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Lutz Seiler: Kruso (Kruso)

Edgar Bendler, known as Ed, thanks to his girlfriend, has been studying German literature at an East German university. Indeed, he has been given the task of writing about Georg Trakl, the expressionist poet. He had a girlfriend, known only as G., who was an English teacher but who had died, knocked down by a tram. Their cat – she had named him Matthew – also disappeared. In an old shoebox, he had found a map of the Baltic coast and someone had underlined some of the places there, including Hiddensee, an island in the Baltic, which was a popular holiday resort during the period of the German Democratic Republic. It would be a nice place to visit so, for his summer, that is where he goes. His parents think that he is in Katowice.

When he arrives he looks for a job there, at a café called Krausner (= hermitage). Initially, he is rebuffed and he goes off on his own, sleeping outdoors. As the island is a jumping off place for people escaping to the West, this is not necessarily a good idea, as there are guards looking for people attempting to escape. However, he does manage to survive, though getting bitten by insects and hearing strange noises at night. However, he eventually does get a job from a man called Krombach, which involves peeling onions. He is told that when Crusoe returns, the situation may change. Crusoe does return but he is not Crusoe but Alexander Krusowitsch, known to most as Kruso but to some as Losch, from Aljoscha (i.e. Alyosha), the Russian diminutive of Alexander. Ed is then moved to washing-up duties and given a room. Initially, he has little communication with anyone apart from Kruso and Krombach. However, Seiler gives us an excellent portrait of the dynamics of the staff. Later, when he gets to know them, Edgar will be seen as the calming influence between the various groups.

Edgar gets closer to Kruso, not least because of their common love of poetry but also their love of the natural history of the island. Kruso even tells Edgar that he dreamed of Ed’s arrival, two days before he actually arrived. Edgar gives an outline of the work of Trakl and reads one of Kruso’s poems, which turns out to be about his sister, Sonja. Ed had already mentioned one of Trakl’s poems called Sonja, which had had an effect on Kruso. Ed learns that Sonja had drowned and that Kruso still very much misses his sister. The fact that she looks somewhat like G., draws them together. Kruso had also lost his mother tragically. She had been a tight-tope walker in a circus and had fallen to her death in front of her son. At the same time, he learns of Kruso’s support for the people trying to flee the island and East Germany, and the protection Kruso offers them, thinking of the death by drowning of his sister. For Kruso, the island is an escape. He even plays on the name of the island, referring to the English word hidden as the role of the island in his mind, and the fact that gays can also find an escape there. However, he also looks towards Møn, the Danish island offshore. At the same time, he is helping the people who are known as the Shipwrecked, the generally young people who have drifted to the island, presumably to escape to the West.

But things start changing. Kruso sends various young female Shipwrecked to Ed’s room (one of the other male staff members complains that Ed seems to be the only one who benefits from this privilege). He becomes quite attached to the first one, C., but when she does not come back and is replaced by another one, Ed is both mystified and upset, particularly when Kruso is very ambiguous about what happened to her. Then comes the Island Day, when there are various events, including a football tournament. Edgar has a run-in with René, with whom he has had problems before, and René badly beats Edgar up. René and Kruso both disappear, the police are involved and, gradually, several of the other staff members and the Shipwrecked seem to disappear. At the same time, we hear of people fleeing East Germany, first through Hungary and then through Czechoslovakia. It is a kind of an end-of-the-world scenario but the world that is ending is the Communist system, with the local officials and police the only ones who seem to care. Inevitably, things do not end well – either for East Germany or the Klausner. There is an interesting addendum, where we follow Ed’s post-break-up investigations into the fate of those who fled Hiddensee for Denmark and, in particular, what happened to them, especially the remains of those who died.

Hiddsensee can be a symbol for various things. It is an escape, Robinson Crusoe’s island if you will. It can be a microcosm of East German society, which is gradually falling apart. But there is an implication that it is something more. Kruso speaks of the myths of the area and also he has a close concern for the nature of the island, making it something of a paradise for those who do not want to belong to conventional society. It is, of course, also a story of the end of an era – the end of the German Democratic Republic, the end of the Soviet system and the end of people trying to flee that system, to get a better life, but often at the cost of their lives. Seiler tells a superb story and this is a first-class novel, particularly for a first novel.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Suhrkamp
First English translation by Scribe in 2017
Translated by Tess Lewis