Freetown – Otto de Kat (2018, trans. Laura Watkinson 2020) 142 pages
At first I thought Freetown by Otto de Kat was going to be a very different novella, and I wasn’t sure about it. It opens with Maria talking to ex-lover Vincent about the disappearance of Ishmaël, a refugee from Sierra Leone who delivered her papers and subsequently became like a son to her.
This beginning made me think the novella was likely to be description of the search for Ishmaël and an exploration of his life. I wasn’t sure that such a story could be adequately told in such a short form. But instead, Ishmaël’s disappearance serves as the motivator for Maria and Vincent to reconsider their shared history.
Maria approaches Vincent as a confidant partly because of their previous intimacy, partly because of his work as a psychotherapist. The chapters are labelled with the two characters names and each serves as silent interlocutor to the other. Maria explains how Ishmaël came into her life:
“The conversation didn’t exactly flow, not that first time. He just nodded and gave me a hint of a smile. All that rain made it look more like crying. I gave him 10 euros, and thanked him for delivering our newspaper ….
I told him to come back if he was ever out of work. And that maybe I could help him. I’ve often wondered why I said that.”
When Vincent takes over the narrative we realise he is still very attached to Maria, and that he’s not really got over their separation:
“That is why I kept going. I am hoping they will find something new, go and do something else. I never managed that myself. I just ended up in a vague fog. I live by touch, doing everything by half measures in a state of semi consciousness.”
As the story progresses we learn more about Vincent and Maria’s relationships, with each other and with their spouses. Ishmaël however, remains elusive. Although at the beginning of the story Maria proclaims him family, we don’t really get to know him and it is questionable how much Maria did:
“All the time I knew him, he was always waiting… Always ready to go, to keep on running. That too.”
This doesn’t mean her grief is any less though, and there is a sense of grieving throughout Freetown. Both Vincent and Maria seem to carry a lot of sadness for times past. Ultimately, they seem to be telling one another stories of loss.
The theme is emphasised through what is missing from the narrative. Ishmaël initially seems to be established as the central character, but remains an absent presence throughout. Maria and Vincent rarely speak within one another’s narratives despite being spoken to.
“He’s been gone a year now, and I simply cannot explain who he really was. But whenever I attempt to characterise him, I just end up saying something about myself.”
Freetown is about the stories we tell ourselves, our need for personal narratives and how we constantly reconstruct these. It shows how we try and make sense of the world when it doesn’t always make sense, and how unknowable even the closest people in our lives can be.
It also suggests that despite these limitations we keep on trying, because human connection – however fleeting and flawed – is worth it even with the pain of its loss.
“He nearly always succeeded in telling me a story I understood.”