By Julia Franck
Translated by Anthea Bell
Vintage Books, 2014
I came to the film of the novel first, a fine adaptation with an excellent actress, Jordis Triebel, in the lead. She plays Nelly, a single mother with two young children who together move from East Germany, seeking asylum in West Berlin.
That’s the principal story in the novel as well, but there are others too. We are told of Krystyna, a talented cellist who has brought her family from Poland to Germany in an effort to get medical treatment for her brother Jerzy. There is Hans, an oddball character who many, in the reception centre where they all live, suspect of being a Stasi agent. And John Bird, an African-American with the CIA whose job it is to interrogate arrivals and assess their claims for asylum.
These characters are in the film, yes, that is true, but in the novel they appear richer, more complex and altogether more convincing. This is achieved in part because each chapter is written in the first person, though from the point of view of a different character; the character’s name appears in the chapter title, the chapters are not numbered. It is a device I’ve seen before (Kenneth Fearing had a fondness for it, using it in The Big Clock, for example). Still, it is elegantly deployed.
West is part espionage thriller, part social realism (circa late ‘70s, early ‘80s) and probably partly autobiographical as well: as a young girl, Julia Franck crossed from East to West Germany with her family. The milieu of a reception centre in West Berlin has a banal horror to it, something akin to the quality of a (childhood) nightmare. Families share rooms with strangers and sleep in bunk beds. They are given vouchers to buy food, which they cook in a communal kitchen. If there is work, it is low-paid, unappreciated. Not often that you read a contemporary novel – West was published in Germany in 2003 and has been superbly translated by Anthea Bell – with such definite echoes of Dostoyevsky. These are miserable, wretched, depressing lives: the migrant experience in Germany 30, 35 years ago. At the end, your thoughts turn to this year’s migrant crisis and you wonder: is it any different now?
The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.