Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2017

Kruso, by Lutz Seiler, translated by Tess Lewis

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 was 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.

At the Klausen Ed meets the enigmatic Kruso, ‘patron’ of the island who exerts a kind of magnetic authority over the motley bunch who work there.  Kruso sees to it at first that Ed doesn’t undergo the bizarre initiation rituals that have evolved under his leadership, but the moment when the newcomer is issued with his uniform signifies the acceptance that Ed is yearning for, and also his recognition that he is being remade in the image that someone else has of him:

Across from the boiler stood a row of large, broken-down closets.  ‘Our supply stores,’ Kruso called, ‘and here, the archive!’ He pressed a pair of checked trousers into Ed’s chest, thin and with a cloth belt, just like the ones Rolf and Chef Mike wore.  Ed would rather not have tried on the trousers in front of Kruso, but he did.  If he had any ability, then it was this: he could sense what was expected of him; he could perceive how the world the others lived in was constituted. At such times, he had moments of utter clarity when he understood, and he could behave accordingly when he wished.  Maybe it was a kind of compensation – for the fact that he was missing a particular trait, something that brought people closer, that bound them together.

The first pair was much too large, and, in the second and third pairs as well, Ed looked like a dwarf in clown’s clothes.  These steps were called fittings and dressings.  Friday was given his goatskin.  After they found the right pair of pants, Kruso draped a long white chef’s coat over Ed’s shoulders.  Ed felt Kruso’s eyes on him, the pleasure.  (p.97)

Ed and Kruso form a close relationship, bonding in part through shared loss, though the reader doesn’t piece together what Kruso’s loss is for quite some time.  (Consistent with his philosophy of freedom, Hiddensee is a gay paradise Kruso tells Ed, but their relationship is companionable not sexual, or if it was, I missed it).

On the whole, it was more than closeness and more than confidence.  Essentially it was a common alienation that underlay their friendship.  That both were unable to speak about what weighed most heavily on their souls seemed to bind them closer than any confession.  They simply didn’t have the words, and understanding meant not deceiving themselves about it.  In any case, nothing could be rectified.  The source of their unhappiness (which also determined their actions) was better off elevated in a poem.  (p.203)

The novel is told in the third person from Ed’s point-of-view, so there is only what is known by him to go on.  His state of mind is confused and self-centred, and he seeks to deal with his trauma by absorbing himself in hours of arduous work and the oblivion of exhaustion.  But one night a ghastly memory of G breaks through and triggers his recitation of the poetry of Georg Trakl, an Austrian expressionist poet, revealing himself as an intellectual in the process.  He is in good company: the Esskays (SKs, the German abbreviation for seasonal workers) include the waiters Marko and Rimbaud who both have PhDs,  but Ed is embarrassed by his prowess and preferred his anonymity.  Kruso however is rapt, and asks Ed to transcribe the poem for him because  the poem ‘Sonya’ has resonances for him too.  There were numerous references to German writers in the novel, (Rimbaud also quotes the French dramatist and poet Antonin Artaud) and one of the blurbers compares the novel to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, but alas, despite my efforts to improve my knowledge of German literature, these allusions were lost on me.

What is comparable with The Magic Mountain is the hallucinatory effect, and parts of the novel are rather confusing.  However what soon becomes clear is that there are changes afoot in the GDR.  The kitchen has an old radio, nicknamed Viola and irreparably tuned to only one station and with intermittent reception at that, but the year is 1989 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall is imminent.  At first nobody believes the fractured reports of refugees heading to the west, but eventually the scarcely believable becomes true.  All over the island restaurant staff abandon their posts, and there are bacchanalian revelries on the beach.  In the ensuing chaos, Ed stays with an ever-diminishing skeleton staff, while the reader begins to make sense of disorientating events and mysterious disappearances.  Kruso’s community has been a kind of underground, a spiritual community of inner freedom without the injury of borders, without fleeing, without drowning.  It breaks down when real freedom beckons with the Fall of the Wall.

Kruso is a challenging book to read, and I won’t pretend that I made sense of everything I came across.  It’s long, too, at 462 pages.  But there are stunning images which reveal a life beyond imagination, such as this one:

There was no light in the hallway.  Past the turn towards Kruso’s room began Monika’s lovely fragrance, exactly what Ed imagined the smell of oranges to be.  He had only met the little invisible one once.  But then again, he had only ever eaten oranges once in his life, when he was a child, in 1971, when all of a sudden southern fruit were available in stores on account of changes in the power structure – ‘due to the transition’ as his father explained it at the time.  There had been no further transitions since then, and too much time had passed for Ed to remember exactly what oranges smelled like.  (p.114)

The ‘transitions’ were economic reforms under the otherwise staunch and repressive Communist GDR president Walter Ulbricht in 1971. The reforms were reversed when Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev replaced Ulbricht with Erich Honnecker.  In snippets like this, this novel brings home to contemporary readers something of what it might have been like to have a decades-long memory of a taste of freedom, symbolised in the scent of an orange.

The only other review I could find of the English edition was a brief one at the SMH. Reviews at Goodreads are of the German edition, and most of them also admit to some puzzlement about both the events of the novel and also the literary allusions both to Crusoe and other texts.   So it’s not a book for people who don’t like ambiguity and loose threads.  But it’s the first book I’ve ever read coming from the old GDR and the novel almost breathes a yearning for freedom and the agony of the disappearances that characterised life under Soviet rule.  These are emotions that seem to have been airbrushed away for tourists who visit Berlin today, where you can have a cheesy photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie without ever really realising the human pain that Seiler depicts in this novel…

Author: Lutz Seiler
Title: Kruso
Translated by Tess Lewis
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925321845
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing.

Available from Fishpond: Kruso


Responses

  1. Definitely one for my TBR pile I think. Thanks for the thoughtful review, it means another purchase to fill my house!!

    • Welcome back! Yes, I think you will like this one, and *chuckle* perhaps make more sense of it than I did:)

  2. Always good to review a book when there’s so little information out there. I’m not sure if I’d like this or not. The loose threads might trouble me.

    • Ha ha, that’s the influence of all those crime novels where all the loose threads are neatly wrapped up in the Grand Denouement at the end!
      Or have I been watching too much of Death in Paradise?

      • I haven’t watched that yet

        • One of my dad’s favourites. I watched all kinds of stuff with him when I was visiting him every day, and we watched three series of DIP altogether. (And then we switched to the Father Brown Mysteries!)

  3. Here another review in English: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/kruso-review-a-fall-from-grace-before-the-fall-of-the-wall-1.2947745

  4. Larissa Behrendt does a good analysis of the racism/colonialism in Crusoe in Finding Eliza. Not sure I’ll ever get round to Kruso, but the literary allusions sound interesting.

    • Yes of course, *smacks forehead* that’s where I read it!

  5. Let’s just say I smiled reading this review. Not sure I would be better equipped for this one. I’ll wait for Tony’s eventual review. ;)

    • Oh, I bet you would. I’ve got a good mind to send it to you when you get back to Canada!

  6. I really loved his collection of poetry so I am looking forward to reading this novel! Great review.

    • Hi Melissa, I haven’t commented on the lyrical aspects of the work, but the reviews at Goodreads of the German edition say it’s superb in the original language.

  7. I’ve had my eye on this since Eileen Battersby praised it (in the Irish Times review above I assume) but didn’t want to tackle another lengthy German novel after Bricks and Mortar. It sounds like it’s worth the investment of time, though.

    • I know what you mean… I don’t mind long books, and sometimes I love them (like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) but I do need something shorter in between these chunksters.

  8. One I will be getting at some point great review amazing crusoe still influences novels

  9. Isn’t it remarkable how a novel published in 1719 has had so much influence on subsequent works? This sounds a rather remarkable novel, and one that interests me because of the insight it gives into the Soviet era…..

  10. Stu, Karen, it is amazing, and I admit to being surprised that Crusoe could be an influence on German writing. I mean, I know they read books in translation, more than the Anglo sphere does, but I wouldn’t have thought that Robinson Crusoe would have been one of the well-known ones…


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