Reviewed by Gill Davies
Otto de Kat is the pseudonym of a Dutch writer (journalist, poet, translator and editor) whose novels are set in Holland and Germany in the period just before and during World War II. Once again I find myself catching up with a writer who I wish I had read before. This novel follows three others, which feature some of the same characters, though I had no difficulty reading this out of sequence. De Kat is writing historical literary fiction of a high order and I will certainly read the others. (Man on the Move, 2009; Julia, 2011; News From Berlin, 2014.)
The Longest Night centres on Emma Verweij, a 96 year old woman awaiting the death she has planned for and which she expects will come the following day. She is “letting go of life” and her son will come to help her do this. She has a nurse to whom she occasionally speaks but the events of the novel are all in the past and come to us filtered through Emma’s consciousness. Through the long night her mind drifts through scenes from her life, and the narrative moves from her frail hold on the present to her powerful memories of the past. In the beginning she remembers the last days she spent in Berlin with her German husband, Carl. The date is July 25th 1944, a few days after Carl and other opponents of the Nazi regime have failed in their attempt to assassinate Hitler. Members of the conspirators’ families are at risk and she has to go into hiding, knowing those arrested – including her husband – will be killed. The loss of her husband and his friend, Adam von Trott, haunts her for the rest of her life.
On her return to Holland at the end of the war, she tries to make a new life and ultimately marries again and forms new relationships. She lives in Rotterdam, a city (like Berlin) almost totally destroyed by bombing. Bruno, her husband is busy re-building the city and its trade links with the new Germany. Emma’s post war life depends on a parallel rebuilding, but in her case it means “turning her back to Germany”, suppressing memories of her beloved husband and their life there. “Put a lid on the well of the past, and everything’s fine, excellent, could not be better.”
As the novel progresses we feel these very strong undercurrents of emotion, repressed and even secret. They are accompanied by moral and political dilemmas, just touched on, not elaborated, and treated by the author in a way that is very much in keeping with the personal history and final situation of the central character. In her life, and Bruno’s, there have been secrets and evasions that she is now acknowledging and quietly putting away.
There are intermittent references to characters from the earlier novels, still very much part of Emma’s mental life. Her emotionally distant parents – her father who was a diplomat in Switzerland, and her mother who seeks out causes to support far away from her family. They were partly involved in an earlier attempt to intervene in the progress of the war in 1941. (This is the focus of the earlier novel, News From Berlin.) Other characters from the past include Chris and Julia, another Dutch-German couple separated by the war, which continues its slow destruction through Chris’s later life. Emma tries to understand these earlier political failures and their life-long consequences.
This is a short novel, beautifully written and carefully structured. It has the focus and emotional economy of a short story. The prose is simple and moving and credit must go to the translator (Laura Watkinson) as well as to the writer for the powerful and subtle style. The characters are compelling, emerging through the mist of memory and strong feeling. The settings of war-time Germany and post-war Holland are vividly present. What is curious, though, is that when I look back at the novel I find there are almost no passages of description of place. The compelling atmosphere must come from the way that Emma feels about different locations, and how she reflects on their meaning.
Perhaps the novel is ultimately about relationships. Thus, for Emma “much about her parents’ lives has been evasive, enigmatic, without obvious affection. Parents are impenetrable creatures, people you think you know, but who often spend their lives in an entirely different reality.” And we learn about other characters whose lives were derailed by war or deformed by misunderstanding and loss. Bruno’s brother Rob who travelled the world in search of what he left behind; Bruno’s wartime lover Maria who explains their affair as “an air-raid shelter kind of love”; and Emma’s son Michael damaged first by her rejection of and failure to understand him, then by Parkinson’s disease. It is odd, however, that despite the fact that this sounds gloomy and depressing, the novel is in reality compelling, compassionate and deeply felt. It repays a slow and thoughtful reading.
Otto de Kat, The Longest Night, translated by Laura Watkinson (Quercus, 2017). 978-0857056085, 203pp., hardback.
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