Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky
“War destroys everything…your family, your friends, the place where you lived, your work, your life. When you become foreign…you don’t have a choice. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know anything. I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be.”
The voices here are of African migrants, men who have risked everything to escape danger and to try to make a better life for themselves in Germany. We see them through the eyes of Richard, a retired classics professor living in Berlin. Richard grew up in East Germany and is still dealing with the reunification of the country. His sense of displacement is, to a much greater degree, echoed by that of the migrants.
It all starts when Richard walks past a group of African migrants demonstrating on Aleksanderplatz. He decides to learn more about these men and under the guise of doing research, he gets to know them. Most of them have made the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean from Libya and have seen people die. Many of them barely speak German, but Richard’s knowledge of English and Italian helps him.
Little by little, we learn their stories. There is Rashid from northern Nigeria, whose boat capsized—he couldn’t swim and survived by hanging on to a cable, and watched his fellow passengers die. There is Awad from Ghana, who lived with his father in Tripoli, Libya. But father was shot during the civil war, and Awad was captured by the soldiers and beaten. “If you’re lucky, you get beaten, if you’re unlucky, you get shot”, says someone to comfort him. Then the soldiers put the prisoners on a boat and said anyone who tried to get off the boat would be shot. Richard asks him whether they were Gaddafi’s men or rebels. “We didn’t know. They all had the same uniform. … In any case, no one was on our side. Even though I grew up in Libya. Libya was my country.”
Sometimes the migrants find it hard to explain their lives to someone who comes from such a different world, such as the young Tuareg from Niger: “Why should he tell a stranger that he doesn’t know why he never had any parents? … Why should he tell him that he doesn’t know if his parents are still alive? There was fighting going on at the time when he was born. Maybe his mother or his father was among the people buried alive beneath the sand by the Nigerian soldiers, or hacked to pieces or burned alive.”
The migrants, however, are not welcome in Germany. The Kafkaesque system discourages them from staying, as Richard finds out when he tries to help them find work. Like so many other refugees and migrants throughout the world, they want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so by the system.
It took me a little while to get into the book. In the early part of the book, I felt that the migrants’ stories were like so many we have heard—I didn’t feel that the characters were real. But it was well worth staying with because Jenny Erpenbeck does round them out and by the end, they are utterly convincing. And one other gripe: Erpenbeck refers to the festival as Eid Mubarak, which is like talking about Merry Christmas instead of Christmas. Eid Mubarak is the Eid greeting. It is jarring and could have easily been avoided.
This book puts human faces to one of the biggest crises of the 21st century. It is also a character study of a man whose little life is transformed by the migrants. Just knowing them forces him out of his isolation and makes him a part of a community. Which just reinforces the fact that the “other” is not someone to be feared but someone who could just enrich your world.