This is not only a good book, but a topical one. Yesterday, precisely 1,606 migrants were expulsed from squalid living conditions at Porte de la Chapelle in northern Paris. They had been living under a bridge and on sidewalks, some out in the open, some in small tents donated to them by charity organizations. Under the watchful eyes of 600 policemen (and dogs) they were herded onto waiting buses and transported to fifteen different gymnasiums scattered around the region. Winter is coming, and Paris’s mayor doesn’t wish to be embarrassed by mass deaths by freezing on city sidewalks.
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 – the largest movement of people the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War.
To fully appreciate this book, it’s important to understand the migrant-refugee crisis. At the bottom of this page you’ll find a BBC link entitled Migration to Europe explained in seven charts.
As for the book itself, here’s a review from London’s The Guardian newspaper. “Erpenbeck humanizes migration in this powerful, candid novel”, it says.
Displacement has moved beyond a literary theme; for millions, it is reality. The notion of war has been overtaken by upheaval, which forces desperate people to flee without hope of a final destination, allowing history to repeat itself, relentlessly. This is the humanising lens through which Jenny Erpenbeck, Europe’s outstanding literary seer, views our world.
Previously she had looked to the layered history of her own country, Germany, in dazzling metaphysical fictions such as Visitation and The End of Days. As a Berliner born in the former East Germany in 1967, her early experience was dominated by living in a divided city within a fractured country; her work suggests that she believes human understanding resides in memory.
Her new novel resonates with an unexpected simplicity that is profound, unsettling and subtle. The prose, as before astutely translated by Susan Bernofsky, is this time far less incantatory. There is none of the stylistic bravura of Visitation, with its haunting scenes of lives lived and ended, often in images of horror, and of a silent gardener serving as a lone witness to the rampages of history. Instead Erpenbeck has relinquished theatricality for a conventional, calm and at times wry narrative that follows Richard, a self-contained widower and newly retired academic, as he discovers empathy through delving into the individual ordeals of a group of African asylum seekers in Berlin whom he gradually befriends and tries to help.
As the novel opens, the former classics professor is dealing with the prospect of retirement. His self-absorption dictates his daily routines; he is Everyman minding his patch. In his case it is a comfortable home complete with a high-maintenance garden. There is even his boat, tethered by a picturesque lake. Only there is a problem: the lake is less appealing these days. A man has drowned. It was a swimming accident, not suicide. “They say the ill-fated swimmer was wearing goggles.”
Disturbingly, the body remains lost somewhere beneath the placid surface. The image of it drifting in the water recurs throughout the novel and is a powerful metaphor for the uncertain existence of the asylum seekers suspended by bureaucracy – forbidden to work, to stay, to make a life.
It is only when watching the evening news that he realises he had walked by 10 African men staging a hunger strike. “Why didn’t Richard see these men at Alexanderplatz?” When the anonymous protest is ended, he regards it as a pity. “He’d liked the notion of making oneself visible by publicly refusing to say who one is. Odysseus had called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.” From the opening pages, Erpenbeck makes clear that this cultivated academic knows little about Africa. “Where is Burkina Faso?” he wonders, and is surprised to learn that there are 54 African countries.
The book could easily have become a well-intentioned polemic, but Erpenbeck combines her philosophical intellect with hours of conversations conducted with refugees to tell a very human story about a lonely, emotionally insulated man slowly discovering there is a far wider, urgent world beyond him through his meetings with extraordinary, vividly drawn migrants, each with a story to tell.
Richard is a remarkable creation. He was once himself a displaced child in wartime; initially it is curiosity that draws him to the men. He approaches them as if they are a project, reading several books before compiling “a catalogue of questions for conversations he wants to have with them”. The list is heartbreaking: “Where did you grow up? What’s your native language? What’s your religious affiliation? How many people are in your family? Was there a TV? Did you have pets? How did you say your goodbyes? Can you imagine growing old here? Where do you want to be buried?”
But these men are not cases, they are lives. Some had children, some saw parents being killed. Others watched from boats as friends drowned. Erpenbeck and her translator make effective use of the inane rigidity of bureaucratic language. The law is not concerned that the men are victims of war: “The details of their histories are the sole legal responsibility of the country where they first set foot on European soil … The first thing that’ll be decided on is whether or not they’re allowed to apply for asylum.” The Africans master many languages yet struggle with German. Why? Because no one speaks it to them. Richard helps the men, responding to their interests, contrasting individual cultures and specific dilemmas, whose agonies make him recall tales from the Brothers Grimm. The refugees have nothing except their memories and their mobile phones, which contain invaluable numbers – their sole links with family, friends and who they once were.
Richard, a present-day pilgrim, becomes only too conscious of what he does not know. Music enables him to establish a friendship with one of the men, Osarobo. This echoes the sentiment from Visitation when an old woman recalls: “In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.”
Great fiction doesn’t have to be real, but it does have to be true. Erpenbeck’s powerful tale, delivered in a wonderfully plain, candid tone, is both real and true. It will alert readers, make us more aware and, it is to be hoped, more human.
Here’s the BBC link explaining the migrant crisis: