I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off. Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.
The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen. Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’. Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems. Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters. Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality. In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow. Time turned upside down, and inside out.’
Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it. De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather. During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety. She ends up in the Netherlands. This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid. There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories. This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.
Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is. De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed. Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue. Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic. I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue. Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on. In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.
There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer. When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating. As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters. There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too. I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.