I read this for my book club, and it was a difficult read but it turned out to be a fascinating one. I probably wouldn’t have finished it if not for the book club, but this was one of those rare books where it was worth pushing through. Just know it’s a quiet, thoughtful read, not an easy one.
Erpenbeck is a critically acclaimed author in Germany; she was born in East Berlin in the 60s. Her book focuses on a refugee protest taking place in a large public square in Berlin. A large group of refugees from different countries in Africa have been camping out in the square and trying to get permission to live and work in Germany. Germany could use skilled workers but chooses not to let these men work, and buries their applications under endless paperwork and a complicated set of laws.
Richard is a scholar who has just retired, and he isn’t quite sure what to do with himself. He sees the men and thinks it would be interesting to interview them and write about their stories. Richard is very analytical though he’s perhaps less adept at dealing with emotion (I could identify with that).
His first efforts are hesitant. He attends a community meeting and is very conscious of being an outsider. He spends a lot of time thinking about the right questions to ask. Then the men are moved out of the square, and some of them are transferred to a community center right near his house, so he starts visiting and getting to know them.
I liked Richard, because if it were me I would be just as hesitant and nervous around this group of people I know very little about. He sees they have very little, and sees how much he has in comparison, and how easily he can make a difference in their lives. He begins giving the men gifts, and inviting some of them to his home. Much of that felt condescending and presumptuous to me, and I know I would never reach out in the way he does (though my book club pointed out that as women, we have to hold ourselves at arm’s length more than men do). I especially didn’t like the way he gives some of the men nicknames like Apollo and Tristan instead of calling them by their real names – is that meant to indicate closeness, or condescension? This is a translated book, and so it’s hard to tell if things like that have something to do with cultural differences or an issue of translation.
This book is really about Richard’s journey as a human being, the way his view of the refugees changes and shapes his view of himself and the world. He tries to have a real impact in these men’s lives, and sometimes he succeeds, and sometimes I wondered if he made much difference at all. He keeps trying, even when most of us would give up. Erpenbeck writes about well-meaning people who say things like, “there’s too many people for me to help” and “how do I know that what I do will make a difference?”
What impressed me about this story was how subtle and gradual his journey is. Richard puts himself out there, at first hesitantly, and then more and more. At first he sees them in simple terms, but he comes to know them and begins to see them as friends, not just people with an issue or a story. I really admired this; what I know about myself, from different volunteer efforts I’ve had, is that I probably wouldn’t take the kinds of risks that Richard does.
Erpenbeck’s writing is sometimes beautiful, sometimes a bit maddening. She writes in a mostly flat, unemotional style, which seemed a reflection of Richard’s personality. One of our book club members commented on how Erpenbeck would juxtapose a really horrifying refugee story with unemotional prose like Richard pouring tea or reading a book or walking around his house. But I rather liked that, since Richard himself isn’t really able to process what he’s hearing, and I saw it as a contrast between the chaos of the lives of the refugees and the quiet and calm of Richard’s life (which some in the book club also saw as loneliness).
I’ve read a lot recently about the experience of immigrants coming to the United States, so it was very interesting to read about immigration/asylum issues from the perspective of a European country. As my husband reminds me, the Germans’ approach to race and immigration is quite a bit different from ours — for all our faults as a country, we may be a bit more open to integrating different races and cultures than most European countries (I don’t have anyway of knowing if that’s true, but it’s something to think about).
At times Erpenbeck goes on quite a bit about laws and history, but she comes back pretty quickly to these characters who are so interesting. So while it could be a difficult read at times, it was very worth the effort. Her book weaves together ideas about history and culture, about the meaning of language, about relationships and about the passage of time. But in the end, she asks one question that really stayed with me: “where does a man go, when he doesn’t know where to go?”
For a good article about this book, see https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/25/a-novelists-powerful-response-to-the-refugee-crisis.
I read this book for the Read Harder 2020 challenge (a book about a refugee) and the Reading Around the World challenge.