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‘What does memory feed on?’ [book review]

A review of Madgermanes by Birgit Weyhe, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Sometimes you pick up a book and just know that this one is going to be special. There are a few things to suggest that Madgermanes might be so: the line drawings on its bright-yellow cover, the unusual size and gentle heft of it. The opening line, too, is arresting: ‘What does memory feed on?’ Then there’s the fact that it’s published by V&Q Books, a small press specialised in translating brilliant German literature; and the translator herself, Katy Derbyshire, whose work I admire immensely. On an even simpler level, Madgermanes is not your usual fiction – it is a graphic novel, created by award-winning comic artist Birgit Weyhe. All told, it’s a pretty good recipe, yet still I wasn’t quite prepared for just what an experience reading this book would be.

Cover image Madgermanes

Based on numerous first-person interviews, which she has sensitively incorporated into three fictional characters, Birgit Weyhe’s Madgermanes is a powerful explanation of home, exile and belonging, of racism, discrimination and political manoeuvring, of friendship and memory and whether it is ever possible to start again. The themes in this book are big and universal, but they are also tied to a very specific story: that of the Mozambicans who came to East Germany as ‘Gastarbeiter’ in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. All told, around 20,000 Mozambicans worked in the GDR, from Berlin to Thuringia, between 1979 and 1990, when German reunification forced them to return home. They were then, as Weyhe puts it, ‘strangers in their own land. They faced fundamental questions of belonging and where to call home.’ Political corruption also meant that the wages still owing from their often ‘very unpleasant jobs’ were never paid out – they’d been sold the promise of a better life that never materialised. How these self-styled ‘Madgermanes’ dealt with the experience of contract work in Germany – before, during and after – is laid out here in three very different, equally moving stories.

Though fictional amalgamations of her various interviewees, it is easy to believe that Weyhe’s protagonists are real people. Told one after another in sections of roughly equal length, the stories of José, Basilio and Annabella are linked by a series of tragic events. Each character, however, offers an entirely new take on things, proving that while the essence of a situation may be the same for thousands of people, the individual experience of it will be vastly different. José and Basilio, for example, two men of wildly contrasting temperament, each cope in their own way with the isolation imposed on them by their host country. For José, crippling loneliness and uncertainty slowly give way to increased opportunities for education, culture and even tentative relationships. Basilio, on the other hand, dives into his new surroundings with glee, turning his outsider status into a kind of emotional defence, ignoring the disappointment of finding himself little better than a forced labourer and focusing on having ‘as much fun as possible’. As a woman, Annabella’s experience is different yet again, with considerably more constraints on her freedom that are only balanced out by her staunch determination. All three stories are fascinating, both for their individual facets as for the ways in which they are knitted together.

It would be a shame to give away too much here – Weyhe succeeds in making us care deeply for her characters, and we keep reading partly in order to find out what happens to them – but one of the most significant elements of each story is the period following 1990. Weyhe looks at the contract workers’ sudden expulsion from the former East Germany from varying angles (including that of the Mozambicans who did manage to stay), though there is one unifying feature: the prolonged period of living abroad often led to an increased feeling of alienation. This double outsiderism can make for painful reading, with lives that were once filled with hope now awash in a sense of helplessness and isolation. The background of civil war heightens the emotional aspect all the more, yet not one of these stories seems exaggerated. As representatives of a much larger group, Weyhe packs a lot into her characters’ experiences – including some serious struggles with mental health – yet each life is believable and able to engage the reader on multiple levels.

Before reading Madgermanes I knew nothing about this episode of history. It is, I fear, one of many similar stories, the human narratives that either get lost to the years or, more actively, swept under the political and social carpets. In choosing to give the Madgermanes a voice at last, Weyhe is making a powerful statement, but she has also used her skill as an illustrator to create a work of exceptional beauty. The muted colour palette of her story panels – black, white and a greenish-brown – allows the intricacy of her drawings to sing, with certain motifs such as bare trees, windblown flowers and African-style prints providing further threads that lead us through the book. Combined with short blocks of text in which every word has been carefully chosen, the overall effect is utterly captivating.

Thanks to the limited space available – a problem no doubt exacerbated by German’s love of portmanteau words – translating a graphic novel can be no easy feat. Katy Derbyshire’s rendering of Weyhe’s work is exquisite, with each narrator’s voice coming through clearly and their changing emotional states communicated with graceful agility. As the novel moves from hope to despair and back again, now allowing us an occasional moment of humour, now probing a more complex theme, so too does Derbyshire’s tone shift from light to sombre – this all despite the brevity of the sentences afforded her, plus the additional need to communicate some elements of German text which have been worked into the illustrations. It could be risky, adding English translation as an extra layer of linguistic entanglement to a novel that is already very much about cultural and linguistic divides, but happily for the reader, Derbyshire knows exactly what she’s doing. There may be no space for superfluous words here, but Madgermanes conveys exactly what it needs to.

Setting out to use literature to portray Germany as it really is – not how we think it should be – V&Q Books has made a discerning move in adding this title to its eclectic list. The perfect introduction to graphic novels for those unfamiliar with the genre, or an essential addition to a growing collection, Madgermanes is an absorbing, informative and deeply moving work of fiction about homeland, exile, despair and hope, giving voice to unheard stories and asking deep questions about belonging as an intrinsic aspect of human experience.

Madgermanes by Birgit Weyhe, translated by Katy Derbyshire, is published in paperback by V&Q Books. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

Blog tour Madgermanes

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