It’s rare that I read two books in a row from the same publisher. Unheard of that they are from an American publisher – Henry Holt. As all things come in 3’s, there’s also the similarity of narrative style. All coincidences end at this point. For while the previous read failed, this one did not.
From the moment that Settlement appeared on the 2010 IMPAC shortlist, it was a dead cert that I was going to read it. I do like to keep up with translations from German and I’d never heard of Cristoph Hein before, “the author of the widely translated and internationally acclaimed novels Willenbrock, The Distant Lover and The Tango Player” and the recipient of the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1982, the West German Critics’s Prize in 1983, the City of Hamburg Prize in 1986, the Lessing Prize in 1989, the Andres Prize in 1989, and the Fried Prize in 1990. A true literary heavyweight and as I finished my German degree in 1981, maybe not such a surprise that he is a discovery that has waited just short of 3 decades (eek!) to be made.
Settlement is set in Guldenberg, a provincial town still reeling from the shock of World War II and flooded with refugees from the East. The Habers among them. There’s not much fellow feeling. The refugees are resented and the arguments of the Guldenbergers are words that are spoken 50 years on and not only in Germany.
…. refugees who’d been expelled from the East, and we stayed away from those people. They owned nothing and let the city give the everything; they lived at our expense.
Indeed when the Habers arrive they have nothing. Herr Haber is a one-armed carpenter, his son Bernhard, a strong silent type and the centrifugal force of the narrative. A no nonsense person – he is formed by the discrimination and prejudice and the blows that he receives as a refugee. He is survivor who realises that revenge is best served by success. And so, chameleon-like he adapts to his circumstances and rides the peaks and troughs of life though displacement, the rise and fall of communist East Germany and capitalism.
Bernhard’s story is told by a succession of narrators who take us through his story in a chronological sequence. A schoolfriend , a girlfriend, a partner in crime, his wife’s sister, a business acquaintance. They all tell the story of that time in their lives during which Bernhard played an important part. The stories are as diverse as the characters telling them. Male, female, male, female, male; alternating genders varying pitch, pace and preoccupations. All are finely nuanced psychological portraits. There’s the woman brooding over her estranged children (not Bernhard’s), the man brooding over his confiscated car, Bernhard’s sister-in-law brooding over Bernhard. In the midst Bernhard brooding over past injustices (including a couple of murders), though never losing his sense of determination. Although he never tells his own story, there’s no dissatisfaction because we do understand him fully.
Interwoven in this tapestry of individual lives are the politics of the time and place. Hein demonstrates his skill by showing not telling; a school child challenging his teacher, sufficient to ruin his chances for life; the desperation to escape to the West; the cruelty/indifference towards those who do not belong. Reading Hein’s biography, I feel there’s a lot of personal experience woven into these pages. Yet amidst all the seriousness, surprising moments of humour.
Besides I was and am the monogamous type; I can count all the women I’ve slept with on the fingers of both hands, and none of those extramarital incidents deserved the name of affair or even infidelity.
and a penchant for symbolism. One armed carpenters, a plague of beetles and an outsider who finally reconciles with the divisions of the past to create a home for himself and his own. Settlement is both an absorbing story of an individual and a fine metaphor for German reunification.
P.S Willenbrock is in the post.