This brilliantly understated novel traces with uncommon delicacy and depth the interior transformation of a retired German classicist named Richard. One day, he stumbles upon a group of unauthorized African migrants encamped in the center of Berlin. First, he sees only the immediate life-and-death challenges they face. As many Germans have done recently, he helps mobilize churches, organizations, and individuals to assist them. Most of the refugees disappear anyway. But Richard gets to know the ones that remain. He witnesses their struggle to retain vivid memories of lost families, loves, communities, and cultures—without which they find it difficult to maintain their dignity. In the end, Richard comes to realize that his life, too, is lived on “the surface of the sea,” beneath which lie many things “one cannot possibly endure.” He, too, must cope with troubling traumas and decide which memories to foster and which to repress. Erpenbeck possesses an uncanny ability to portray the mundane interactions and routines that compose everyday life, which she elevates into an intimately moving meditation on one of the great issues of our times. Her economical prose lends existential significance to the most commonplace conversations, defined less by what they include than by what they omit.
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