Thursday 11 September 2014

Lutz Seiler: Kruso

The critics and I and most of my friends who care about these things agree that Kruso is the novel most likely to win this year's German Book Prize. Apparently, unlike Peter Stamm – who I learned recently has actually won something now – Lutz Seiler is a big winner of prizes. I'd be happy if he scooped this one too.

His young hero Edgar Bendler is a student of German literature in East Germany. His girlfriend has died in an accident and he runs away to the Baltic island of Hiddensee, hoping to find a job and a place to live to escape his obsessions. He does, as a dishwasher at the Klausner hotel (meaning: hermit). The work is backbreaking but the crew form a close team, a family. Their unofficial leader is the Kruso of the title, a young Russian by the name of Alexander Krusowitsch. Ed and Kruso become close, two loners who share a love of poetry. The new arrival gradually finds out his charismatic friend is running a strange system to provide shelter for the many people who head to the island in the hope of escaping via the sea to the West. Kruso’s sister Sonja disappeared into the water when he was a boy and was never seen again, and now he hopes to protect anyone from making often fatal escape attempts.

These “shipwrecked” individuals are given places to sleep for a few nights and experience the island’s unique freedom, take part in bizarre rituals and social gatherings. Ed has an exhausting and almost unwanted sexual awakening, taking young women into his bed and listening to their stories. Over the long summer, the island fills up with more and more visitors, official and unofficial. Yet as the radio in the kitchen gradually reveals, there are now other ways to leave the country; it is 1989 and the East German state is leeching around the edges. 

The island setting makes for great reading, aside from its structural role as a microcosm of society (with the church, the bars, the army, the Stasi, etc.). There’s the tangible temporary utopia of summer holidays, followed by the forlorn atmosphere of an empty seaside resort in autumn. Seiler also gives us a lot of loving detail about how the Klausner is run, even down to the finer points of the washing up process. He describes all the people who work there minutely – the crew of the ship, as he often puts it – detailing their strange tics and their roles in the team, their favourite drinks, in some cases the way they smell. We feel Ed's and Kruso's, while all this close description makes the atmosphere overwhelmingly powerful and moving, and can make the reading quite gruelling at times. 

Things come to an initial climax on the “Day of the Island”, when all the seasonal staff have a day off at the same time and stage a football tournament and a beach party. The border guards mount a show of strength, Kruso is arrested, and Ed is beaten to a pulp by a despised colleague. After that, nothing is the same. The seasonal staff who gave the island its sense of freedom begin to disappear, many of them travelling to Hungary and from there to the West. No more shipwrecked runaways turn up to the rituals and the Klausener empties of both staff and visitors as autumn draws in.

Eventually, only Ed and Kruso are left, bound to each other by their friendship and trying to keep the restaurant running on a shoestring. Drinking more than ever, they both lose their grip on reality and when Kruso too disappears, Ed is desperate. Things come to a head and then to a sudden and nightmarish ending.

In an epilogue, Seiler switches to a first-person narrator (Edgar Bendler), who tells the story of how he tries to find Sonja after learning in 1993 that Kruso had died. We find out that there are an estimated fifteen unidentified corpses that washed up on the Danish coast between 1961 and 1989, presumed to be East German refugees who drowned trying to swim across the Baltic. Twenty years on, the narrator finally tracks down the records.

Kruso is a highly literary novel, and yet very moving as well. It contains a great many literary references, above all to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Ed is perfectly aware that he’s Kruso’s Friday, his loyal assistant, and their relationship is one of the key aspects of the book – a close and at times latently homoerotic friendship between two men, one of whom is very much the leader and the other the follower. The novel also contains a lot of poetry, especially by the expressionist Georg Trakl, perhaps because of his presumed incestuous love for his sister. Seiler is extremely well respected as a poet, and his precision makes his descriptions shine. He writes about nature on the island, but also about stomach-churning details such as the mass of grease and hair that gathers below the plugs in the kitchen sinks, which Kruso buries beneath his herb garden in one of his obscure rituals – one of several key scenes in which the two main characters bond, naked.

This loaded style makes the book a slow read but a rewarding one. Seiler builds tension incredibly well as his characters drift further and further away from sanity, tying in with the political developments. The novel is too complex to be taken as a straightforward allegory for the breakdown of the GDR. But it does capture the mood in East Germany’s young dropout subcultures, namedropping the drinks and the music and the fashions of the time in among its many layers of detail. At the same time, much of the action is dreamlike, with Ed sharing his thoughts with a decaying fox cadaver or recalling snatches of drunken evenings.

Seiler himself worked at the Klausner on Hiddensee, a real establishment that was a haven for a number of East German intellectual dropouts, including other poets. I think his book is a great way to mark twenty-five years since the fall of the Wall, a literary tribute to a lost micro-culture that was perhaps only so free because it was surrounded by constraints. It raises ideas of what people miss about the GDR – and there are plenty of things they do miss – and why that might be. Kruso really is an outstanding book. English rights haven't yet sold, so now would be the time to snap it up. Publisher Suhrkamp has a long sample translation on its website, by Bradley Schmidt and Alexander Booth.