A voyage—if not of the damned, then certainly of the heartbroken.
Seghers, who died in 1983, was a prominent writer in the former East Germany, complicit but not uncritically part of it. Given that stories in Stasiland were best off delivered under a veil, she wrote deflectively, with stories within stories and multiple narrative points of view containing thin criticisms of things as they were. So it is in this book, originally published in German in 1971. Its protagonist, Ernst Triebel, is not its narrator, a dutiful engineer named Franz Hammer who services agricultural machinery. In that role, work has taken him to Brazil, from which, returning to the GDR, he meets Triebel, a longtime exile who is unenthusiastic about medicine and star-crossed in love. He has stories about both, and there are others to pick up the narrative onboard as well, for, as Triebel says, “We’ve enough time for storytelling…almost three weeks.” The stories themselves, wrapping around allusions to Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness, build on themes of lost friendship and unrequited love; they tend to be simple and direct, but in the end they are also commentaries on the nature of storytelling itself. As the book proceeds, other themes come into play, such as the baleful legacy of German nationalism and anti-Semitism. There’s no grim social realism in these pages but instead a delight in the pleasures of spinning tales in detail-caressing language, not least when describing the Beatrice of the piece: “She’s as lovely, lithe and golden brown as some girls of this city,” Triebel achingly recalls of his childhood love, another German exile in Brazil. Throughout are surprising glimpses of life behind the Wall, as when Seghers writes of the hope of her generation that West Germany would not remain divided from the East but would instead unify with it for a glorious future.
“I prefer travelers’ tales to love stories,” says our narrator. There are plenty of both in this lyrical novella.