I’ve become a much less frequent visitor to the dVerse Poets Pub in the last few months, but it’s still the friendliest, most fun poetic community that I’ve come across. They are celebrating five years of poems, discussions, shared thoughts and laughter, so join us there , find out what Brian Miller (one of the founders of dVerse) has been up to recently, and take part in the first challenge of the week: a quadrille about ‘Journeys’.
A quadrille is a poem of 44 words exactly. Here is my attempt.
The journey’s start
your journey’s end
Ouroboros alone knows
when we are done exploring in porous dinghies
or flour containers
in baroque façade deceptions
carton jungle of dead ends
where our feet move on and on for miles
yet our hearts not one iota
Jenny Erpenbeck has written THE most timely novel about refugees, although of course it’s just a coincidence that her book (which must have been written a few years back) was published just as Europe reached boiling point in discussions about the refugee crisis.
Gehen, Ging, Gegangen [Go, Going, Gone] is the story of refugees, but (wisely, perhaps) Erpenbeck does not write it from the point of view of the asylum-seekers themselves. Instead, we become acquainted with them through an intermediary: a retired and widowed German classics scholar, Richard. This is very clever, because Richard represents any one of us who is ignorant but a bit curious about the plight of refugees, and then finds his mind and heart expanded through his regular contact with them. Yet he is by no means an altruistic saint: he hesitates and makes silly mistakes at first, and when he finds his house broken into at some point, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that one of ‘his’ refugee visitors has burgled him but cannot quite confront him with this. And, although there are hints of selfishness in his personal life (and talk about a mistress), at the very end of the book, we discover some additional things about his marriage which put him in a rather unflattering light.
So Richard is very human, rather lonely and bored, and he happens to pass in front of the Red Town Hall in Alexanderplatz in Berlin and sees a group of men on hunger strike, protesting and refusing to reveal their identities or nationalities. At first Richard keeps his distance.
As a child, he’d learnt all about hardship. But that’s no reason, just because someone is desperate enough to go on hunger strike, for him to starve. So he tells himself. It wouldn’t help the person on hunger strike.
Richard was born during the Second World War and grew up in East Germany, so throughout the book he contrasts the poverty and deprivation of the young men he encounters with the life of his friends and neighbours under Communism. He starts out with a scientific curiosity and a rather comically naive questionnaire for the refugees, who have been moved to a hastily repurposed old people’s home. Gradually, however, he opens up his own heart and allows the men themselves to open up and talk freely, all the while treading a fine line between pity and patronage, companionship and superiority. He begins to distinguish between the men coming from Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Syria, Chad, even Touaregs. He learns how to pronounce their names: tall Ithemba, quiet Abdusalam, shy Osarobo, massive Raschid (and initially thinks: all refugees can’t be doing too badly, if Raschid is so big). Sometimes he creates his own nicknames: young Apoll, sad Tristan, thin Caron, who believes in ghosts…
He helps out with their German classes, he invites some of them back into his home to play piano or to read Dante (his only book in Italian). He is often embarrassed when he is invited to eat with them, knowing how they struggle to live on the tiny sums of money allocated to them. Most of them are boat people, who landed on the shores of Italy, and so have no right to claim asylum in Germany. They want to work, they don’t want to live off charity. They miss and worry about their family back home. Slowly, Richard befriends them and starts believing that he and a small group of friends can make a difference, that it is all about personal relationships, about small-scale understanding. He wonders about the artificiality of borders, the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that people are at such pains to maintain:
Was the dividing line, the trench, between them really so endlessly deep and that’s why it caused such turbulence? Was it between black and white? Between rich and poor? Between stranger and friend?… Between one language and another? And how many borders were there anyway in this one universe? Or, to put it another way, which was the real, ultimate border? Perhaps the one between the living and the dead? Or between starlit sky and the clod of earth that he stepped upon each day? Or between one day and the next?… If you think about all these possible borders, then it seemed to Richard that the difference between one human and the next is ridiculously tiny and no deep trench at all.
Of course there is no conventional happy ending: all the refugees have to return to Italy or be deported. There are only 12 exceptions out of 476 cases – mostly because of attempted suicide or ill-health, in which case they have been given a few weeks or months’ additional permission to stay before being deported. So Richard and his friends jump in to help and offer accommodation and there is a final note of humanity and warmth, despite the sadness of the last few pages.
For a really excellent review of this book (which we hope will be translated soon into English, all the translations above are my own weak attempts), see Tony Malone’s blog. There is also a fascinating interview with Jenny Erpenbeck on Deutsche Welle about the problem of being ‘visible’ only as a refugee.
You know I like crime fiction and you know I like German literature, so of course I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few crime novels for German Literature Month. This time I look at two novels which purport to bring crime and comedy together, even though English speakers like to pretend that the Germans lack a sense of humour.
Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)
The archetypical hard-boiled yet compassionate German detective with a Turkish name (and looks) is back in this third outing by the wonderful Arjouni. Arjouni really hits his stride in this one: Kayankaya has become much more thoughtful, mature and empathetic in this book, whilst also retaining his rebellious streak, sheer bloody-mindedness and vicious sense of humour.
Weidenbusch is a bright round ball of a middle-aged man who ‘probably irons his underwear and thinks that pink glasses and colourful watches would give him a personality’. He hires Kayankaya to find the love of his life, Sri Dao, a young Thai woman he has been trying to rescue from a strip joint. She was promised false papers which would enable her to settle in Germany, but has now disappeared, and her boyfriend thinks she might have been kidnapped. Kayankaya starts combing first the bars and brothels of Frankfurt, then the asylum seekers’ detention centres, the deportation unit at the airport and other government offices. Along the way, he encounters squalor, desperation, corruption, party politics and entrepreneurial criminals who do not shy away from making money out of the most vulnerable in society.
Unsavoury characters abound in this (oddly timely) look at immigrants and refugees falling off the radar in the underbelly of Frankfurt. Kayankaya meets each racist aside with his trademark sarcasm and turning of tables. Arjouni is not afraid of handling big themes with clear-eyed, unsentimental storytelling, wit, but above all understanding.
They’d fled. They’d gone halfway round the world with just two cases. They’d written applications, been turned down, renewed their applications, been turned down again, were housed in stables or ten to a room. They’d hidden and lived without papers and now they wanted to get some false ones. They’d managed to find 3000 Marks out of nowhere, had tried everything, just to be able to say: tomorrow I can sleep as long as I like… But they don’t have a chance. Refused means refused. The refugee “in whose culture torture is a common method for questioning”. The refugee ‘who would not have to fear any repercussions upon his return to his home country, if only he had not been politically active – and he was fully aware of the risks he was taking’. And of course the ‘economic migrant’, regarded as a vagrant when he stands in front of our German supermarkets, as if hunger and poverty for three quarters of the world’s population is a basic human right… Sooner or later, they’ll find them all and put them on the nearest plane. [my translation]
Jutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erik Macki)
I have a faint suspicion that Profijt may have modelled herself on Arjouni in this mad caper of a crime novel (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize). I rather liked the set-up, although I struggle to see how it could win any literary prizes.
Sascha (who prefers to be called Pascha) is a car thief who believes he is too cool for school, but is in fact just a small-time, foul-mouthed criminal. After being pushed off a bridge, he refuses to accept the verdict of accidental death and haunts gentle, hesitant pathologist, Martin Gänsewein, a stickler for detail, whose life is turned upside-down through his ability to communicate with the dead spirit.
The humour was inconsistent, fine at times and a bit forced at others, and I can see how the story might wear thin for a series. A perfectly fun read for a first attempt and a bit different from the usual crime fare, but nothing like Arjouni’s deep humanism and precise style here. Entertainment rather than enlightenment is the purpose here.
I received this book just in time for German Literature Month, from the fair hands (or post office) of Lizzy herself. Big thanks to Lizzy for a book which left a deep and unsettling impression.
I noticed many reviews on Goodreads stating that it was too depressing and bleak, an accusation also levied against Herta Müller, who also handles similar themes. Perhaps the problem is that there is no character readers can fully identify with: each one is flawed, ambiguous, makes us slightly uneasy. We get to hear in alternating chapters from scientist Nelly Senff, who escapes to the West with her two children; Krystyna, a Polish cellist who has given up her music, sold her instrument and moved her whole family to Germany to seek medical treatment for her brother; John Bird, the American CIA agent who hopes to further his career by unearthing Stasi spies; and Hans Pischke, an actor who was a political prisoner back in his native East Germany. Although each is narrated in first person, we never feel we completely understand the motivation of each protagonist. But then we get to see each character through the others’ eyes, which gives an interesting multi-faceted perspective, but also creates a distancing effect.
The daily humiliations and harassment the immigrants have to face, both inside the refugee camp and outside it, are described with blistering realism. The cramped conditions, the parcelling out of unwanted food, babies crying, couples quarrelling, suspicions and accusations of favouritism. In addition to all that, Nelly’s children are horribly bullied at school. There is a painful scene in the hospital with the doctors refusing to believe the son’s account of how he got beaten up, culminating with an even more cringeworthy scene when one of the bullies’ mother brings him to the hospital to apologise to Nelly’s son.
Finally, you also have an additional layer of humiliation from the gender perspective, as Nelly is an attractive young woman, while Krystyna is a fat middle-aged woman, and the men all around them feel entitled to make rude remarks about both. There are many other such memorable scenes, and on the whole the three refugees handle them all with a passivity and resignation which may infuriate some readers, but has probably allowed them to endure so much. Just occasionally, however, they break down and burst out, as Nelly does in the West German interrogation room. Or else they employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, as Hans does by refusing to thank the woman who hands out the weekly rations at the camp because:
I didn’t feel like heightening her sense of self-importance; there was far too much of it in her voice anyway.
This book reminded me of other books about immigration which I have read recently: Americanah and Die undankbare Fremde, which also discuss the heavy burden of expectations on the shoulders of ‘good’ immigrants. The host country expects immigrants to be grateful, fit in, accept everything unquestioningly, remain uncritical of their hosts, smile and be happy.
West German officials certainly don’t come out well from these exchanges. When Hans refuses to cooperate by informing about women who might be engaging in prostitution in the camp, his employment advisor lambasts him:
‘I just don’t get it… here you all are, you arrive without anything, without winter shoes, without a washing machine, without even clothes to put in a washing machine, without a roof over your heads, without a penny in your pockets, let alone a mark, you hold up your hands, you take what you want and turn down what you don’t, you make claims. That’s what you do.’
Well-meant efforts of help come across as patronising and misguided. The final Christmas party scene at the refugee centre is a perfect example, full of sardonic humour. And that’s what makes this book difficult to read, perhaps, and yet so topical during the current refugee crisis. We in the Western world mean well, yet for scarred and victimised individuals, we can come across as arrogant and ignorant. They then react in unexpected ways, which do not conform to our norms of acceptable and understandable behaviour. So the misunderstanding, mutual dislike and suspicion grows between us.
How to resolve this? Short of making everyone experience a little of the fear, uncertainty and infantilisation which immigrants often encounter? Well, it will have to be books like this, both fictional and real-life accounts, which will hopefully keep our vein of compassion flowing and our sense of justice forever insatiate.
Side-note: Julia Franck’s family moved to West Germany when she was eight years old, and spent some time in a refugee camp, so this novel is based on personal experiences. I understand some of her other books are far more bleak, but this one had a fierce, scathing humour and sarcasm which made it bearable.