West is an early novel by Julia Franck, published in 2003, even if only released in English last month. I’m always a bit nervous when this happens. Can the early work live up to the one that hooked me to an author in the first place? In Franck’s case Blind Side of the Heart was the deal-clincher. Quick answer to the question regarding expectations: not quite, but this book is so much better, and subtler, than last year’s release: Back to Back.
Nelly Senff is escaping to the West. An organic scientist, she applied for her exit visa after the death of her lover and father of her children. In the East, this was a automatic trigger to remove her from her profession and force her to eke a living through a menial set of jobs. Nelly though sticks with her decision and finally obtains her exit permit. The novel opens as she is being driven to the border to make the crossing.
The Stasi aren’t finished with her yet. There are still a few hours left for them to play with her … (She must leave by midnight, and, unfortunately, she’s left a bit early.). What follows during the pages of chapter 1 is shocking. Be warned. Though as reprehensible as the actions of the Stasi are, I found myself even more shocked by Nelly’s passivity. Yes, I understand her wish not to jeopardise her desired outcome. Nevertheless there was something disconcerting about it.
It’s not until she reaches the other side and is again detained for questioning by the CIA that we find out that there are questions relating to the death of her lover. Her Russian lover, who was suspected of being a spy by the East, is suspected of the same by the West. But he’s dead, isn’t he? Nelly, who was denied access to his body, can’t really confirm this.
She finds herself stuck in the limbo of the transit camp, Marienfelde, where life proves to be far from the liberating experience hoped for. Firstly, she has to negotiate the attentions of the western Secret Services (in official and less than official capacities) then the less than satisfying conditions in the camp, followed by the humiliations and condescensions meted out to refugees, whether this be the paucity of funds or the at times extreme bullying of her children at school. It’s stressful for her, and not at all a good advert for the FDR.
Not that difficulty is confined to Nelly. Krystyna Jablonovska has fled with her crabbit (good Scottish word that) father in search of decent medical treatment for her brother. Hans Pischke, a creepy little man, if I may say so, also finds himself stuck in the camp. He’s the only man who does not seemed beguiled by Nelly’s charms, yet he is the one with whom she develops the nearest thing to friendship. It doesn’t help her case that he is suspected of being a Stasi plant …. Krystyna and Hans’s stories are told from their own point of view. So too is that of John Bird, one of the CIA officers who interrogate Nelly as she crosses the border. He turns out to be a CIA officer with a conscience, with additional reasons for his own unhappiness. John Bird’s story provides a necessary balance in the narrtive. Franck shows that it was the political divide wreaked havoc on all, not just the select few.
And yet, I remained as distant as Nelly to the other characters. Something doesn’t quite gel. A bit like that yellow dress and blue sandals that Nelly is wearing on the book jacket. It’s only when I contemplate Nelly as a woman in shock, driven to the edges of sanity by both Germanies, that the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fit.
© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2014