Lutz Seiler’s Kruso takes us back to the last breaths of a political simulacrum: the Soviet-controlled part of Germany called the ‘German Democratic Republic’. I had the chance to visit this almost-country just a few months before its downfall in 1989 – that is, around the time when the events of the novel take place. One of the things that strikes me is how precisely Seiler has managed, by the use of seemingly trivial details, to convey the atmosphere, and the sense of utter falsity, that somehow manifested itself even in material objects, that pervaded everything traceable to the GDR as a generator of forms and meanings – the strange artefacts now only accessible to us in museums of Germany’s recent past.
But this novel is not about politics. Or things. It is about people. What does it mean to grow up in the context of such strictly controlled artificiality? Can one remain internally untouched by it? And perhaps even more importantly, how is one able to emancipate oneself from it?
The hero of Kruso, a student of literature called Ed, has been using poetry for this exact purpose. His head is full of it, and sometimes poetry bursts out of him, even against his will. It is not his own – but it is the poetry that he has made his own. Or so he thinks. Indeed, verses of Trakl or Rilke seem to express his inner thoughts more precisely than anything he could formulate himself. Is this, we may ask, caused by the way he is in the world? Or is this because of how he is in himself?
Brought to the brink of suicide by a personal tragedy, Ed decides to leave everything behind and embarks on a journey to Hiddensee, an island off he northern coast, where he must live rough for a few days before finding his place in a semi-decrepit hotel and at a restaurant named Zum Klausner, run by a community of people with the same troubled life trajectories as his. (These places actually exist, and Zum Klausner is still open for business.)
Der Spiegel compared Kruso to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; indeed, the closed circle of Zum Klausner’s ‘crew’ and the existential dimensions of their activities are reminiscent of Mann’s most famous work. The way quotidian banality – the detailed descriptions of dishwashing, for example – are interwoven with the intellectual tradition, is particularly noticeable in the many literary allusions with which Kruso is replete, from the obvious Defoe through Dostoevsky to Artaud, Kafka, Saint-Exupéry and beyond, not to mention the poets who collectively inhabit the protagonist’s mind.
Kruso, however, is also a tale patterned on a Buddhist model of the teacher-disciple relationship. The role of the teacher in this scheme falls to the other main figure of the book, Kruso, or Alexei Krusowitsch. A son of a Russian general and a circus artist, haunted by his own past, he is now the unquestioned, if informal, leader of the community of those who have fallen out with the regime. Kruso has partly inherited and partly invented something of a system, complete with a vocabulary for describing the realities of the island and the people who arrive there, plus rules and rituals for behaviour, and ways of addressing and overcoming one’s internal predicament. Freedom, we learn from him, is a state of mind to be practised – and not a condition the world might bestow, or indeed even impose on you. Occasionally, Kruso even uses the word ‘enlightenment’, as a Buddhist teacher would do, for the all-absolving moment when you come to terms with your innermost core, or with freedom itself. What happens to Ed when he embarks on Kruso’s quest, and where their now intertwined paths will ultimately lead, are matters that I will gladly leave for the reader to discover.
All in all, Kruso is a remarkable study of the human condition, including its surreal side, set in a picturesque atmosphere with an ensemble of memorable characters and quite a few twists along the way. And it is also a parable that reminds us of everything we should never try to do without.
Reviewed by Rein Raud
Written by Lutz Seiler
Translated by Tess Lewis
Published by Scribe (2017)
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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