Free – every schoolboy’s dream, a free period, maths teacher on sick leave, no test to do. That was freedom, a dash into town, a golden opportunity lasting exactly one hour. The un-freedom he suffered from was of a different order. How to free yourself from the happiest month of your life? From memories of life-changing events, and of a parting that robbed you of your soul? How?
Julia is the story of Chris Dudok, who worked in Lübeck, Germany, as a young Dutch man in 1938. There, in a Germany that is slowly becoming more caught up in Hitler’s power, he falls in love with a girl named Julia. Julia is different from the others; she is brave, open-minded, critical about what is happening in her country. Then, in November 1938, Julia tells Chris to leave Germany, to return home, because the country is no longer safe for him, because they endanger each other. In the following years, Chris finds it hard to shake the impression Julia left. He moves on, he marries, starts working as the chief of a factory, as his father wanted him too, but he never stops thinking about her. Years later, when he is an old man, he learns the truth about Julia, which sets in motion a series of reflections on a long summer night.
This novella was such a pleasant surprise. I received it from MacLehose Press sometime during the last months of 2011, but decided to wait for Dutch Lit Month to read it. Part of my reasoning was that I was not looking forward to it much. A Dutch book about World War II, it is not as if I had not seen it before. So, yes, you might say that this was one of my least anticipated reads of this years, but also one of the best.
The setting: World War II. The plot: lost opportunities, lives going off course because of war, an older man reminiscing about his younger years. All of these things are not exactly surprising, nor new. But Otto de Kat manages to weave a story that is utterly convincing. And does so using language that stunned me. I couldn’t help but read this in one go, or wanted to anyway, because I started this at 11.30 pm, and I kept reading until I fell asleep with the book open by my side.
I find that I have very little to say about this one except that it was beautiful. There have been complaints about it having a thin plot, and I agree that not that much happens, but I cannot say it bothered me at all. People have also remarked that the back-and-forth between Lübeck and the Dutch home of Chris, and the time jumps, can be confusing. For me they worked perfectly, but I can imagine that this kind of storyline might bother some. However, from the moment I started reading Julia I felt grateful that I found a Dutch author of whom I would be on the lookout for more. This was my intention when I organised my first Dutch Lit Month last year. And I feel as if this one is already a success because of this small book. The thing is, Julia might not be perfect, but it felt close to perfection while reading it. And that is quite the accomplishment.
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