From Germany to Ireland with love - still
With a plot that could have come from recent, bank-crisis headlines, a novel explores the love between its characters – and their countries
SITTING IN a Berlin radio studio last week, as I waited to be interviewed on Ireland’s economic meltdown, the studio technician was less interested in the crisis than in Ireland itself.
Her aunt, she explained, had been in love with Ireland for years. And though this aunt had never been there, the technician said, she was selling up and moving to Ireland in the new year.
At the peak of the Irish boom, when we were feeling invincible, it was easy to scoff at such carry on. This week, staring into the abyss of Ireland’s ruin, it was a reminder of how grateful we should be for our “special relationship” with Germany.
The latest example of this phenomenon is What Belongs Together( Was Zusammengehört), a stylish, melancholic novel about a German man, his Irish girlfriend and love lost.
In it, author Markus Feldenkirchen, a journalist at Der Spiegel,tells of a jaded young banker dispatched from Frankfurt to investigate his employer’s dodgy Dublin subsidiary.
In a plot that could have been ripped from recent headlines, the Dublin subsidiary’s debts threaten to drag the entire bank into the abyss. The protagonist, meanwhile, is living in an emotional abyss: burning a hole in his pocket is a letter that has arrived out of the blue from Killarney, reviving memories of teenage trips to Ireland and a romance that went sour with devastating effect.
The book drifts back to happier days in Ireland, when the loved-up teenager scarcely noticed the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the background, a contrast develops between the restless relationship Germans have with their own identity and homeland and the peace many feel in Ireland.
The original of this particular species of book is Ireland Journal, by German Nobel Prize laureate Heinrich Böll. This slim volume encouraged a wave of immigration to Ireland in the late 1960s of West Germans who felt alienated at home. At first Böll’s book, and his immigrants, were greeted in Ireland with baffled amusement and then, as the country hurried down the road to modernity, with increasing annoyance. If these blow-ins had their way, the natives complained, Ireland would be forced to retain its backward ways and become a rustic, open-air clinic for emotionally damaged Germans.
“The difference I feel, compared to older generations, is that I can feel positively disposed to Ireland without being against Germany,” says Feldenkirchen, 34, a regular visitor to Ireland.
While older Germans decry the changes of recent years, Feldenkirchen is more philosophical.
“Ireland reminds me of the eastern German states, in that if anything is suppressed too long it will go to extremes when it finally does break out,” he says. “Every society needs time to reach a plateau and, since things went too extreme in one direction, I hope that’s now the case in Ireland.” Feldenkirchen’s book honours Böll’s Ireland but describes a modern replacement of ambition, illusion and alienation.
“We have become terribly ambitious,” he writes, “sacrificed our happiness to competition, have tailored suits and CVs, but no real mission.” Though he is writing about adrift 30-
something Germans, his description will ring a bell for many Celtic Tiger cubs.
Ireland enjoys a “higher underlying sympathy” among Germans, the author suggests, than Holland or France. However Ireland has been drawing heavily on that goodwill account in recent years, as one German bank after another went to the wall in the IFSC, only to be bailed out by Germany.
To date, Ireland’s notorious “light-touch” financial regulation has cost German taxpayers somewhere in the region of €150 billion in loans and guarantees. It’s a fact few Ireland-loving Germans have registered, though their looming contribution to any Ireland rescue fund could change that. “There’s always a distinction in people’s heads between the emotional and the rational reaction but it might well be that, sometime soon, the Germans will say, ‘enough, our goodwill is all used up,’” says Feldenkirchen. Whether the goodwill will eventually run out depends, he suggests, on the attitude with which the help in Ireland is received. “When someone says, yes, we made mistakes, sorry thanks for the help, one can always forgive.”
Was Zusammengehörtby Markus Feldenkirchen is published by Kein Aber