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.