Searching novel of the Berlin refugee crisis by Erpenbeck, considered one of the foremost contemporary German writers.
“The best cure for love—as Ovid knew centuries ago—is work.” So thinks Richard, who, recently retired from a career as a classics professor, has little to do except ponder death and his own demise that will someday come. What, he wonders, will become of all his things, his carefully assembled library, his research notes and bric-a-brac? It’s definitely a First World problem, because, as Richard soon discovers, there’s a side of Berlin he hasn’t seen: the demimonde of refugees in a time when many are being denied asylum and being deported to their countries of origin. His interest awakens when he learns of a hunger strike being undertaken by 10 men who “want to support themselves by working” and become productive citizens of Germany. For Richard, the crisis prompts reflection on his nation’s past—and not just Germany, but the German Democratic Republic, East Germany, of which he had been a citizen (as had Erpenbeck). Richard plunges into the work of making a case for the men’s asylum, work that takes him into the twists and turns of humanitarian and political bureaucracy and forces him to reckon with a decidedly dark strain running through his compatriots (“Round up the boys and girls and send them back to where they came from, the voice of the people declares in the Internet forums”). Richard’s quest for meaning finds welcoming guides among young men moving forth from Syria, Ghana, Burkina Faso, some unable to read, one confessing that he has never sat in a cafe before, all needful strangers with names like Apollo, Rashid, and Osarobo. In the end, he learns from his experiences, and theirs, a lesson that has been building all his life: “that the things I can endure are only just the surface of what I can’t possibly endure.”
A lyrical, urgent artistic response to a history that is still unfolding.