Freetown by Otto de Kat (transl. Laura Watkinson): Chasing the past

Cover image for Freetown by Otto de KatWhen I spotted Freetown in the schedules, I put up my hand straight away. I’d come across Otto de Kat’s name several times, registering that he was probably an author whose writing would appeal, but somehow never getting around to reading anything by him. This beautiful, contemplative novella explores the lives and memories of Maria and Vince, once lovers brought back together by the disappearance of a young refugee.

Most of it takes place inside our heads, Maria. The wildest things never happen. The most radical, beautiful and daring things, they’re mostly in our minds, or we feel it in our bodies, around our hearts

Eight years ago, Maria offered to help a young Sierra Leonean man, sacked from his job delivering newspapers. Ishmaël became a daily visitor, doing odd jobs around the house, becoming close to Maria’s husband, a quiet but important addition to the household of these two people now in their sixties with time to spare. A year after his sudden disappearance, Maria still feels bereft, turning to Vince, not seen for nearly a decade, the only person she feels might be able to help her come to terms with this loss whose effects she doesn’t entirely understand. Unsettled by Maria’s request, Vince agrees to a meeting, listening to her story while flooded with memories of their affair which he ended. As Maria comes to an understanding of the emotions provoked by Ishmaël’s departure, so strong that she’s visited Freetown in the hope of finding this lost young man, Vince becomes more conflicted, flying to Sierra Leone on his own quest.

Look, geese flying over the river. In the evening light, they’re so surreally beautiful and so without meaning. Those geese denote nothing, they fly, reflect the sky. I’ve always found them irresistible. Geese on their way north or south, in constant conversation with one another.

The complicated relationship we have with memory and our pasts haunts Freetown. Ishmaël’s disappearance is the catalyst for both Maria and Vince to explore their affair, what came before and what came after, until each comes to accept the sorrows of their particular pasts. Throughout, much is left unsaid for the reader to infer as de Kat slowly reveals what Maria and Vince have been to each other while in the background are the losses suffered by Ishmaël and his country, losses far greater than any than Maria and Vince have suffered or will suffer. From the vivid word pictures of Vince’s memories of their affair to the understated melancholy infusing his story, de Kat’s writing is beautifully observed, stripped of any unnecessary adornment and all the better for it. It’s the kind of writing that presses all my literary buttons. What a delight to discover an author with a reasonably substantial backlist to explore.

MacLehose Press: London 9781529401622 143 pages Paperback

10 thoughts on “Freetown by Otto de Kat (transl. Laura Watkinson): Chasing the past”

  1. Some of my favourite classic CanLit writers, Ethel Wilson and Martha Ostenso-to randomly name two, are big on observations of geese, so the cover and your pull-quote makes me instantly interested in this book (and curious whether there are other birdy-bits in the backlist)!

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