News from Berlin by Otto de Kat

Seventy years after the end of the second world war, the conflict remains a popular topic for contemporary novelists. Last year I reviewed “HHhH” and “Look Who’s Back“, both books having been very successful and taking WW2 as their starting point in some way. A new book arrived from MacLehose Press at the end of 2014, “News from Berlin” by Otto de Kat, which promised to cover similar territory and it looked as if it might be the kind of thing which appealed to me.

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So what would you do if you were in the middle of a war and you came into the possession of some vital information about the conflict; but if you pass it on, you could put your family members into mortal danger? That’s the intriguing idea behind NFB, and it is the main character, diplomat Oscar Verschuur, who is given a hint about the date of Operation Barbarossa by his daughter Emma, married to a ‘good’ German. His estranged wife Kate is nursing in London and the whole set-up seems a little fanciful, frankly. Oscar as the perfect diplomat, adept at keeping secrets; so he can keep this one as well to safeguard his daughter. However, his wife seems less concerned about their daughter’s safety and wants Oscar to take action; her view may be affected by her nursing experiences in London, and her contact with an injured soldier from the Congo, Matteous. Having seen the effects of war more directly, it may be that she is seeing the bigger picture, while Oscar is only thinking of his daughter.

However, if I’m honest, despite the interesting premise, this novel(la) – it’s quite short – doesn’t really deliver. The book just feels too thin (artistically as well as physically!) – the characters aren’t developed enough to let you care about them, and you end up wondering what exactly was the point? Compared with say “HHhH”, the tale feels very surface level, which is a shame because the plot had the potential to develop into a substantial moral dilemma. As it was, I just ended up feeling too uninvolved with the story and the characters – the book has no real clout.

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Author Otto de Kat (a pseudonym of retired publisher Jan Geurt Gaarlandt) has written a number of novels set in the 1930s and 1940s which have been well received, and he’s apparently been praised for “his observant, hushed style”. The Dutch Foundation of Literature comments that “He creates a rather detached atmosphere in which people travel the world without ever finding what they are looking for or escaping their fate.” That may be so, but NFB seemed to me to be lacking in depth. I can read between the lines when necessary (Christa Wolf being a good example) but here there is nothing there to read.

I’d be interested in tracking down more of de Kat’s fiction as he comes highly recommended – but unfortunately this particular book was not for me.

(Review copy kindly provided by MacLehose Press)

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