I’m not one for experimental form in fiction, but this one won me over early on. It’s a novel of ideas—political ideas, mainly—laced with sympathetic insights into the plight of African refugees in today’s Berlin
center of the novel is Richard, a classics professor whose retirement seems to have been forced in some way. One day he happens by Alexanderplatz, the large public square in East Berlin, and encounters the unsettling sight of dark-skinned immigrants encamped. After observing them over the course of several days, he passes again and they are gone. He becomes interested in their plight in a way he might not have a few years earlier, for he’s the widower of an imperfect marriage, all of which has left a hole in him. When he learns the refugees have been moved to a vacant, now-repurposed government building, he seeks them out, and begins eventually to talk to them, and even interview a few.
He meets one after another in the cramped, sparsely furnished quarters the government provides. A boy who looks like Apollo says he is a Tuareg from Niger, and he answers Richard’s questions in a string of European languages. Awad is a man born in Ghana who’s come here from Libya; Richard thinks of him as Tristan when he learns his mother died giving birth to him.
Rashid, who was born into a sprawling, well-to-do Muslim family in Nigeria, tells of a string of catastrophies that follow being run out of one place after another, losing family members every step of the way. Horrific tales take him through Libya, where he is forced onto a boat with his two children; they become marooned with hundreds of others, and he is one of the relative few saved after days without power or water, most of whom die when it capsizes with the relief effort. “Paradise is beneath your mother’s feet,” Rashid says at the end of it all. Richard takes to wandering through his house in the middle of the night, affected by all he is hearing from “the thunderbolt-hurler.” On another visit, after learning Rashid made his living as a metalworker somewhere along his way, Richard asks Rashid to draw a picture of the best work he’d ever done. Rashid obliges with both relish and ennui. “If you could see me doing my work, you would see a completely other Rashid,” he says. “For me working is as natural as breathing.” In and around Alexanderplatz, he may die of asphyxiation, for the refugees have no work. Indeed, they are not allowed to work.
Before you know it—before even he knows it—Richard has become an activist in their cause. He pays for doctor visits for those who’ve taken ill, whose papers are unsurprisingly not in order given all the rules and limitations and the niggardly approach of the white German state. He helps buy a small property in a village in Ghana, for one who cares more about the fate of his mother and family than his own. The amounts at issue are not insignificant but doable, and the transaction is accomplished by a Ghanaian exchange that looks perilous by the standards of our escrow system, a high-wire act seemingly based entirely on trust. The waiting is similar, but the paperwork is different—there isn’t any—and the whole thing is over in hours rather than months.
Richard researches immigration law and learns the refugees are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to come back when they leave, and are allowed to stay only if they jump through hoops laid out in arcane and impenetrable administrative titles, all designed to appear to be welcoming while casting a net that will frustrate their aims. Germany, like so many western countries, only appears to give a damn if we’re talking about the law as applied to immigrants. They all dearly want to work—even when on stipend they’d rather work—but legal and bureaucratic obstacles to anyone employing them are baked into the system.
The book closes as it opened, with a party at Richard’s house. But instead of his old friends from academia and such, the refugees are the only ones in attendance. While Richard cooks, the refugees find tools in the backyard shed and clean up the garden and the grounds, chatting back and forth in good cheer as they work.
Another reviewer found Richard not fully realized—“flat” one might say—as a character. Perhaps this comes with the territory in such a political novel. But anyone untouched by the plight of these refugees, and the grace with which Richard reaches out to them—as any of us could, if only we tried—would be a puzzle to me.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .