Culture  When outsiders settle in

Christoph Hein’s novel Settlement probes questions of place, identity, and divided history

The original title of this book, “Landnahme,” means the taking of the land. But whose land is taken, and by whom? This question reflects the profound complexity of the oeuvre. Many have claimed it to be the long-awaited “Germany-novel” that summarizes and comments on 50 years of separation, diverging history, and a tedious re-unification. Unfortunately, the novel cannot fully live up to those expectations; however, Christoph Hein does offer an interesting perspective on German identity and the difficulty of integrating and accepting people of different backgrounds within one nation.

The main character, Bernard Haber, and his father arrive in Guldenberg, Eastern Germany, after having been displaced from Silesia in the late 1940s. Quiet and often hostile, but tenacious and oddly self-confident, Bernard lives through discrimination, hate crimes, and distrust of the locals, never complying with their expectations, but always getting by. As the years go by, he sets up a small business as an alibi, whilst illegally smuggling fugitives into West Berlin until the Wall is built. After 1989, Bernard is amongst those businessmen who benefit from the re-unification, while others lose their belief systems, jobs and ways of life.

This is Bernard’s story; yet, he never expresses himself directly in Landnahme. Hein prefers to let five acquaintances describe their relationship with, and memories of him, thus painting a blurred, but fascinating picture of this character. Bernard’s childhood friend, Thomas, recalls classmate bullying, the murder of Bernard’s beloved dog, and finally the death of his father. Bernard’s first girlfriend Marion, who never fully understood him, focuses on her constant uncertainty and distance in the relationship, rather than remembering affectionate moments. His friend Peter regrets engaging in illegal activities with Bernard; Peter has ended up in jail, while Bernard has garnered wealth and influence. His sister-in-law describes how she exploited his vulnerability in more than one sense, and finally, Bernard’s business partner Sigurd exposes his audacity and perseverance in an era of change. The memories and anecdotes create a psychological profile of Bernard, and offer insight into his actions and motivations. Regrettably, the tone remains surprisingly flat – Hein doesn’t seem to exploit the possibility of diversifying five narrative voices.

Yet, the novel taken in its entirety does have several redeeming qualities. For one thing, the novel’s form reflects the root of many of Bernard’s prblems: the tendency to categorize strangers and acquaintances based on prejudice and generalization. We want to get to know Bernhard, but all we learn is how others perceive him. Hein’s refusal to give Bernard a voice mimics the behaviour of citizens who reject outsiders on principle, effectively silencing them before they are even given the chance to settle into the community.

This principle of exlclusion and rejection might also help us to understand German identity a little better. Confronted with overwhelming change, the citizens of Guldenberg seek refuge in their old traditions and refuse to adapt or admit outsiders. When in doubt, self-identification through exclusion seems to be the popular option. Finding common ground with a neighbour often consists of confronting a shared enemy – even if he is technically from your own country.

Finally, there is the question of “Landnahme” to bear in mind. After the Second World War, Poland acquired parts of the Silesian territory – but did the displaced people take land from the locals? Did the locals in turn, in denying the newcomers a true home, also take away some of their homeland? And what about the re-unification, when Eastern Germany was essentially annexed and Western institutions, practices and ideologies took over? This book emphasizes that these questions of territory and identity are as salient today as they were in the 1940s – and not only in Germany.

The English translation of Hein’s novel, Settlement, is available in hardcover from Metropolitan Books for $27.