Seeing everything is right: Juli Zeh’s novel “Über Menschen”
The new novel by Juli Zeh is a long reminder of her best known to date. After more than 100 pages you come across the comment of a character: “In Bracken you are among people. You can no longer so easily rise above people.” Inevitably you smile. “Unterleuten” was the name of the successful predecessor in 2016, “Über Menschen” is the name of the new book. Bracken is an inconspicuous spot in Brandenburg, around an hour away from Berlin and yet like on another planet.
Bracken is invented. Well invented. “A typical East German street village. In the middle a church with a village square. Bus stop, fire brigade, mailbox. 284 residents. With Dora 285.” Dora has a well-paid job as a senior copywriter in an advertising agency and a friend who, as a journalist and activist, made the fight against the coronavirus his mission after the climate change. His increasing doggedness leaves Dora less and less space to question, to breathe, to relax, to live. She secretly prepares her retreat and buys an old estate manager’s house with 4,000 square meters of land in rural nowhere, in Bracken, a place that sounds like an activity “that is carried out on construction sites, with a lot of noise, with heavy equipment. Tomorrow will be cracked. “
The author, who was born in Bonn and lives with her family in a Brandenburg village, and who was elected honorary constitutional judge for Brandenburg in 2019, can tell this: clear and straightforward, so that a real flow of reading is created, but still incorporate places where it briefly takes off or slows down and reminds you: In spite of everything, you are not in life, but in literature!
On the other hand, Dora thinks she has landed in the wrong film when one day she escapes from Berlin in the rental station wagon and moves into Bracken. The squat neighbor throws her little, curious bitch, which she calls “Jochen-der-Rochen”, over the garden wall and explains: “If your mutt digs up my seed potatoes again, I’ll kick him flat.” The guy’s name is Gote, by Gottfried, and is obviously what he looks like: “‘Pleasant,’ says Gote. ‘I’m the village Nazi here.'” That won’t turn out to be too much promised – including in the neighbor’s garden Horst Wessel song sung with sympathizers.
“Über Menschen” still looks like a variation of “Unterleuten”, and one remembers what the 46-year-old had meant a year ago: “I’m not finished with the province yet.” Rural exodus meets the new out-of-the-city movement in times of corona crisis. The rural infrastructure has almost completely perished, but home office is also possible away from the metropolis. But not shopping without a car. This requires neighborhood help. “Those in Berlin” are not well written here. The one from Berlin is still received with friendly skepticism. Although it is clear: Politically, the AfD is on the advance. A lot has already been read in a similar way at Zeh, even one of the ruffs, a rare species of bird that played no small role in “Unterleuten” in the fight against wind turbines, has his appearance.
Two things change everything. Dora is fired and loses the ground under her feet. And neighbor Gote has a car accident that looks like drunk driving, but is apparently due to a complete dropout while sober. Dora is the daughter of a respected brain surgeon and knows how to interpret the situation correctly. The night call with which she pours her heart out to her father for the first time in a long time and calls him for help is a brilliantly written scene. And the little, sarcastic swipe from the father, with which he later announced his second medical visit to Bracken, was a success: he came by “to see if everything was going well”.
And so “Über Menschen” finally takes a completely different direction, becomes a grand, humanistic plea with which the self-confident and combative author takes no small risk: That anti-fascists care about neo-Nazis, as fellow human beings and not perceive as an opponent will not go down well everywhere. And Dora almost tears it up in the process, too. Because Gote is not a popular figure. “Dora didn’t like him. She was afraid of him. At most they didn’t go together. They would never have met on Tinder. The algorithm would have taken care of that.”
It has to be admitted that this is always a bit clichéd and pathetic. “About people” is much more conciliatory and philanthropic than “Unterleuten”. Zeh’s sobriety and humor ensure that “Über Menschen” does not turn into a pure do-gooder fairy tale. With enthusiasm, she has Dora develop an advertising campaign for a sustainably producing Berlin fashion label called “FAIRbekleidung”, for whose new jeans brand she suggests the name “Gutmensch” and numerous funny commercials in which jeans wearers fail in everyday life, but at least at least wear the right pants. Customers think that’s great. And cancel the campaign.
(SERVICE – Juli Zeh: “About People”, Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 416 pages, 22.70 euros)