Book review - News from Berlin

It’s wartime, 1941. Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur’s family are dispersed throughout Europe. He is posted in Switzerland, his wife Kate volunteers in a London hospital and his daughter Emma is married to Carl, a “good” German, and is based in Berlin.

The “news” referred to in the title of Otto de Kat’s novella comes from Emma. Her husband Carl works in the Foreign Ministry, the only place where there is still resistance to Hitler, and has seen the date and codename of the planned Nazi invasion of Russia. She feels sure her father Oscar will know what to do with the information.

Oscar leads a shadowy existence; helping refugees across borders and feeding information to Winston Churchill’s main intelligence adviser. He’s a consummate “cover-up agent”. He knows that he is watched by the Gestapo and that if he warns the Allies of the impending invasion he may endanger his daughter’s life. But if he doesn’t pass on the intelligence, there will be appalling bloodshed.

Difficult choices are inevitable in wartime. De Kat’s previous novella, Julia, also dealt with the chaos of war and one man’s sense of dislocation after leaving behind the love of his life. News from Berlin is just as engaging a read but Oscar’s quandary is less convincing. When he is given the opportunity to pass on the crucial intelligence, Oscar realises that because the source is German (Emma’s husband) his information won’t be believed. This immediately kills any tension.

The shadowy world of espionage during the Second World War is a familiar subject in contemporary fiction but de Kat weaves various other plot-strands into his main story. The most intriguing of these sub-plots involves Kate’s relationship with a young Congolese soldier. Matteous was wounded in action, while saving an officer’s life, and is sent to Kate’s hospital in Richmond to recuperate.

She finds herself drawn to him, and starts to recall her first love and marriage to a dashing archaeologist. De Kat is particularly eloquent on the nature of memory: “It was as if somewhere far away, in the unconscionable depths of her being, parcels were being unwrapped, mysterious envelopes torn open, stacks of paper riffled through.”

As well as conveying the febrile atmosphere of wartime Europe, News from Berlin is a compelling portrait of love, loss and regret lucidly translated by Ina Rilke.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday