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On the Baltic Island of Hiddensee

On a clear day, the Danish island of Møn is visible from here. It’s about 65 km away. Hard as it is to believe, there are those who tried to swim across this stretch of water in the times of the DDR. Or paddle across on boards. Most did not make it; their unidentifiable decomposing bodies eventually washing up on Danish or Swedish shores or being recovered from the sea by foreign ships.  Escapees took no paper work to prevent retribution on their families, who were simply left in limbo.  Much is known of the victims of the East German Wall, not so much about the forgotten dead of the Baltic. These tragedies are not the point of Lutz Seiler’s German book prize winning novel, but they are both start and end points.

For Alexander Krusovitch (the Kruso of the title) lost his sister, Sonja, in this way to the Baltic many years ago.  Kruso has established a microsociety on Hiddensee. The focal point is the pub, the Klausner, where Kruso and his team work mighty hard to cater to both the daily tourist trade and an ever-swelling number of dropouts, who make their way to Hiddensee planning their own Baltic escape route. Kruso’s aim is to dissuade them – not through any patriotic motive, but to prevent a repetition of his sister’s demise.

The community, if you can call it that, is joined in the summer of 1989 by Edgar Bendler, a literature student, struggling to process the sudden death of his girlfriend, who simply decides to leave his own life behind.  Following his initiation into Kruso’s alternative society, (and it is an initiation with many other strange rituals and practices plus lots of drinking to follow), he is enthralled by Kruso, and the two form a close bond.  Bendler definitely sees himself as Kruso’s man Friday, at first the helper, and then the successor.  But time is limited. It is the summer of 1989, and we all know the DDR is living  on borrowed time.  As the summer proceeds, the number of visitors to Kruso’s community drops – the Iron curtain is fraying and there are now less dangerous ways to flee the country.

As the numbers in his community dwindle, Kruso loses his raison d’être and his grip on reality, with Edgar once more following in his footsteps.  The authorities strangely, having previously shown much tolerance and restraint, turn hostile.  Soon Edgar is the last man standing – he becomes the recluse foreshadowed in the pub’s name, as obsessed with Sonja’s disappearance as Kruso himself had been.

This is a long novel written by an award-winning poet.  The style is lyrical, packed with detail and literary allusion.  The poetry of Georg Trakl (which I have not read) appears frequently, and I’m sure there are more intertextual references that passed me by entirely.  I found it strange and hallucinatory at times, at others simply gross.  (I really didn’t need all that detail about washing-up and the contents of the drains in a busy tourist pub.) Repetitive also, as Edgar washes ever more dishes and his mind circles round and round his experiences on the island.

The novel is a slow read, even slower (almost interminable) on a Kindle. I don’t think I would have finished it, had I not actually been on Hiddensee at the time of reading.

That said, Seiler does encapsulate the spirit of the island.  He spent time there during the last days of the DDR, and, while it’s hard to say how much of Kruso’s strange society is based on his own experiences, other details of life on Hiddensee remain unchanged.  For instance: tourists outnumber inhabitants; cars are prohibited; horse/cart and bicycles remain the main modes of transport; house ownership is denoted with runes on exterior walls. The preservation of the landscape is a priority.  Most of the island is a national park,  and actively managed by the Hiddenseers.  To their credit.  The island is clean (apart from the horse tracks), the air is pure.  The local speciality, sea buckthorn cream cheese cake is just heavenly!  It’s easy to understand why Nobel prize-winner Gerhardt Hauptmann made the island his home. It was and remains another world.

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Kruso won the German Book Prize in 2014. It was translated into English by Tess Lewis.

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Other winners of the German Book Prize translated into English and reviewed on this site are:

2005 Arno Geiger – We are doing fine (Trans. Maria Poglitsch Bauer)
2006 Katharina Hacker – The Have-Nots (Trans. Helen Atkins) (in the TBR)
2007 Julia Franck – The Blind Side of the Heart (Trans. Anthea Bell) (My favourite)
2008 Uwe Tellkamp – The Tower  (Trans Mike Mitchell)
2010 Melinda Nadj Abonji – Fly Away, Pigeon (Trans.Tess Lewis)
2011 Eugen Ruge – In Times of Fading Light (Trans. Anthea Bell)

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