Sometimes writers pass you by, and then it feels wonderful to find someone with a whole shelf full of books to their name, just waiting to be discovered. My informer gave me a book for his birthday – and I’ve no idea how I can live up to it on mine.
The book in question is Ralf Rothmann’s Hitze. I had asked what felt like five thousand people for suggestions of books set in Berlin, and this was my informer’s tip-off. Rothmann is a poet and novelist – you can read one of his poems in English at AGNI online (trans. Elizabeth Oehlkers-Wright), a sample from another novel, Junges Licht, on Litrix (trans. Susan Bernofsky) – and his debut novel was translated into English as Knife Edge by Breon Mitchell.
I gather Rothmann grew up in working-class Oberhausen, moving to Berlin in the 1970s. Although he was never affiliated with any of the West German working-class writers’ organisations, he does consciously write about working life and proletarian characters, with Hitze being no exception. It’s rare to read a book where so much hard graft goes on – unless it’s a detective novel. But it’s not in the slightest bit didactic; there doesn’t seem to be any major political agenda behind the novel.
In fact it’s a love story. The enigmatic protagonist Simon DeLoo, tired of observing life as a cameraman, gets a job as a driver for a canteen that delivers meals all around Berlin. We see the cooks at work in the kitchen and at play in the pub, and all the people he delivers to on their lunch breaks – prostitutes, office workers, junkyard men and down-and-outs. He comes across a young woman who reminds him of whoever it is whose flat he still pays the rent for, now turned to dust. Lucilla is a Polish woman living on the streets, her only company and protection a dog.
In her hour of need, Lucilla turns to DeLoo for help and we next find them in an idyllic Polish summer by a lake, clearly in the throes of a passionate affair – the “heat” of the title, perhaps. But the veneer wears thin there too, with drugs, alcohol, property speculation and other complications rearing their heads and making the Polish countryside seem almost as grimy as Rothmann’s Berlin. Not before a breathtakingly erotic and very Catholic sex scene though.
The end of the novel, which has moved from winter to spring to summer and now to early winter again, sees DeLoo’s degeneration and death. Neatly biting its own tail, the book closes with the protagonist dying on the street opposite his former home, where he set out to get a new job early one morning on the first page. A woman leaning out of the window coldly refuses to call an ambulance. No heart-warming Bildungsroman this – in fact the little information we glean from taciturn Simon DeLoo indicates that his development moved very much in the other direction.
As the hero develops, so does his city. The area of Kreuzberg where he lives and works is gradually gentrified, a posh restaurant opening up and the buildings being sanitised (I choose that word with care). The catering company switches from hearty stews to exquisite finger food, and we get a glimpse of how the other half live when DeLoo delivers a party buffet to a divorcee in Dahlem. Rothmann doesn’t rail against this way of things – but nor does he spare us the sight of those who lose out en route.
Hitze may sound a tad dark. It is, of course. But it is shot through with beautiful and – doh! – poetic descriptions of Berlin, contrasted with rural Poland. And it’s these that make it a joy to read, expressing a love for the city that doesn’t need glass facades and clean pavements to feel at home. There are birds – pigeons and a heron, a hawk and magpies – and dogs and a cat. And there is a great deal of down-to-earth Berlin wit, from the cook who complains that a dog ate his dice to an aging prostitute who offers to take her teeth out. All set in authentic places mainly around Kreuzberg, from a Mehringdamm café to the Blaue Affe pub at Hermannplatz.
Read it! You know you want to.