Book review - Julia By Otto de Kat

Germany, 1938. Dutchman Christiaan Dudok is working in a factory in Lübeck, where he meets and falls in love with Julia, a German engineer. Otto de Kat’s elegiac novel focuses on the pair’s short, doomed love affair during this tumultuous period.

The fear of ordinary people, not in thrall to Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship, is pervasive: “Germany was adrift, a festering mess, the whole country in the grip of terror.” Opponents to the regime, like the principled Julia, are thrown out of their jobs. When her brother, an actor, makes a public stand against the Nazis, her own life is endangered. She hides in Chris’s flat and their love blossoms: “Julia dominated his brain, seeped into the divisions and seams of his soul – a soul he no longer believed in”.

But for the next few months, they can enjoy only a few stolen moments as Julia is forever on the move – unknown to Chris she is visiting fellow opponents and distributing illegal pamphlets. Outside, “Arson and murder were the watchwords, the code. Love and been driven underground, into warrens, alcoves and unlit rented rooms.”

Finally, after Kristallnacht, Julia presses Chris to leave, telling him that it is for her own safety. He returns reluctantly to his home town in Holland, dutifully takes over his father’s factory and marries the girlfriend he had left behind

With poetic grace, De Kat reveals how Chris’s loss is internalised. His passion for Julia endures his entire life affecting his marriage, its “agonizing ordinariness”, leaving only a “suppressed, deeply buried sense of yearning.” Even when he discovers her fate, twenty years after he left her behind, Chris cannot lay her memory to rest.

In 1981, now a widower, Chris takes his own life. He is found dead in his study by his driver, Van Dijk, who is baffled by his employer’s actions. There is no suicide note but Chris leaves behind a faded newspaper cutting from April 1942 about the bombing of Lübeck. Among the names of the dead is that of Julia Bender.

De Kat’s narrative opens with Chris’s death, before tracking back and forth in time. Reflecting on his lost love and feelings of emptiness, Chris is unable to come to terms with the past or the choice he made. De Kat’s slim novel is an affecting study of mourning and regret, a compelling, sorrowful account of the chaos of war and how it tears apart lives.

A shortened version was originally published by Tribune Magazine