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Kruso by Lutz Seiler
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Kruso (2014)

by Lutz Seiler

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» See also 2 mentions

German (1)  Danish (1)  English (1)  All (3)
Kruso, winner of the German Book Prize and the English PEN Award, derives some of its symbolism from the story of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. Crusoe is well-known to many readers from the children’s edition in which Crusoe is shipwrecked on an island, survives and thrives using his own ingenuity, rescues a prisoner from cannibals, converts him to Christianity and christens him Friday – and eventually is rescued and returned to England. (I had a lovely illustrated edition of the book which had diagrams showing how Crusoe adapted materials at hand to make tools, build structures and establish his farm and so on.) These days the adult version can be read with a postcolonial eye where the novel is regarded as an example of British imperialism and racist relationships (and you can read various interpretations of it at Wikipedia if so minded.)

This German novel, however, is more of a bildungsroman than an adventure story, structured around an escape to, rather than from an island, and with an enigmatic, unequal relationship developing in a bizarre society created by fellow castaways.

Ed, a brilliant young student of literature in Berlin in what was then East Germany, is traumatised by a tragedy so terrible that the reader does not learn what happened until half way through the novel. Ed cannot even name his girlfriend, referring to her only as G, as if she has been atomised. His university makes allowances, but he persists with his studies as if nothing has happened until inevitably he is (almost literally) tipped over the edge by the disappearance of his cat. The emptiness of his apartment becomes unendurable and he abandons his studies, and sheds everything else as well.

Still in the fog of grief, Ed makes his way to the island of Hiddensee in the Baltic Sea, a place for dropouts and hippies to evade the rigidity of Soviet Berlin while still nominally under its scrutiny. (Wikipedia tells me that it was convenient for the GDR to allow its dissidents to work there because they could easily be controlled on a small island). Occasional escapes were attempted across the sea to Denmark but unlike the Robinson Crusoe story where Crusoe was marooned away from home for decades, in the seas around Hiddensee there were no shortage of naval patrol boats for prompt ‘rescue’ of those wishing to leave their GDR home and make a new life elsewhere. And while Robinson Crusoe makes the best of his unintended exile, desperation makes some on Hiddensee risk everything.

A hidden, encrypted ‘Map of Truth’ shows the Routes of the Dead:

‘At first they keep swimming. Or they paddle a bit. Or they sit in tiny diving machines, or they hang onto motors that pull them through the surf. But they don’t make it. Somewhere out there, water fails … Some wash up over there. Some are pulled out of the sea with the day’s catch. The fishermen radio the dead over the sea, and talk about them later in their bars – “another one who tried to make it, well, cheers,” and so on …’

[…]

‘The fishermen know the currents here. They know them exactly. They know just how long the dead can be in transit.’

[…]

‘They know how long they stayed underwater and when the sea brought them up again and what they look like at that point and how they look at you with their rotten eyes…’ […]

‘But no one, I repeat, no one over there knows who the dead are. That is, they’re kept on ice, on the kingdom’s good, cold ice, and they wait until someone comes to claim them. But no one ever comes. No one. Not ever.’ (pp. 152-3)

Since the island is located in this half-world between oppression and freedom, access to Hiddensee is strictly controlled and the seasonal workers serving the day-tripper and short-stay holiday crowd must have permission to work there. From the ferry Ed makes his way ashore much like the castaway Crusoe, and manages to find his way to a popular restaurant called the Klausner, where he ends up as a dishwasher even though he doesn’t have the requisite papers. He has arrived at a good time because the previous dishwasher, a man called Spieche has mysteriously disappeared, leaving items behind which Ed gradually appropriates as it dawns on him that Spieche won’t ever be coming back to claim them.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2017/05/30/kruso-by-lutz-seiler-translated-by-tess-lewis/ ( )
  anzlitlovers | May 29, 2017 |
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