Category: Fiction

Sibylle Berg
Die Fahrt
[The journey]

Review

One feels rather inclined to warn anyone off Sybille Berg’s books who hasn’t as yet encountered them. In her implacably critical approach, her savage irony and her hatred of our imperfect world she has few equals among contemporary German writers. This is precisely why she is adored by her fans — and there are plenty of them! Following the success in 1997 of her debut novel Ein paar Leute suchen das Glück und lachen sich tot (‘Various people seek happiness and kill themselves laughing’), Berg has built up a reputation not only as a novelist but also as a playwright and newspaper columnist. Published in autumn 2007, her novel Die Fahrt (‘The Journey’) is her most recent work, and will doubtless mark a new peak in her creative output.

‘We wanted to escape because we wanted to find happiness. We wanted to escape from poverty and boredom, we wanted to escape from our lives.’ — these words could equally well serve as a summation of the leitmotif of misery that courses through Die Fahrt. None of the novel’s protagonists — and there are a good three dozen of them — are happy with the current state of their life, in their different ways all would prefer their lives to be better, more simple, more pleasant, more secure, more prosperous, more full of joy, more full of meaning. The book thus becomes one great multifarious search for happiness.

The sub-title of Die Fahrt characterises it as a novel. This seems strange at first, as we find ourselves confronted by seventy nine separate chapters, all of them self-contained stories that have a film-script ring to them. Their titles routinely consist of someone’s first name, and the name of a place. As you read on, you discover that some of the individual chapters’ central figures crop up more than once and that their paths occasionally cross. Certain events are also recounted twice, from different vantage points. The fact that in addition the different stories are encompassed within an overall framework makes the term ‘novel’, if not entirely compelling, then at least plausible.

In terms of their background, education and economic circumstances, Berg’s characters are as diverse as the countries and towns in which we encounter them. Thus for instance we meet Miki, the Los Angeles porn-film actress, Igor, the alcoholic miner from the Ukraine, Parul, the young mother breaking stones in a Bangladesh slum, and Mr.Ling, the Chinese doctor who has become a millionaire by trading in the organs of executees. However disparate the characters may be, however, they are all united in their discontentment with the here and now.

Those who can afford it travel far and wide in search of ‘a place that would change everything’. Like Helena, for example, who has ‘visited practically every single country for which there is a Lonely Planet guide’. Or Ruth, who ups sticks and goes to Israel for the sake of what she thinks is the one great relationship of her life, only to find herself dumped soon afterwards. The rest, the ones with no money, have no choice but to stay where they are and dream — in so far as they have enough energy left to dream — of a life that is different from their own. People like Olga from Khirgistan who regularly meets up with Western European men in the hope that one day one of them will take her home with him, ‘far from this place that she could never escape from through her own efforts’.

‘How random it is to be born somewhere and then have to stay there’ — such reflections force themselves not only on the characters within the book, but also on the reader. The fact that Berg so baldly juxtaposes the life-or-death problems of the have-nots who must stay put, and the feather-bedded problems of the haves who can up and go, makes the depictions of utter poverty stand out in particularly sharp and striking relief. The contrast between supposed misfortune and real misfortune is made even more intense by Berg’s choice of style: her customary and much-praised narrative stance whereby she manages through a judicious mix of quiet mockery and ironic distance to render pleasurable even the bitterest truths, gives way here to an almost entirely non-ironic and unsparing depiction of things as they actually are. There is a clear sense in this book that there is nothing left to laugh about. Absolutely nothing.

Is the world really such a dismal place, one might ask. Berg’s answer leaves little scope for reinterpretation: except for a few scattered oases of contentment such as Switzerland, ‘that sweet little sanatorium’, or Iceland with its mercifully scant population, there is nowhere the slightest bit nice. Wherever you look, there is loneliness, poverty and filth. As though wishing to engrave it for ever on our memories, Berg confronts us with simply endless variations on the theme of misery and the vain search for happiness and meaning. At the latest by the time you have reached half-way in the book you feel already familiar with every conceivable facet of the topic. But Berg writes on and on, offering both repetition and variation, trying ever new routes to happiness, depicting ever more journeys to ever more places — yet demonstrating in the end only the dismal certainty that in this world of ours there can be no personal development and no happiness, at least no enduring happiness.

It is accordingly no coincidence that the travellings in the book are evoked in its title by the word Fahrt rather than the word Reise. Both words translate as ‘journey’ — but Reise has venerable connotations in the German Bildungsroman tradition as a term symbolising the intellectual and spiritual progression of the hero, and there is no trace of any such progression here. Quite the reverse. At best Berg’s protagonists see fleeting glimpses of an escape route out of their misery when some of them begin to realise that the world would be a pleasanter place if instead of taking ourselves so seriously we recognised that we are simply ‘small parts of a larger whole’. It remains unclear just how seriously Berg means us to take these tentative first steps on the part of her characters towards a resolution of their predicament, for they are strikingly reminiscent of the beliefs and attitudes of those in Die Fahrt who come in for the severest criticism: ‘all those Europeans who, tired of their existence, came here in search of spirituality’, all those grubbing away in an esoteric search for ‘meaning’, the yoga freaks hoping to find salvation in eastern mysticism.

There can be no doubt about it: this book is not light reading. Berg’s bleak view of the world and its denizens is unlikely to leave her readers cold. Fortunately, however, the bleakness of her world view is not the only thing that marks her out: her fascinating observational gifts, her inexhaustible associative powers and her ironic humour make her writing a pleasure both intellectually and aesthetically. Even despair can prove cheering when the depressing nature of New York is exemplified by a parrot’s desire to hang itself, or when we hear the plaintive question about Germany: ‘how on earth did they manage to make an entire country look like so many packets of sliced bread?’

In short: do read Die Fahrt! It’s a book you will never forget!
Vorname Name

By Anne Nordmann, 02.06.2008

Translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby