The Radio Operator
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
Originally published in German as ‘Der Empfangerer’ this translated historical novel is based on the real account of a Nazi spy ring that operated in New York in the early years of WW2.
Josef Klein is a German immigrant who arrived in New York after the end of WW1 wanting to start a new life for himself. After he found himself a job with a printing firm, he settled in East Harlem where he loved the lively community and especially the Jazz to be heard in the bars. When he becomes interested in amateur radio, he builds his own set and quickly becomes proficient at Morse code. Soon he is absorbed in communicating with people from all over the world, even forming a relationship with a female ham radio operator in the Catskills. After he adopts a lost German Shepherd he names Princess, he settles into a comfortable if meagre life, connecting to people with his radio, listening to Jazz and reading Thoreau who he admires for description of living in a cabin in the woods
Josef isn’t interested in forming friendships with other Germans or joining in the activities of German nationalist groups, such as the German American Bund. However, the printing company he works for prints a lot of leaflets for them and eventually the fact that he is German comes to their notice. When he is asked by a group of Germans to help send messages of a business nature to a company in Germany for them, he naively agrees to help. When he sees that these messages are encrypted, he feels uncomfortable sending them, but by then he is trapped into continuing even when he feels that what he is doing is wrong and could lead him into danger.
In following what happens to Josef, the novel weaves between several timelines; from Josef’s time in New York to his return to his home town of Neuss in post war Germany, before leaving again for Brazil, and finally settling in Costa Rica, in San José. At first these jumps in locations and time makes the narrative seem disjointed, but the lasting effects of Josef’s role as a radio operator for the Germans will eventually come into focus as the whole picture emerges. The narrative is quite spare and serves to make the novel seem somewhat flat with little drama. Although Josef’s character is well developed and an empathy for him and his naivety develops, the story is quite bleak and even Josef’s romance seems underwhelming. His inability to act to stop being used to transmit messages to Germany, seems to extend to his personal life and his ability to form close relationships. By the end of the war, he will reflect back on his time in New York and the decisions he made then which now shape his life.
The Radio Operator is an interesting, literary account of the days preceding America’s entry into WW2 and the activities of German nationalist groups in promoting fascism, seen through the eyes of one young man who got swept up naively into their conspiracies and suffered the consequences.
With thanks to Harper Via and NetGalley for a copy to read. Publication expected May 4, 2021.