West

Written by Anthea Bell (trans.) Julia Franck
Review by Bethany Latham

This novel is mostly set in a West Berlin transit hostel in the late 1970s. The inmates, a motley group, have sought asylum in the West from the communist German Democratic Republic or from other command economy states in the eastern bloc. The tale’s focus is Nelly Senff, an attractive mother of two, who undergoes all kinds of state-sanctioned humiliation to escape from East Germany to get a chance of life in the west. Her partner killed himself a number of years ago; he was a Russian and of interest to the security agencies in West Berlin and there is some doubt about his death. Nelly, who still seems to be bogged down with grief, and her children struggle to adapt to the controlled living conditions in the hostel in Marienfelde, as well as the hostility and suspicion of the local West Berliners.

All of the displaced people in the hostel seem to be disturbed or eccentric in some way. It is as if the nature of their lives under communism has fundamentally warped their character and behaviour. Incarceration in the hostel does not help, as they wait for suitable job opportunities to become available, and disputes and aggression develop. This is a grim narrative of the lives of GDR refugees – their prospects poor in a hostel within the communist-surrounded city of West Berlin. All three of Julia Franck’s novels translated into English are rather grim affairs. Her view of humanity seems rather distorted, though much, I suppose can be attributed to the effects of the various authoritarian and oppressive political regimes that her characters have to struggle with.