I’m in the midst of perfect titles this week.
In the book, Richard is a retired classics professor. His wife is dead, his lover is gone, and his friends are scattered. He’s lonely and bored, even if he doesn’t notice it at first. In the midst of the closure of the old part of his life, he learns of a group of African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. His academic brain starts whirring and he decides to visit them to interview them for a project. At least that’s his excuse. Weeks pass as he learns their stories, of the struggles they’ve faced to get to Germany and of the various pressures trying desperately to push them back to where they’ve come from. Although, most of them can’t go back. Their families have been murdered, they’re broke, their countries are embroiled in conflict, there is no work. They have nothing.
Erpenbeck has a sympathetic view to the plight of refugees in European countries and highlights the ridiculousness of bureaucracy and bias at the same time. She’s judgy. It’s deserved. Richard delves into immigration law on the Africans’ behalf. He learns of the complicated twists and turns that prevent the men from working (even though workers are needed) how they need to come from Italy via Libya to go elsewhere in Europe, how they need paperwork that they can’t get. How there can only be a very precise set of circumstances and steps taken in order for the men to be taken out of limbo and able to integrate.
Meanwhile, all the men want to do is work. They don’t want to be refugees, without work and without homes. Their lives would have been very different and they would have been content, if it wasn’t for the circumstances of their countries.
Erpenbeck exposes our assumptions during a scene in which a group of refugees have taken over a building and locked themselves on the roof in protest of what is happening to them. The newspaper reports on the whole matter and everyone responds, as they are wont to do. Richard, who has far more facts, is annoyed.
“The newspaper’s readers praise the article in their comments, and their only complaint is why refugees should be the only ones to enjoy the privilege of standing on a roof and threatening suicide. And peeing over the edge.
Brand-new in Germany and the FIRST THING he does is pee off the roof!
The FIRST THING, eh,? thinks Richard. Well, it is, after almost three years of exile and waiting.
Have you ever seen the gentleman from the “refugee scene” or their supporters holding down a proper job or doing anything productive at all? Not me.
Denying them permission to work while at the same time reproaching them for idleness is, Richard finds, a conceptually flawed construction.”
And again. (Erpenbeck really does not let up).
“The Africans have to solve their problems in Africa, Richard’s heard people saying many times in recent weeks… For a moment, Richard imagines what a to-do list would look like for the men he’s gotten to know over the past few months.
His own to-do list would look something like this:
Schedule repairman for dishwasher
The to-do list for Karon, on the other hand, would be more like this:
Eradicate corruption, cronyism, and child labour in Ghana
Or for Apollo:
File lawsuit against the Areva Group (France)
Install a new government in Niger that can’t be bribed or blackmailed by foreign investors
Establish the independent Tuareg state Azawad (discuss with Yussuf)
And for Rashid the list would read:
Broker a reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria
Persuade the Boko Haram to lay down their arms”
Impossible. How quick we are to assume other people’s problems are like our own.
Some of the refugees have fled many times. First, to one African country and then to Italy when circumstances have become untenable there. Nonetheless, they are told to leave Germany. To go back.
“Where can a person go when he doesn’t know where to go?” Richard wonders. Clearly, Erpenbeck wonders. I wonder.
Fiction sometimes highlights the absurdity of the paper borders created by laws. It’s not as though we can’t see the point of view of the German bureaucrats who are tasked with reviewing the refugee’s cases to decide if they can stay in Germany. They are worried about their own country. The laws are meant to keep out those who may cause problems. Or so it’s said. However, the laws are circular and unsympathetic and perhaps in some cases unwarranted. They are inapplicable. They are created to protect against a whole and have no application to an individual.
“…[Richard] is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.”
Jenny Erpenbeck was at Events 14 (Grand Openings: The Alma Lee Opening Night Event) and 30 (Uprooted) of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.