Otto de Kat's short novel, Julia, is an elegiac story about how a decision made in youth and perhaps out of fear or uncertainty can change the course of one's life and happiness irrevocably. It's a sad thing to look back on your life from the vantage point of time and experience and feel that you've made the wrong choices, which is exactly how the reader first meets Christiaan Dudock. Now in his 70s and reflecting on the decisions he made when he was a young man working and living in Germany just before WWII, he thinks there is nothing left to live for.
The story moves around in time from the present to just before the War and the years in between. Chris is a Dutch man who in 1938 has come to Lübeck to gain experience working in a manufacturing company. He's a mathematician by training but will eventually take over his own family's firm in Holland. It's love at first sight when he spots Julia Bender in the factory. She's an engineer with just one brother and no other family, though they are very close having shared a bohemian upbringing. Perhaps it was her liberal childhood that widened her views, as her reaction towards the claustrophobic Nazi atmosphere in which she lives is one of repulsion. Neither she nor her brother can just sit back and watch or accept the madness but their outspokenness means they have drawn attention to themselves from the wrong people and must take care not to get caught.
After Andreas, Julia's brother, refuses to give the proper respect to a Nazi official who is sitting in the audience of one of his theater performances it's understood he is a Communist. Andreas refuses to hide or deny his beliefs, and when the knock comes on his door, Julia has only moments to crawl through a window and disappear. By this time Chris and Julia have become lovers, but now she must move from place to place in order to avoid detection and transportation to a work camp as well.
And then the night that changed so much for so many people comes, Kristallnacht. It's obvious now what's going to happen in Germany, and it instills fear in Chris. When Julia pleads with him to leave Lübeck and return home to safety, he's caught between loving Julia and not wanting to leave her yet not wanting to remain in Germany either and perhaps drawing unwanted attention to her. She reasons with Chris, telling him that his staying will endanger her, so he gets on the next train back home where he will bitterly regret his decisions and only near the end of his life understand just what his leaving meant.
For a slender novel it raises many questions about responsibility as well as culpability and the choices we make in our youth--choices that can be life altering. Should Chris have remained and what would have happened to the two lovers? Chris returns home to a life of convention. He does what is expected of him--marrying the woman he had been stepping out with, taking over the helm of his family's company and going through the motions of life, a life that somehow seems empty when all is said and done.
Julia had been recklessly honest and outspoken and decided to stay in the face of danger and fear, but she had remained true to herself. Chris had walked away.
"She took her scalpel to the propaganda and the politics, dissected the German reign of power, laid bare the impotence of the self-respecting bourgeoisie, the feebleness of generals, the silence of the church--although she knew of a few exceptions in that quarter."
Maybe it is reading too much into the story to think of it as representing something larger and broader than just one man's decisions, but it seems as though it could perhaps be seen a morality tale in a way. Chris spends so much of his life waiting for it to begin, waiting to discover what has happened to Julia, and he wonders if it all simply passed him by.
Julia proved to be a very moving story--slight in some ways, but powerful nonetheless. The translation from Dutch by Ina Rilke felt pretty seamless. Thanks to Iris for pointing me in its direction. You can read her thoughts on the book here. I was hoping to squeeze in another book before the end of June for Dutch Lit Month, but I'm not sure now if I'll manage it. I have Eline Vere on my nightstand and have started reading but I won't finish before the end of the month as it is a much longer book and a hefty copy to take with me to work every day, but I have liked what I read so far.
Julia is published by MacLehose Press by the way. Unfortunately it has not been published yet in the US, though you can get it as a Kindle book (pity there is no Nook version!). I see that MacLehose Press is another small press focusing on publishing books in English translation, which is nice to hear. I'll be checking out the rest of their backlist now.