Well, this was an interesting one. Very rarely do two groups differ quite so markedly in their assessment of the same book!
It was definitely a book that prompted a lot of discussion, often far-reaching beyond the scope of the immediate story, so that in itself gives the book some merit.
Starting off on our usual quantitative ‘first reaction’ scale, I’m afraid this one came in high on the tedious and boring side. However, I think we would all concede that just because we didn’t like Richard very much ( in my mind forever to be Jim in The Archers!), it doesn’t mean that the book was lacking in substance. In fact, in many ways the writer tried too hard to pack all her meticulous research and findings into the story. A little more loose creative touch might just have given it the ‘good read’ factor and lifted this book into very worthwhile territory. As it stands, it’s a little too ‘worthy and uncomfortable’ and not just as worthwhile.
When Jenny Erpenbeck does develop the story – and doesn’t she write very well in the man’s voice? – there are moments which are really touching and poignant. The moment with the first piano lesson, the observation that the men’s mobile phones really were their lifelines – these were well constructed and emotional passages. But there was a lot of intellectual rumination, perhaps too early in the story and way before we had developed any sympathy with Richard or his new friends. Whilst it clearly is a deliberate narrative style for Richard, we could do with some more cracks into his soul…. everything we learn about him, from his adultery to his difficult relationship with his wife, simply adds to our lack of empathy with him. The ongoing metaphor of the dead man in the lake alludes to Richard’s own state, but this is not explored in any depth. Each of his new friends is given a metaphor via his classical adopted name – but the meaning behind this is not explored for us.
The writer’s own life does parallel that of Richard’s, as an ex DDR ( East Germany) citizen who then became ‘assimilated’ rather quickly into the democratic West at the end of the 1980’s. This unease and uncertainty about where he now belongs sits in parallel to the immigrant’s plight and adds a layer of empathy and understanding that the ‘first world citizen’ might not recognise. However the book is definitely ‘politics light’ - it sticks firmly to the human stories and prefers to steer away from making any character in the book too overtly political. The various asylum seekers are portrayed generally as world innocents, caught up in bureaucracy not of their making.
Politically, this novel adds significantly to the task for fiction of understanding contemporary immigration. There is a clarity of understanding about the reality of today’s asylum seekers and job seekers, and a comprehensive world view of where and how Africa clashes with Europe. Plus a sceptical yet realistic view on what can or should be done to ‘fix’ the issues. Towards the end there are some powerful thoughts on Germany, where it stood historically in terms of fairness and justice, and reflections on how the Nazi period has constantly overshadowed the rest of its history.