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Christoph Hein: Landnahme (Settlement)

This novel received considerable acclaim in Germany and it has even been suggested that it is one of the best German novels of recent years, a view I strongly endorse. There are no literary pyrotechnics, no linguistic games, no clever tricks, no postmodernism, just a story well-told. The story concerns Bernhard Haber from 1950 to the present day but it also concerns Germany and, more particularly, what used to be East Germany, as Haber’s story mirrors East Germany and the issues it faced, some of which we in the West are familiar with and some we are not.

Haber was born in 1940 in what was then Breslau in Germany but, by the time this book opens in 1950, has become, as his teacher forcibly tells him, Wrocław in Poland. Bernhard’s father had been made a prisoner-of-war by the Russians and was in a camp in Russia. He lost his arm in an accident there. The Russians, having no more use for his labour, let him go. Initially, when he returned to Wrocław, he was unable to locate his wife and son but, once he did, they decided to go to Germany and ended up in Guldenberg in East Germany, in 1950. Bernhard’s story, from a gruff ten-year old immigrant to a well-respected, responsible citizen, is told by five people who knew him at various stages in his life. We never get Bernhard’s view of his own life and, indeed, the five who do tell his story freely admit that they do not know him well.

The first story is by Thomas Nicolas, who is visiting the town in the present time after a long absence, and who reintroduces himself to Bernhard, who has forgotten him. Thomas sat next to Bernhard at school and we learn about his early days in the town. Bernhard kept himself to himself. Thomas sat next to him for two years but they barely exchanged a word. However, he was no pushover. He defended himself against attacks. For example, when the teacher insisted that he was from Wrocław, he reluctantly accepted that, after some pressure, but still insisted that he was born in Breslau. Because of the turmoil at the end of the war, Bernhard is behind in his studies and not too bright and struggles with his school work. Later he is held back though, initially, this does not happen, as teachers are reluctant to admit defeat. The key issue for Bernhard both here and later is, as an immigrant, he and his family, are subjected to discrimination and abused. Bernhard’s father is a carpenter and, as he is one-armed, struggles to make a living at it. The natives will not give him work and, eventually, his workplace is burned down. He is convinced that it is the work of arsonists (and the police share this view but cannot find the guilty party) and he knows who is to blame – the whole town. When Bernhard’s dog is later killed their view is only confirmed. Haber senior does get a burned out factory as a workplace and struggles to survive.

The second story is by Marion Demutz, Bernhard’s first girlfriend. Any sexual activity, which is minimal, is initiated by Marion. However, as they have something in common – both struggle at school – they hang out together. However, the key event is when they go camping with another couple. The boy in the other couple wants only one thing but Bernhard is more interested in listening to the girl, Sylvie, who is very political. Marion later finds out that when a group of people are forcing farmers into a cooperative, often with threats, Sylvie and Bernhard are both in the group. Marion, both jealous but opposed to the political action, dumps him. Bernhard later states that his motives are for revenge rather than political. Number Three is Peter Koller, a friend in school at a later date. They engage in petty criminal activities but then drift apart. Koller is planning to become a motor mechanic. However, when his girlfriend has a black baby and it is clear that he is not the father, he leaves town, to avoid the shame. In Berlin he meets someone who knows Bernhard and learns that Bernhard is working for this man but it is not clear what is involved. He soon learns that it involves smuggling people across the border and, having had difficulty in finding work, he joins up. Of course, it goes wrong – for Koller.

The fourth is Katherina Hollenbach. Her sister, Friederike, is dating Bernhard but there seems to be as much sexual activity as with Marion. When they sleep together, they merely sleep. Indeed, it is Katherina who seduces Bernhard, though he remains true to Friederike, after that, with just one exception. Babsy arrives in town and Katherina immediately is taken with her as, indeed, is everyone in the town, except for Friederike. She wears mini-skirts before they were fashionable. All the men fall for her. However, she wants a man who smells like a man, by which she means strong, silent and decisive. Bernhard is the one she chooses and they have a brief fling, before she goes back to Berlin and he goes back to Friederike, whom he will later marry.

The final story is by Sigurd Kitzerow, Bernhard’s friend and a sawmill owner. By this time Bernhard, with his money from people smuggling, has set up his own carpentry shop. His father has been attacked and later hangs himself, though Bernhard suspects murder and Sigurd finds out the truth and lets him know. But Bernhard has mellowed and now becomes an easy-going leading citizen of the town, particularly after the end of communism. He has made the gradual development, under our eyes, from rough, gruff boy to responsible adult. He has also shown that he is a survivor.

Hein’s skill is not only to show us the development of Bernhard but to match it closely with the development of Germany, from a post-war country, beset by racism and economic and political problems to a modern part of a major European power, via the trials and tribulations of communism. It is done gradually and in a subtle fashion but it is done very well. Bernhard is a complex character but he is not the only focus. We learn much about not only the five story-tellers but also about the others in the town from Babsy to Friederike, from the various farmers coerced into the cooperative to the rest of Bernhard’s family, particularly his father and son. A complete portrait of a town as a mirror of a country and an era is skillfully painted by Hein and makes this book indeed one of the best German novels of recent years.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Suhrkamp
First published in English by Metropolitan Books in 2008