Arts book review

‘The Radio Operator’: A look into 1930s New York City

Ulla Lenze’s English-language debut is a thrilling tale

The Radio Operator
By Ulla Lenze
HarperCollins Publishers
May 4

“[Realizing] that for the first time this body belonged to him, as if this city had given him shape, footing.” This quote encapsulates the novel’s central struggle: tension within one’s identity. Published in May 2021, The Radio Operator is Ulla Lenze’s English-language debut and closely based on the life of her great-uncle Josef Klein, whom she never met. In the novel and real life, Josef immigrates from Düsseldorf, Germany to New York City, where he becomes an amateur radio operator. He is then sucked into the machinations of the German war effort and becomes a spy for the Nazi Party, albeit hesitantly. When he is arrested by the FBI for espionage, he spends some time in prison before returning to Germany and finally moving to South America.

One of the most notable features of The Radio Operator is its authenticity. Of course, the novel is based on a true story, but an impressive amount of research also went into it. Lenze and her translator Marshall Yarborough both touched on this during this year’s Boston Book Festival, where they spoke in an Authors in Conversation webinar hosted by the Goethe Institute. Both of them showed their copies of The WPA Guide to New York City, a publication they used to maintain authenticity in the novel when writing about the city as it was in the 1930s. Indeed, the novel is peppered with specific references to stores, restaurants, and attractions that draw you into the time period.

At its heart, The Radio Operator is about identity. Josef struggles to reconcile his love for America with his love for the Germany he used to know. That Germany, however, is gone — a fact that takes Josef the entire novel to fully grasp. Towards the beginning, Lenze describes Josef’s physical struggle with jetlag: he has moved to Neuss, Germany from New York City in order to live with his brother, but his body is still on American time. Yarborough describes Josef as being “torn between two places.” Even when Josef is in New York, he feels a pull towards his German identity, and he refuses to believe the truth about Hitler’s actions until his love interest, Lauren, forces him to confront it.

Lenze pulls no punches, but she skillfully manages to keep nuance in the story as well. Josef’s discomfort with his actions is palpable throughout the novel, but he doesn’t have the strength of will to stop transmitting radio messages revealing American war efforts to the Germans until Lauren reports him to the FBI. Once he is reported, though, he accepts responsibility for his actions. This back-and-forth within his conscience only adds to the tension of the book. Lenze describes him as “not the stereotypical bad guy,” and this is wholly accurate. Even at the end of the novel, Josef is unable to fully denounce Nazi ideology. It is this complexity of character that makes Josef an interesting character to follow.

The one downside of The Radio Operator is the slow pace at the beginning. The novel is structured in a disjointed manner, with each chapter jumping to a different point in time: either Josef’s current life in South America, his time in Neuss, or his experiences in New York City. The first few chapters are set towards the end of Josef’s story chronologically, which means that it takes a while to fully grasp exactly what has happened to Josef thus far. 

Overall, The Radio Operator is a brilliantly nuanced story with a complex main character and excellent worldbuilding. Ulla Lenze’s English-language debut is one worth reading.