Settlement, by Christoph Hein

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm

Settlement starts out with one unusual claim to fame — it is translated by an American, at a time when most translations of German literature come from European sources. As well, it has another claim — it is a novel that explores some of the difficulties which followed the end of World War II, through the Soviet occupation of East Germany and finally the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the 1989 breakdown of the Soviet Empire.

Bernhard Haber is a refugee, a German who was in Poland when WWII took place and whose family has been sent “home” to Guldenburg, on the German side of the newly-established post-war borders. Haber is an incomplete youth, with both weaknesses and strengths — he has missed much of what is normal in growing up, but he has also found a compensating strength (read, violence) that helps to offset his problems. Permit a quote from about a third of the way through this excellent novel:

Bernhard spoke very little, and he was very stubborn, but he was also easily influenced, if you knew how. There was something mule-like about him — a stubborn beast that wouldn’t respond to words or whips, but then, after you’d given up, would suddenly take off in the desired direction, because it had finally dawned on him what was wanted. When I told him something, he first had to chew on it and digest it throughly before it sank into his head. He was a little slow on the uptake, and mistrustful, just like his father and the rest of the family, and they all did these strange things with their eyes when you spoke to them. They didn’t completely squint, they just narrowed their eyes as if they were anxiously awaiting what might come next. Maybe that was normal where they came from. Maybe everyone there was mistrustful, or maybe they had lived through terrible things and were afraid they might happen again in our town.

A nation that has just lost a war is one thing; a community inside that nation, with an influx of refugees from that war claiming access to scarce resources, is quite another. This is the challenge that Hein has set in this novel and, I am happy to report, he delivers with exceptional success. Given that his central character speaks very little, the author has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of five people who know Bernhard — the parts are arranged chronologically so we meet him first as a pre-teen and then follow through to his success as an adult business owner. (The device brought to mind J. M. Coetzee’s similar approach in Summertime, albeit without the authobiographical angle.)

As a child, Bernhard developed an initial coping mechanism of withdrawal to address the discrimination that he faces:

His one true friend was his dog, a young mixed-breed terrier farmer Griesel had given him as payment for a week’s field work, which he gave the unusual name of Tinz. He even tried to bring the dog to school. When the bell rang he tied the terrier to the school’s low picket fence and told the dog to sit down and wait. The dog sat and looked at Bernhard attentively.

“Sit and no barking,” Bernhard said. Then he went inside, turning around several times to make sure that Tinz was doing as he’d been told and keeping quiet.

During our first lesson the custodian came to our classroom and, after consulting with the teacher, asked Bernhard whether the dog in the yard belonged to him. When Bernhard gave a silent nod, the custodian said that bringing animals to school was against regulations, that it was cruel and a public nuisance and he didn’t want to lay eyes on the beast in his schoolyard ever again.

For Bernhard (and his family), there is always a regulation. Stubborn lad that he is, he continues to bring the dog to school until finally he is threatened with expulsion. Eventually, Tinz is murdered and his body left to rot. It marks the start of Bernhard developing a more agressive response to the discrimination that he faces.

He never retaliates directly, but he does retaliate. And along the way he spots and siezes opportunities that allow him to create his own place in the world. His path to success is not a direct one, but it is one he understands. He remains an outcast even as East Germany descends into the chaos that will eventually end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall — at this point Bernhard’s well-honed coping skills stand him in good stead as he is more used to dealing with uncertainty than most of his neighbors.

As I hope the quotes illustrate, there is a flatness to Hein’s prose style that suits his story well. His central character is not an emotional person — as the story goes on there is more inevitability than there is dramatic catharsis. It is accomplished very effectively.

There is no doubt that the dislocation of post-war Germany created many examples of stories like Bernhard’s. Settlement is not a long novel but the ambiguity implied in the title is maintained throughout the book. The result is a very significant book which I am pleased to recommend. I don’t read as many European works in translation as many other bloggers do — I am very happy that I read this one.

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14 Responses to “Settlement, by Christoph Hein”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    this is one i ve on to read pile ,it looks good and have interset in the east german experience ,there been a couple films about it and this book .Does the american translation show ? in americanism’s kevin ? ,all the best stu

  2. Kerry Says:

    I cannot claim any cultivated interest in the East German experience, but I do find a book about it tantalizing as I am woefully under-read in that area. The book, too, sounds quite interesting with respect to its structure and the character at its center. I am making a note about this one. I read “too little” (whatever that means) translated fiction, so I am putting this on the TBR longlist.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Stu, Kerry: I didn’t notice any translation issues (the note indicates that Boehm has done a fair number of both Polish and German) but I also know that I am not as critical of translations as some readers are. What impressed me most was the way that Hein kept the story at the personal level, even when much bigger political factors are at play. In some ways, I was reminded of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song — both books focus on what individuals do to survive in a world of repression. I certainly found it to be worth the time.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I always permit a quote Kevin, to quote a British politician “the permissive society is the civilised society”.

    Besides, a useful and evocative quote. I can imagine the expression described (which is important I think).

    It sounds very interesting, and I don’t see much contemporary German literature in translation. Like Kerry, it’s not shortlist but it is going on the TBR longlist.

    Who’s the publisher?

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The publisher is Metropolitan Books which is an imprint of Henry Holt which is a subsidiary of Macmillan. A quick scan of their website seems to indicate they specialize in international affairs, mainly non-fiction (actually I didn’t see another novel). This is a very handsome (but hardback) volume — the design, typography and physical production are all excellent.

    I wouldn’t rush out to buy it but the next time you have a file with German connections you might want to contemplate giving it a try. While the individual characterization and experience is the strongest part of the book, you can’t help but think what the disruption, not just of the war but its terrible aftermath, produced in the Germany of today. Which is, of course, playing out in the latest Euro-crisis and the recent German elections. In that sense, I think this is a very timely novel even if it was written a few years ago.

  6. alison Says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. I am also very intersted in the former east germany and look forward to reading this book.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Alison: I’m also very interested in his 2000 novel, Willenbrock, another post-unification novel, this one featuring a used-car dealer, another East German for whom things go wrong. I’m pretty sure Updike’s Rabbit books are the only other novels I have read that feature a car dealer. :-)

  8. John Self Says:

    Thanks for reviewing this, Kevin. I’m normally quite big on European fiction so this title caught my eye when it was IMPAC shortlisted, though I have resisted buying it so far (even though, in a dramatic break with tradition for a book which isn’t a chart title or chicklit, my local bookstore actually has it in stock). Your recommendation is enough to overturn that caution. I look forward to reading it.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I do think you will enjoy it — your experience with earlier 20th century German fiction is much broader than mine, but I do think this book helps to bridge the gap between the end of WWII and the present. And I think there is a lot more to be written about that period in Eastern European history as well.

  10. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    I was pleased to read your review of this as I own the book and will be reading this soon. I have an interest in German fiction, and this one is unusual in dealing with the aftermath and consequences of the War, rather than dealing with its build-up or the war itself.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree, Tom — and feel that Hein has done a very good job at portraying those post-War consequences. I think you have every reason to look forward to reading the book.

  12. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    Thanks for that Kevin. I’ll be publishing something about it in June.

  13. Crake Says:

    I was checking the Impac site and found out that Settlement was Hein’s second shortlisted novel. He had been previously shortlisted in 2005 for Willenbrock.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: I am quite interested in reading Willenbrock — while it is set in the same transitional Germany as Settlement, it apparently features a used car dealer as the central character. Shades of Rabbit Angstrom. :-)

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