‘Unterleuten war ein Lebensraum, eine Herkunft, ja, sogar eine Weltanschauung. Lebensräume konnten vergiftet, eine Herkunft zerstört und Weltanschauungen in ihr Gegenteil verkehrt werden.’
Spoiler alert: this post contains minor spoilers, especially relating to certain characters.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in this post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
My second book review will be a little shorter than the first – mainly because it’s of a German-language book, Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten, and this blog is intended for an English speaking audience. Unlike some of Zeh’s other books, Unterleuten hasn’t yet been translated into English. It therefore doesn’t make sense to write a long review about a book that most of you won’t be able to read. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist blogging about Unterleuten – it was too good not to. This is the second book by Zeh I’ve read – the first being a handbook on horses – and I have to say I am very impressed.
The book is a social novel set in the fictional village of Unterleuten in Brandenburg, close to Berlin. Unterleuten gets into turmoil when an investment firm wants to build a wind farm next to the village. The book recounts how this changes the village and affects individual people, their relationships to each other as well as the community as a whole. The story is divided into several parts and chapters, with each chapter told from the perspective of a specific character. We get an understanding of the different characters, their thoughts and opinions. Additionally, we find out how the different characters view each other and what kind of assumptions they make about each other. These assumptions are mostly wrong, and this makes the book an excellent example or illustration of human behaviour, relationships and interaction. Zeh’s great sense of detail and her use of language and style – often ironic – highlights this even more. I love Zeh’s language but I won’t go into detail here: it would be near impossible for me to translate it for non-German speakers without losing its meaning. At the same time, German speakers will get a sense of the language when they read the book.
It is fascinating to read how the characters and their relationships to each other develop and change throughout the book. They are affected not only by the plan to build a wind farm near the village but by the village dynamics themselves. There is, for example, Gerhard and Jule, a couple that is new to Unterleuten. Gerhard, previously a teacher at a university in Berlin, now works as a bird conservationist, while Jule is a PhD-student-turned-full-time-mother. Their relationship, whilst perhaps not loving, is stable at the beginning. This, however, changes throughout the book. Terrorised by their neighbour and affected by the developments in the village, Jule turns increasingly hysterical and Gerhard ends up getting arrested for beating up that same neighbour. In the end, Jule moves back to Berlin and they separate. Then there is Gombrowski, the wealthy farmer born in Unterleuten and disliked by most, who ends up losing not only his dog – which he resembles – but also his wife and Hilde Kessler, his neighbour and close friend. And finally there is Linda Franzen, who recently moved to Unterleuten with her boyfriend and is described as a strong-willed girl who tries to ‘take over’ the village. She personally is my favourite character, and not only because she is a horse rider (which the author Juli Zeh is as well). It is refreshing to see that Zeh chooses a 20-something year old girl to be the most strong-minded character in the whole book (at least to me). Though Linda Franzen ultimately isn’t without faults either and the end to her story is in fact quite tragic.
Unterleuten is not only a portrayal but also an analysis of human behaviour and interaction. The name of the village itself gives this away: Unterleuten literally means ‘Unter Leuten’, or ‘Among People’. In fact, the village itself seems to have its own dynamic, it seems to be its own ‘entity’. The villagers sort their issues among themselves and rarely call the police. In addition, the village seems to be set at a distance from other places – it doesn’t even have its own sewage system. This gives the impression of a place that likes to keep to itself and resents outside involvement. Furthermore, the villagers aren’t just transformed by the wind farm plans, but by Unterleuten itself, especially newcomers like Gerhard, Jule and Linda. Unterleuten is at one point described as a ‘space to live’, an ‘origin’, a ‘worldview’. However, ‘spaces to live’ can be ‘poisoned’, ‘origins’ ‘destroyed’ and ‘worldviews’ remade. This sentence essentially sums up my understanding of Unterleuten.
Unterleuten, moreover, is not only a reflection of human interaction but also of modern German society. The book tells us how the village was affected by Communism and its collapse in 1989/1990, by German reunification as well as the financial crisis in 2007/2008 and not least by the onset of new technologies, such as wind farms.
To a degree, Unterleuten reminds me of the village and town I grew up in. While I’m from Bavaria and Unterleuten is set in Brandenburg, former East Germany (an important point in the book), there are similarities: My town isn’t hit by the kind of disasters described in the book, yet it is a similar, close-knit community with its own characteristics, oddities even, and its own ‘worldview’. I think this is why I enjoyed the book so much: I can relate to it. It is a great book not only because of its style and language, great sense of detail, characters and story but also because it tells us so much about both human behaviour and interaction as well as society itself.
To my German audience: I would highly recommend it.
About Juli Zeh
Juli Zeh is a German writer. Born in Bonn in 1974, she studied law in Passau and Leipzig. She holds a PhD in international law from the University of Saarbrücken and has lived in New York City and Krakau. Zeh currently resides near Berlin. Her other works include Adler und Engel (Eagles and Angels), Spieltrieb (Gaming Instinct), Schilf (Dark Matter), Leere Herzen and Neujahr.