Two "castaways" meet in an isolated GDR outpost in 1989 in Lutz Seiler's celebrated debut novel that questions the meaning of freedom and friendship, and that won the 2014 German Book Prize.
"Edgar Bendler had decided to disappear," reads the opening line of Lutz Seiler's breakout novel that is permeated by the theme of escape. What follows is the story of a young literature student — currently trying to write a thesis on expressionist poet Georg Trakl — who flees his heartbreak, and his gray everyday existence in the GDR, to live among hippy idealists on the outer edge of a nation that is about to dissolve.
The young Edgar Bendlers leaves Halle in the spring of 1989 for the Baltic Sea island of Hiddensee after his girlfriend tragically dies in an accident. Referred to in the novel as Ed, the protagonist is looking for a fresh start on the island, a far northern GDR outpost where many have died trying to escape by swimming to Denmark.
On Hiddensee, Ed meets a circle of "castaways," as he calls them, loners and rebels who are stranded on the physical and social margins of East Germany.
"It's Hiddensee, Ed, you understand, hidden? The island is their hiding place, the island where they can find themselves, where they can turn inwards, that is, towards nature, to the voice of the heart, as Rousseau put it."
Klausner Restaurant becomes the center of the action where Ed also meets Kruso — whose real name is Alexander Dimitrijewitsch Krusowitsch — Hiddensee's resident hermit-philosopher who has a near-mythical aura in these parts, and who is styled in the vein of the legendary castaway in Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe.
Story of a friendship
Ed befriends the older Kruso and becomes his "Friday." As the intimate friendship between two very dissimilar men unfolds, Kruso admires the literature student's ability to use poetry as an instrument of survival.
"In their intimacy founded on poems, Kruso and Ed found each other."
At the same time, Ed looks up to Kruso and greedily absorbs his theories about utopia and individual freedom. These ideas have also heavily influenced the thinking of a circle of island recluses in the months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Meanwhile, Hiddensee remains a "vanishing point" for many people who wanted to escape East Germany. While some succeeded on the journey across the Baltic Sea to Denmark, many also drowned while trying — a point on which Ed starts to reflect during his time marooned on the island.
Kruso is not, however, a historical novel about the decline of the GDR in 1989.
"The book is not the reconstruction of this time or the summer of '89 at all," said Seiler. "Rather, I had this authentic starting point from which I could build — even in fantastic passages that you never could or would have experienced yourself … Hiddensee seemed to be a narrow piece of land of mythical splendor, the last, the only place, an island that kept drifting out of sight," he added.
With Kruso, Seiler has presented a novel that is as fantastic as it is realistic, a book that combines contemporary history with a mythological worldview.
In this sense, the author groups twelve motley figures around a table in the Klausner as a kind of Last Supper. "The 12 apostles at the staff table," Seiler calls them. "A kind of round table with its very own rules, very own chivalry and very own names."
Searching for freedom
Ed earns his money as a dishwasher in the Klausner kitchen, and this too serves as a larger metaphor.
"Not only are dishes washed, but also people, that is castaways. Kruso has the idea that washing is part of his utopia," noted Seiler.
"Kruso stands for a model of freedom that he wants to realize on this island, which is located on the high seas, separated from society by the water," Seiler describes of his title character. "It's about the freedom in the novel, embodied by Kruso, who lays so many unfiltered philosophies of freedom side by side. "
Lutz Seiler has added an epilogue to the novel in which he gives historical detail about some real-life role models who sought freedom in Denmark. It's a chapter of GDR history that is largely forgotten, even if 179 people officially died attempting the crossing — many others disappeared and remain unaccounted for.
Seiler was a big favorite to win the German Book Prize and his debut was ultimately awarded the best novel of the year 2014. He had been known as a poet since the mid-1990s, and as a short story writer, having won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2007 for his short story collection, Turksib.
"The German poet Lutz Seiler has brought all his art, linguistic ease, flair for dazzling images and master of what he describes as 'the nervous systems of memory' to this extraordinary debut novel … Kruso is an exciting, expansive work of German literature; it may well prove one of the major novels of the 21st century," wrote The Irish Times of a work that is finding a growing international audience.
Lutz Seiler: Kruso, Scribe Publications, (German title: Kruso, 2014). English translation: Tess Lewis.
Born in Gera in the former East Germany in 1963, Lutz Seiler studied German in Halle and Berlin. In 1989 he was employed as a seasonal worker on Hiddensee, which became the setting for Kruso, a surprise hit that won the German Book Prize. Seiler also works in various capacities within the German literature industry, including as a publisher and lecturer. He lives both near Potsdam in a residence at the Peter Huchel Museum, where he has been the literary director since 1997, and with his wife in Stockholm.