The Radio Operator: A Novel

Written by Ulla Lenze
Review by G. J. Berger

In 1925, 23-year-old Josef Klein leaves Germany for New York. A friendly print shop owner in Manhattan offers him a job. In time a Nazi spy network pulls Josef in for his skills constructing and operating short wave radios. The spies scare him into transmitting codes of supposedly public information to a certain business headquarters in Germany. The FBI rolls up the spy network, jails Josef, and then in 1949 deports him back to Germany, where his younger brother and family still live. Not connecting with post-war Germany or with his family, Josef soon tries Argentina. There, too, he does not fit. His journey ends in 1953 in Costa Rica, where he lives in a rented room on a jungle estate and works for an entity called Geographic Institute.

Translated from German, the novel plays out in fragments, starting in Costa Rica, then back to Germany in 1949. Next it jumps to New York City in 1939, and then back and forth between Germany and NYC, along with short segments covering Josef’s two years in Argentina and his various travels. Josef comes across as intelligent and persistent but is happiest when penniless and wandering big city streets alone, “feeling invincible… as if he hadn’t been born yet.” Perhaps because of weekly beatings by his German father when he was a boy, Josef never bonds deeply with anyone or any cause.

The sudden changes of time and place, coupled with Lenze’s elegant prose and many unique observations, keep the story moving briskly. The Radio Operator contains engaging slices of life during hard times and in hard places, but it’s not for readers who want strong or clever heroes or a traditional story arc.