Fans of Juli Zeh’s work like myself will not be disappointed by this novel: as she did in The Method (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer), with Empty Hearts she takes us a little into the future to a point in time when some of the tendencies that are clearly present today have become dominant, and have started to shape the entire framework of Western society, which is still democratic on the surface but has moved further and further away from democracy as it once was. Unlike The Method, however, the events of this book quite correctly qualify it as a ‘prescient political and psychological thriller ripped from tomorrow’s headlines’, as the publisher puts it. But while the novel contains so much tension and action, and really is difficult to put down, it is also, and primarily, a deeply disturbing ‘problem’ book, which goes to the heart of what is currently preoccupying so many ‘first world’ countries.
The novel’s protagonist, Britta Söldner, is a successful businesswoman who runs a counselling service for suicidal people. The service comes with a twist, however – there is more on offer than just a highly efficient psychological testing and rehabilitation programme. She has no illusions about people or things, neither does she have any overwhelming moral concerns about those aspects of her work that might raise other people’s eyebrows. She is also the main breadwinner in her small-town, reasonably happy family, who live in a clinically pure and healthy world in which all troubles have been minimised. And in a way – a slightly sinister one – Britta’s work also helps contain that potential trouble.
Everything is running smoothly for Britta until one day her life is disrupted by a newsflash: an unsuccessful terrorist attack on Leipzig airport seems to have been carried out by her former patients; but not in any way she could have foreseen. Together with her associate, an Iraqi refugee-turned-computer-whizz, she starts to investigate what is going on. And in no time, her entire world starts to unravel, and she soon finds herself running for her life.
To what extent can we be held accountable for the turns our society takes? This, I think, is the main question Empty Hearts is asking, both of its characters and its readers. Whenever we decide to let things run their course and mind our own business, trusting those in charge to do their work, we also abandon our responsibilities: the world has always faced threats that only collective effort can counter, but the direction this collective effort takes is ultimately decided by a multitude of individual choices. Simply trusting the system is not enough – a democratic society only works when responsibility for it is claimed by its citizens.
But what if they do not? What if most members of the silent majority are happy to give up their right to political participation, say, for a new washing machine? Can this mean that the only way to save and maintain a functioning democracy is to abandon the very idea of one? If we cannot trust the system, can we then trust the people to set it right?
These are questions that Juli Zeh, who in her other life is a judge in the constitutional court of Brandenburg, is uniquely qualified to discuss. And as one of the leading authors in contemporary German literature, she is discussing them, as usual, in her own captivating and provocative way.
Reviewed by Rein Raud
Written by Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2019)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Rein Raud is an Estonian writer and academic. Three of his novels have been published in English, most recently The Death of the Perfect Sentence (Vagabond Voices, 2017).
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