Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, now available in English translation by Susan Bernofsky, explores the plight of refugees in Germany today. Told from the point of view of Richard, a retired academic, who befriends a group of refugees, the novel relates their individual stories as well as detailing the innumerable legal and bureaucratic hurdles they face. At the same time, the novel is an account of Richard’s own development through contact with men very different from himself. And while this novel is not historical in the sense of Erpenbeck’s previous book, Aller Tage Abend, Richard’s own personal history as an East Berliner lends an ever present and for me, intriguing, shading to the narrative.
The story begins when Richard walks past a group of men protesting on Alexanderplatz by going on hunger strike. They are protesting because they wish to remain in Germany and to support themselves by working. Later that evening Richard sees the hunger strike reported on the TV news and realises he walked straight past the protest without really noticing, absorbed as he was in his thoughts about the history of the cellars beneath the Rotes Rathaus. It comes as no surprise to the reader that the kerfuffle on the square passes him by: he’s an academic, preoccupied with abstract ideas and the maintenance of order in his household. Though we learn early on that there was once both a wife and a lover, there is a sense of relief that he now lives alone and can cut up onions for his dinner in the correct manner.
Richard begins reading about the refugees in Berlin and discovers he is appallingly ignorant about the countries they come from. He doesn’t know where Burkina Faso is or that there are 54 countries in the continent of Africa. In his typically thorough/ borderline obsessional manner, he devises a questionnaire asking about origin, parents, method of travelling to Europe, and when he learns that a group of refugees will be moved into a former old people’s home in his Berlin suburb, he sets off to interview them.
The refugees’ stories are told through the interviews with Richard, but through other more casual, less scripted encounters as well. I understand from an article in The Skinny that Jenny Erpenbeck herself met and befriended several of the refugees whose stories are told here and it’s a testament to her narrative skills that she tells their stories in a few broad deft brush strokes which give them a unique and memorable resonance. So Apollo is from the Tuareg people and once orphaned he worked for a family of Tuareg herders, whose children were taught their letters in the sand, while he, a slave, had to milk the camels. Still, he speaks Tamasheq, the Tuareg language, and understands Hausa, Arabic, French and German. There is Awad, whom Richard calls Tristan, born in Ghana, brought up by his father alone in Libya, he lost his father in a shooting, crossed to Sicily, where he spent 9 months in a camp and was then on the street. We meet Raschid from Niger whose father was burnt alive in a car and his house then burnt down whereupon he fled to Libya. There, he endured an atmosphere of arrests and killings, followed by the further chaos and destruction of the Allied bombings and a crossing to Europe in which 550 people out of 800 died.
Richard’s visits to the refugees are interleaved with encounters with his own friends, largely retired East Berliners around his own age, which bring out some interesting parallels and differences between the two communities. We are told with a light touch what has happened to the Berliners since the ‘so called reunification’ and there are some ironic comparisons drawn between the freedom to travel for leisure brought about by reunification and the need to flee to escape conflict experienced by the refugees. On All Souls’ Day, Richard feels fortunate that he can visit the grave of two generations of his family, when many of the refugees don’t know if their family members are alive or where they are buried. Yet his study of German Märchen- fairy tales- tells him that travelling, being on the move, was a feature of life in Germany only a few generations ago. And his awareness of his own traumatic early childhood in the midst of war and atrocities carried out by the Nazis are very near the surface of his consciousness- conflict is hovering around on the edges of his past as well.
Now, though I agree with Eileen Battersby in her Guardian review that the novel does not have the ‘stylistic bravura’ of Visitation, it does contain some powerful visual images which reminded me of The End of Days: the stack of chairs in the school which flood Richard’s mind with memories of schooldays in the now disappeared DDR, Karon looking at his family photo with the snow falling outside- the reverse of the snowstorm in a glass sphere, the police lined up to confront the 12 refugees who refuse to leave the home, forming another Grenze or border. Yet the strength of the writing in this novel is in my view its versatility- and here I’d like to refer again to Annie Rutherford’s article in The Skinny which categorises it as somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. The novel contains throughout precise details of the legal status of the refugees and the different pieces of legislation, such as the Dublin Agreement, which determine their status and where they can live. The lay person with perhaps only a vague notion about the exact rights of refugees in Germany will learn a lot through reading this book, over and above the human stories.
Finally, the novel does have a positive ending of sorts when many refugees, made homeless through the application of the Dublin Agreement, are offered accommodation by the East Berliners, who open their doors as well as their hearts to fit them all in. So this is a coming together of communities, a generosity, an understanding on a personal, human level which runs counter to the cold formulaic responses of the authorities. This does not of course offer any satisfactory long term solution to the refugees’ plight but is at least a demonstration that their situation can be relieved through the warm engagement of fellow human beings.
It is perhaps the hybridity of this novel- factual yet fiction- which makes it such a compelling read. The accounts of the harrowing experiences of the refugees could come across as a series of separate accounts, yet they are placed within a narrative arc of the story of their application to remain in Germany which takes the narrative forward. The incremental engagement of Richard in their lives through which he opens up emotionally holds our interest and both these against a beautifully evoked and melancholic backdrop of a Berlin autumn turning into winter. The image too of the body of the drowned man in the lake near Richard’s home illustrates the situation of the refugees, suspended, not grounded in the country. It also reflects the different levels of individual consciousness apparent in Richard’s personal story, but also the layers of history which lie beneath. And this is surely a commonality between the refugees and the history of their people and the history of Richard and East Berlin. This is a beautifully written, moving and thought provoking novel for our times. Do read it.