Reading ‘Kruso’ by Lutz Seiler felt like being led by the hand through an alternative auditory universe on the island of Hiddensee. The novel, which has just won the German Book Prize 2014, is set in 1989 and tells the story of the young Ed Bendler who leaves Halle to spend the summer on the island, where he finds work at the Klausner Hotel and befriends Alexander Krusowitch, aka Kruso or Losch. That summer, leading up to the opening of the borders of the DDR, sees the island filling up with many characters, seasonal workers like Ed, drop outs, artists, runaways, on the verge of departure and yet reference to social and political events in the DDR are significant asides rather than central to the narrative which focuses on day to day events on the island and the growing relationship between the two main characters, told almost, if not entirely, from the narrative standpoint of Ed.
And Ed, like Lutz Seiler, is a poet-in fact a former student of German literature. He holds an enormous amount of German poetry, particularly by Georg Trakl, in his head as well as having a poetic sensibility for both sound and word play. So just as Caliban’s ‘isle is full of noises’ so is Ed’s and we are treated to a unique auditory experience in his discovery of the island: the hissing of the sea on pebbles, for example, like water being poured onto a hot plate. It is not just the natural world whose noises he depicts, but the crashing of crockery, the deep underwater gurgling as plates are plunged into the vast sink in the hotel kitchen. Human speech is at times just another noise in this universe and Seiler plays with our assumptions that speech is complete and meaningful when he lets the wind carry off the ends of sentences and Ed and we the readers are left playing with the possible meanings at the same time as wondering if it matters- they’re all just sounds after all.
While I was delighted by the soundscape created and amused by the wit and wordplay I felt this lyrical style challenged my approach to this book, how to read it in other words. Once on the island the plot slows down and the focus is more on the description and development of characters including the back stories of Ed and Kruso. We learn about Kruso’s ideas of inner freedom, see his tireless attempts to house and care for the ‘shipwrecked’ who turn up, and read accounts of meetings and ritual. I sometimes struggled to understand what was happening: dreams are recounted and events at times appear surreal. I wondered if this was due to my reading in a foreign language, and a vocabulary which was both rich and redolent of a now disappeared East German society, but also felt we the reader were supposed to share Ed’s at times tenuous understanding of island rules and politics, so the opaqueness was intended. This intense focus meant I was unable to read the book as a novel with a plot which races along, pulling me behind, in large chunks at a time- and went for savouring it in small pieces, gliding across the surface of meaning occasionally, avoiding going down in a whirlpool of worry because I didn’t get it.
Though slow, the plot does develop through the summer and autumn of 1989 with an increasing awareness of events on the mainland: the Klausner radio ‘Viola’ reports on the porosity of the East German border while holiday makers and seasonal workers on the island slip away. Ed is one of the last to leave. The novel then moves to its Epilogue, set in two later time periods, 1993 and 20 years later where Ed is attempting to lay some ghosts to rest in a different place. Suddenly the writing resembles that of a more conventional narrative and we are confronted with the real world where we see the consequences of some of the events associated with Hiddensee and the North Sea coast in the DDR period. The contrast between this last part of the book and the island narrative really shook me and I was more moved while reading this section than at any other time in the book.
So Lutz Seiler is a master of his craft indeed. On the one hand his poetic sensibility creates a rich and many layered atmosphere on the island, as seen through the complex imagination of Ed Bendler: reading ‘Kruso’ is to hear ‘…noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight’ as Caliban promises. Yet the calm and sober prose of the last section focuses our minds on real events, as if coming from a different part of the writer’s creative self.
The publication of ‘Kruso’ falls fortunately just before the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and renewed interest in divided Germany and reunification. I’m looking forward to translations into many languages and massive sales for this book.
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