Originally published in German in 2015, Erpenbeck’s latest novel was published in English in 2017. Given the major refugee and asylum crisis in Europe of 2014, in particular, this book’s publication in German was timely. Unfortunately by the time of its English publication 2017 and wider distribution in 2018 it was still vital and contemporary. If anything, the two or three year delay in entering the English language market made this book even more urgent than it was in 2015.
It’s mostly men that we meet in this world of asylum seekers in Berlin and their stories, though different from each other, speak with the same voice. The loss of identity, family, culture and even, hope, is sometimes difficult to read about. But the main character Richard’s attempts to come to terms with these men’s stories is profound and hopeful. Richard is an apparently ‘typical’ older man, recently retired; he has had slightly dodgy relationships, not all sexual, with several women – his now deceased wife, his former mistress, the wives of his friends. His life has revolved around his work as a lecturer in the classics and as a man of a certain age he is now contemplating the removal of his jacket to replace it with a cardigan – deemed to be “more appropriate to his new condition” (4).
He potters around – he will now have more time for reading – and one day he stumbles upon a camp of African asylum seekers in Orianienplatz. Unlike many people, Richard notices them, befriends them and tries to support them. He helps with applications, teaches German and listens to their stories. Their lives have been constrained by the label of refugee and European asylum law. Their difficulties intrigue Richard and Erpenbeck deals with them in ways that are similar to Kafka’s focus on bureaucracy and the traps that come with it. Men who have no money must return to the country of first entry to reapply for a health card – for many that means a long expensive trip back to Italy, meaning that they can lose their place in the ‘queue’ in Germany.
Richard compares their sense of displacement with his own once the wall came down when suddenly he and his wife lived in a city that was the same but different. Richard’s loss of identity is beautifully set against the loss for these young men. And Richard starts to realise his worries are nothing compared to men who have lost everything. His exposure to their lives forces him to look at his own and this creates a turning point for him. Throughout, it’s hard to say if we are supposed to ‘like’ Richard. He’s not a particularly warm or likeable character but the way he confronts himself, and others, is admirable and by the end of the novel, I’d have liked to have met this man.
Erpenbeck’s writing is spare yet evocative. The book is only 283 pages and yet it has captured the odyssey of many – Richard, his asylum seekers, his neighbours and his old friends. Erpenbeck does this with subtlety too. This could be a topic too contemporary for interesting and engaging fiction, but it’s not. These could be characters that are too representative of the types we see around us in the media and in our neighbourhoods, but they are not. This may be a peculiarly German story, but it’s not. Like the classics that Richard has spent his life reading, teaching and writing about, there are lessons in here but as a reader I never felt the encroachment of finger waving, nor did I feel that I was being sold a ‘worthy’ story.
I enjoyed this story. I learnt a lot about the refugee and asylum experience and I was able to try and understand the retired academic and it was clearly located in Berlin – a vibrant city that I love to visit.