Anja Kampmann’s novel, shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Prize this year, 2018, tells an unusual story in a fresh and lyrical voice. The novel starts with a tragic accident on an oil rig off the coast of North Africa. The main protagonist, Waclaw, goes to wake up his friend, Mátyás, for his early morning shift, but finds that his bed is empty. There is no trace of him on board and it is presumed that he has been swept off the rig by the wind and sea on that particularly stormy night. They search for his body over several days, to no avail, and devastated by his loss, Waclaw returns to shore.
Overwhelmed by the raw shock of this event, Waclaw stays in Tangier for some days, in the room they used to rent during shore leave and in the bars they frequented. The quiet recognition of his loss from friends and acquaintances and his own recollection of tender and intimate moments with Mátyás suggest to me a love relationship rather than a platonic friendship, though this is never made explicit: I was reminded of the beautifully rendered relationship between the two male protagonists in Sebastian Barry’s End of Days.
Waclaw then sets off on a road trip across Europe, and, though his plan, if he has one, is not made explicit, he goes first to Hungary, where Mátyás comes from. He stays in a grand fin-de-siècle hotel in Budapest and then goes to Mátyás’ village, to tell his sister, Patricia, about the accident. From there he drives to Italy and visits an old family friend, Alois, who used to work with his father in the mines of the Ruhrgebiet. In the course of these wanderings, there is a lot of drinking and the occasional sexual encounter, and more importantly the opportunity to mull over his past as fragments of memory rise to the surface. We learn about his father’s life as a Polish miner in the Ruhrgebiet, his relationship with Milena and their return to her Polish village, his restlessness and desire to see the world coupled with the decision to work on the rigs to make some money. And then the meeting with Mátyás six years previously. Now, none of this is necessarily told in chronological order- we piece together his past from fragments- and much is left vague, ambiguous or unsaid. But at other times, images from the past are so striking, such as Shane whirling the heron round his head like a lasso, that they stay with us. And the stories of work mates battling against storms and tough working conditions run through the narrative like a seam of danger and precariousness.
The narrative picks up again when Waclaw agrees to take a homing pigeon back to the Ruhr for Alois, who wants to see if a bird of his can cross the Alps on his journey back home. This gives Waclaw a reason to visit the place he grew up in and this section was one I enjoyed the most. The writer describes the housing estate, some houses renovated, others still in post war style:
Die Spitzengardinen, wie früher. Einige Häuser waren neu gestrichen worden, mintgrün mit weißen Rollos, während die andere Haushälfte im alten Braungrau mit glattem Putz wie nackt dastand. (Lace curtains, like in the old days. Some houses had been freshly painted, mint green with white roller blinds, while the semi next door stood as if half naked with its smooth render in the old brown grey colours.)
Waclaw’s observations about his community and its decline seem to expand the novel at this point beyond the personal: we see his story, and indeed that of the other characters, in the context of broader global and economic changes. It is as if the mine and the oil platforms are the two industrial worlds around which the story is woven and the characters’ lives are completely subject to them. Just as Waclaw’s father suffers chronic lung disease from working in the pit, so the decline of the industry a generation later sees Waclaw and Milena return to the Polish village from where Waclaw leaves to work on the rigs. And towards the end of the novel, Waclaw makes for Poland to visit his former lover, Milena. The book ends with him on the Baltic coast, looking out to sea.
Now, this novel may not be to everyone’s taste. The narrative is at times vague and unspecific, which can lead to dips in the narrative drive, as well as occasional ambiguity as to actual events. The power of the text lies in the lyrical language which I found transporting. For example, the depiction of light: in the early morning sky in Budapest, in the flames from Gibraltar’s oil refineries, in the cascade of magnesium light from the bombs falling on Westphalia, in the squashes almost luminous against the dark soil in Poland. But beyond that, Anja Kampmann’s novel shines a light on our contemporary, globalised world: a world where our earth’s resources are exhausted, so we drill under the sea, where workers leave their countries of origin to follow the work, yet still yearn for home. Where workmates are international, though the business still run by Texans. In its global reach and the beauty of its language, I found this book at times visionary- which I never thought I would say about a book which begins with men on an oil rig. It is this global reach which makes the novel unique and just waiting to be translated into English.