#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews MADGERMANES by Birgit Weyhe

I might have grown up in communist Poland, and in fact not far from the border with what was then East Germany, but I had never heard about the scheme that this graphic novel describes – bringing people over from Mozambique to East Germany to provide what essentially amounts to slave labour.

The arrangements were made in the late 1970s between the socialist governments of the People’s Republic of Mozambique and the GDR. Many – and perhaps all – of the twenty thousand Africans who came to East Germany were promised mountains of gold and a chance to better themselves – although half of their earnings were to be paid to them upon their return to their homeland. In reality, that money was stolen; they were defrauded. But the Madgermanes lost more than just money. After experiencing racism in Europe, which only worsened after 1989, and after years of working hard in low-skilled jobs, they also lost any sense of belonging, forever feeling like outsiders – both in Europe and back in Africa. They returned to a country devastated by civil war and ravaged by corruption, so completely changed that it was unrecognisable. They could not connect with this place anymore, or with its people. They were seemingly back in their home country, but they were forever displaced.

The story of the Madgermanes is based on interviews that author Birgit Weyhe conducted in Mozambique. She combined these and developed three characters: Jose ‘Toni’, Basilio and Anabella.

Teacher Jose arrives in Berlin and settles into life in a hostel, where he shares a room with the flamboyant Basilio. After a three-month-long course in German, the newcomers are assigned to their jobs. Jose ends up as a railway worker. He soon starts attending evening courses in a local library. Three years later he meets and falls in love with Anabella, who wanted to be a nurse, but was sent to work in a hot water bottle factory. This relationship is not destined to last though. Jose and Basilio both return to Mozambique. Anabella is the only one who, supposedly, makes it – she is allowed to study in Germany and becomes a doctor.

Can this kind of story be told through a graphic novel? Can reportage take the form of comic art? Well, clearly and resoundingly yes! The devastating stories of the three Madgermanes are told through simple yet effective black-and-white drawings with dust-coloured accents (one reviewer has talked about an ‘almost clay-like duotone’). Weyhe’s approach is sensitive, at times emotional, and always powerful. It is also somewhat restrained – she lets the story speak for itself.

The book ends with a profound statement, a description of a state known so acutely to every person who has ever moved from one country to another. Here it is, in Katy Derbyshire’s precise translation:

‘Like all other emigrants who have set out for a new life, I belong neither in one country nor the other. We are all without ties, unanchored, floating between cultures. No matter whether we go back or stay.’

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak


by Birgit Weyhe

Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Published by V&Q Books (2021)

October 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of BICKI-BOOKS by various authors

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THINGS I DIDN’T THROW OUT by Marcin Wicha

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THE BOOK OF VENICE. A CITY IN SHORT FICTION edited by Orsola Casagrande

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of IN MEMORY OF MEMORY by Maria Stepanova

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of CITY OF SANDCASTLES by Hagar Peeters

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of NIGHT TRUCK DRIVER by Marcin Świetlicki


Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of HANA by Alena Mornštajnová

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of NO TIME LIKE NOW by Andrei Codrescu

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of UNDER CLOUDED SKIES and BEAUREGARD / PENSÉES SOUS LES NUAGES et BEAUREGARD by Philippe Jaccottet

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of BITTER GRASS by Gëzim Hajdari

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of TRACING THE UNSPOKEN by Milan Šelj

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of PIXEL by Krisztina Tóth

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of BLUEPRINT by Theresia Enzensberger

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of TIDAL EVENTS. SELECTED POEMS by Mária Ferenčuhová

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of HAVING NEVER MET by Inga Pizāne

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of GAMES WITH GRETA & OTHER STORIES by Suzana Tratnik

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of HYDRA’S HEADS by Nora Gomringer

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of WHATEVER THE NAME by Pierre Lepori

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THE GALLOPING HOUR: FRENCH POEMS by Alejandra Pizarnik

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of CARAVAN LULLABIES by Ilzė Butkutė

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of SEVEN STONES by Vénus Khoury-Ghata

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THE GREEN CROW by Krīstine Ulberga

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THE GREAT PLAN B by Justyna Bargielska

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of NIEWAŻKOŚĆ by Julia Fiedorczuk

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of THE ANGELS DIE by Yasmina Khadra

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of LULLABY FOR A HANGED MAN by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of QUIET FLOWS THE UNA by Faruk Šehić

Read Anna Blasiak’s #‎RivetingReview of DYGOT by Jakub Małecki

Category: ReviewsOctober 2021


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *