Berlin is a city where the dead continue to walk. History remains alive in its streets. Yet Berlin is also a vibrant modern city. This novel displays both sides, its prose sparse and modern, but underneath the surface lie layers and layers of hidden memory.
The story is of Richard, a retired classical academic who, in search of something to occupy his time, begins researching the lives of the refugees displaced by the wars in Africa and who are occupying a square in the city.
Richard himself grew up, lived, and worked, in a country that no longer exists — the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He gets lost in the unfamiliar streets of what he still calls West Berlin. He remembers after the wall came down how people in the West wanted to greet him like a long lost cousin, while he just wanted to take the newly opened shortcut to the S-bahn. Objects for him have history too and a future. He ponders the origins of reused desks in the refugee centre — are they from the old GDR party offices?
Mainly, however, this is the story of the displaced, driven to Berlin as refugees. Many entered Europe thorough ancient routes, through Greece and Lesbos, Italy and Lampedusa. Richard, a professor of classical literature — he names his new-found friends after the classical heroes — is puzzled at his own ignorance of the geography and history of Africa. Testimony after testimony reveals the interrupted and all too human lives of the people who have become “refugees”. The work exposes the absurdities of national borders, whether the straight lines drawn on the map in Africa or in Europe. After all, Richard muses, Germany has only existed for 150 years and in that time there have been plenty of German refugees too.
The book raises questions of visibility and voice, of belonging and displacement. It draws parallels and contrasts between the situation of Europeans and Africans. Richard divides life into peacetime and war. It can be peacetime for you and war for someone else in the same location, in the same temporal period.
I have to say I cried a lot while reading this book, not for sentimentality or descriptions of horrors but because of the humanity that shines through. It is truly a beautiful and elegant piece of writing. If you only read one novel this year make it this one.