Chilling but familiar story of a life lost in regrets
Julia is an account of life barely experienced by a peculiarly passive man, tormented by his memories and his inability to act
Otto de Kat, translated by Ina Rilke
It all begins with the wary arrival at a house of the home help on his day off. This helper, a man named Van Dijk, is intending the briefest of visits, just to check the ancient car, a Wolseley. It has been having engine problems. On a hot Sunday afternoon, the home help wants only to deal with the engine, not with his employer, an elderly widower. Van Dijk is not on duty, although he is well aware of being always on call for Chris Dudok, a former factory owner whose demands don’t appear to go much beyond a request for sandwiches.
The Dutch writer Otto de Kat conveys the growing unease of the visitor as he tiptoes around, reluctant to get involved yet worried in case something is wrong. The silence disturbs Van Dijk, later in the narrative acknowledged as a “dependable minder of daily existence”. It also prepares him for a discovery that, as the novel progress, leaves the reader wondering why it took so long to happen.
Julia is an account of life barely experienced by a peculiarly passive man, tormented by his memories and his inability to act. The eponymous character, although brave and independently minded, even heroic, is barely present in the action. Instead she becomes a mythic figure, alluring, unobtainable and doomed.
This brilliant slow burn of a novel begins at its narrative conclusion. De Kat then shifts the story into the past, to the time when the old man of the opening chapter was young and reluctantly being prepared to take over his father’s factory. In preparation for this, Chris Dudok travels to the northern German town of Lübeck for work experience at a firm that dealt with his father’s.
Among his colleagues is Julia, an engineer. De Kat concentrates on Chris’s interest in this daring free spirit, who wears yellow shoes. Reference is made to a girl eagerly waiting back home for Chris, a girl for whom he has no feelings. Initially the narrative lags and appears about to become yet another account of a wartime romance. Julia is a thinly developed character, outspoken in her views. The rise of the Nazis is sketched in; and, while attending a play in the local theatre, Chris watches as the leading actor refuses to join in the communal salute to Hitler.
Chris does not salute; nor does Julia, who is also in the audience. The defiant actor is arrested. He turns out to be Julia’s brother. The police question Chris and, Peter-like, he denies knowing Julia.
De Kat describes the political tensions. He is concerned with atmosphere and uses Lübeck only as a setting, choosing not to describe this most historic of cities. Various strange notes are struck. Knollenberg, the factory owner in Lübeck, entrusts Chris with Julia’s letter of dismissal. Julia’s attitude to Chris is one of fond protection. He is unusually accepting of advice. He returns to the Netherlands and marries his determined girlfriend. His only condition appears to be that there are no children. They have none.
State of quiet lamentation
Julia is de Kat’s fourth novel, his third to be translated into English. It acquires an increasingly subtle and relentless power. Formerly a leading publisher and critic in the Netherlands, de Kat (real name Jan Geurt Gaarlandt, born in 1946) began his writing life as a poet. His first novel, The Figure in the Distance (2002), took restlessness as its central theme. States of mind dominate his work. In Man on the Move (2004, translated 2009), the central character realises that, despite his endless travel, life is something that happens to other people. Comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) are obvious and have been made by reviewers across Europe. It is an ode not to friendship but to the idea of friendship. In common with Julia, it is as much a poem as it is a novel.
Julia moves easily between the edgy wartime past and the apathetic present. Chris emerges as a figure who did as he was told by everyone: not just his father but also Julia and, to some extent, the girlfriend who became his wife. De Kat carefully pieces the story together, and when it is almost complete the more shocking and heartbreaking realities slip out. Another, far more benign side to Knollenberg is revealed and, with it, a devastatingly ironic twist. Julia, the barely developed heroine, finally becomes real.
De Kat is drawn to the mistakes people make, the errors of inaction. His evocation of melancholy is achieved through his understatement. Chris’s intensity of feeling renders him powerless. Much is made of theatre directors who are unafraid of silence on stage; De Kat’s restraint is similar. As the final pieces of the story are put into place, the full sadness is palpable. What had initially appeared to be familiar is new, original and unnerving.
Julia is another of those deceptively “little” novels, just under 200 pages, that say so much more than many narratives twice the length. Included among the longlisted nominations for the forthcoming International Impac Dublin Literary Award, Julia is extraordinary. In Chris Dudok, de Kat has created a portrait of a passive son, lover, husband and dreamer who lives in a state of quiet lamentation. He is not a hero, only a man. His story is one of regret, a life lost in so many ways. It is as chilling as it is sad and familiar. Anyone who read Man on the Move will probably have already reached for Julia, or will want to. These are novels of subtle emotional distance that compel a reader into a cohesive response that it as physical as a blow to the heart.