Otto de Kat, translated by Sam Garrett
It’s always good to see a Dutch writer translated into English – even better when the author is an award-winning novelist, publisher and critic and the translator as well-respected and decorated as Sam Garrett, whose CV includes Geert Mak’s In Europe and Tim Krabbé’s The Rider.
The story opens with rebellious Dutch youth Rob as he leaves behind the Netherlands and his overpowering father – ‘a big man in a little town’ – for adventure in 1930s South Africa. Rob has been inspired by the stories of a visiting organist, one Albert Schweitzer (whose name means nothing to Rob, but is a historical character, a Nobel Prize-winning philanthropist). It is not, however, Schweitzer’s tales of injustice and poverty that appeal to Rob, but the opportunity for enterprise, adventure and gain.
So begins Rob’s personal odyssey, which takes him from Johannesburg’s gold mines via military service in Java and a prisoner-of-war camp to the horrific slavery of the Burma Road. Trapped by historical circumstances, childhood memories and the limitations of his own character, redemption – or even escape – proves impossible.
This is a novel of extraordinary power and beauty, written in sparse prose with all the control and power of poetry. Of Rob’s march to the labour camp on the River Kwai, De Kat writes: ‘The monsoons were probably the worst. The fatal downpours that flogged their ribs. Sleeping in a puddle of rainwater, rising from a bed of mud. Wetness was next of kin to illness, swamp the father of malaria.’
This is not a book for those in search of suspense (the cover blurb expounds the plot in almost its entirety), but rather a thoughtful text to be savoured for its exquisite craftsmanship – 136 pages never went so quickly.