Thursday, February 13, 2014

News from Berlin by Otto de Kat

When I began News from Berlin I expected something along the lines of Alan Furst (whom I’ve enjoyed), but it turned out to be something slightly different and a bit richer, too. I read this book because de Kat participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival. I’m glad I did. 

Unlike Furst, who follows a central character through the perils of time immediately before and at the beginning of the Second World War, in this novel de Kat focuses on a family. The father is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, the wife volunteers at a hospital in London, and their adult daughter is married to a member of the German Foreign Ministry. The son-in-law is not a Nazi; in fact, he’s unsympathetic to the Nazi regime and certainly watched by the Gestapo. The novel begins in early June 1941. The war has begun. France fell quickly; Britain just barely survived. The U.S. remains officially on the sidelines while Hitler and Stalin have a non-aggression pact. For the family, life seems balanced if tenuous. But then the daughter passes on a secret to her father about a major German action coming soon. The knowledge becomes like an infectious disease passed (intentionally) from daughter to father to mother, endangering the thin tissue of each receiver’s existence and relationships without reducing (as hoped) the burden on the person passing  on the moral and practical demands that the secret requires of them.

De Kat’s focus, however, is more than espionage and the moral dilemmas of wartime. It also focuses on the members of the family, their relationships with each other and those closest to them. The delicate balance of relationships changes as each comes into contact with the other. New realities reveal themselves and confound the characters perhaps as much as their burdensome secret. History in the family, as in life, intrudes and shapes the present in ways that the characters can’t escape and can only vaguely comprehend. 

Writers like Graham Greene, Eric Amber (I’m now reading another Ambler), and Alan Furst have written a great deal set in this time period. While titanic military and political forces met in epic struggles, individuals and families—at least those lucky enough to live—continue to try to live and maintain a semblance of ordinary life when the time is not ordinary at all. To me, that's what makes this period so fruitful for novelists and historians (such as John Lukacs) and why I’m so drawn to it. Now I add Otto de Kat to the honor role of writers who explore this dark and frightening time not so long ago.

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