to his lower, or at any rate unclear, status.  He had more or less conquered his own position, no-one quite knew how or when, but at a certain moment it was a fact.  He was a diplomatic free-wheeler, dispatched on far-flung assignments that were considered too delicate or challenging for ordinary civil servants.  A diplomat with a special mission, an attaché, someone in possession of a laissez-passer.  He knew everybody, but very few people knew him.  (p.35)

What happens is that in a private moment during a quick visit to Geneva, Emma passes on information about the impending date of Barbarossa, Hitler’s monumental strategic error, the invasion of Russia and the end of their non-aggression pact.  In the tight time-frame of this novella, Oscar has three weeks to pass this information on, not least to give the Soviets time to evacuate civilians.  The problem is that he fears that the source of the leaked information will be traced back to Emma.  Already she has been interviewed by the Gestapo because she was seen whispering in Oscar’s ear.

National duty, duty to unknown potential victims of the invasion, duty to help prosecute the Allied cause, and duty to family.  The book explores these moral obligations in all their complexity with an interesting subplot in London which is revealed as the story progresses to be relevant after all.

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention, Grant:)

Author: Otto De Kat
Title: News from Berlin (Bericht uit Berlin)
Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke
Publisher: MacLehose Press, 2014, first published 2012
ISBN: 9780857052681
Source: Bayside Library Service

Available from Fishpond: News from Berlin

 


Responses

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one – as you know I got on less well with it, but it would be dull if we all liked the same thing! 😁

  2. INTERESTING, CHINA

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I read another novel by de Kat called “Julia” which I thought was really well written -set in Luebeck I seem to remember.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, PenWithLit, I’ll look out for that one too:)

  4. Thanks for the link – I’m glad you enjoyed it. (Always a worry when you suggest a book to someone!)


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