“When the people came aboard boats, Europe tried to close off the Mediterranean. And when Europe realised you can’t close a sea, that you can’t even keep watch over a twisting coastline, and umpteen thousand kilometres long, they moved the border back onto land, but this time in Africa.”
Anyone who read Look Who’s Back (2012) will know that German author Timur Vermes is a master of black comedy and satire. The Hungry and the Fat is a fitting follow up novel that nips the conscience, it would be hard to be more zeitgeisty or relevant; the refugee crisis is one of the few concerns that ranks with climate change as the most important issue for the future of mankind, dramatic but not over egged. This is one of those books you could wish politicians would read, goodness knows our leaders could do with a dose of compassion. Vermes is a stylish and original writer, this novel is daring, it’s subject is challenging but so important.
I used to think that anything was fair game for comedy, now I’m a little more circumspect (but only a little), it seems to me that it’s the intent that matters, and Vermes has good intentions. The refugee crisis is such a tragedy, a monumentally disastrous crisis that it makes you want to weep – what better time to laugh? And we can only hope that this satirical humour somehow punctures the armour of those who could do something if only they really cared. Sure, that’s governments, but it’s all of us really.
I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the only weapon left in the armoury of the writer to stand up for truth in this age of unreason is satire and nobody wields this sword more effectively than Timur Vermes. Only a handful of writers pull this off. This is not saying the refugee crisis is funny, it’s saying the reaction and attitudes and inaction of Europe is exasperating and preposterous and deserves to be lampooned.
Vermes is not writing a polemic but my reading of the novel is political. That said let’s lighten the mood a little. The Hungry and the Fat one of the most anticipated new novels of 2020 has arrived. The title comes from a Heinrich Heine poem, Die Wanderratten.
“There are two types of rat:
The hungry and the fat.
The fat are happy at home,
But the hungry have to roam.”
The Under-Secretary is unable to make a decision, he wants to contribute to their new home, he can’t leave it all to Tommy but… Granite? Wood? Dekton? That’s just the kitchen surfaces, then there’s the flooring, the wallpaper choices! It would suit him to leave it to Tommy. Life was easier when Tommy was in Hamburg and he was free in Berlin but Tommy has made it clear he’s a life partner not a ministerial ‘tart’ to be delegated to. He may have to watch he way he handles Tommy. Things have been hectic since “that stupid cow” opened Germany’s borders to the refugees. There was New Year’s Eve in Cologne, the hiding in Turkey and the attempted putsch. The summer break is coming up, after that thoughts will turn to the election. A government needs to act early in the first term, make voters believe that elections mean something. The under-secretary will vanish for now but he will play his part as events unfold.
Nadeche Hackenbusch, blonde, buxom, beautiful, thinks the world revolves around her, (if this was a pantomime the boos would accompany her appearances on stage). Her new secretary/assistant is irritating, largely because she doesn’t appear to be hanging on every word and actually had the temerity to question Nadeche!! Nadeche says she comes from humble beginnings, but her mother married a banker, says the assistant. Nadeche continues to throw snippets of wisdom at the assistant, unsure if the book she’s writing will be memoir or self-help manual. The TV execs are waiting for Nadeche, in a plush hotel not that dingy studio and ratings make her the bee’s knees.
An Angel in Adversity – please don’t make the mistake of thinking the show is about a hostel and the refugees, it’s about Nadeche. Refugees have such bad teeth, could anybody really take to the rotten teeth, oral hygiene – yuck, it makes her shudder. Sensenbrink talks of synergy, he wants to expand the format; “just incubate this for a moment”, her word is final of course. A special from the largest refugee camp in the world. Are you crazy? Nadeche asks, but Sensenbrink ensures that they wouldn’t send Nadeche somewhere dangerous. For €2.5M after tax it’s ok with her.
In the hope of not catching anything, we have to visit the refugees, mostly they are not photogenic at all, let alone suitable for TV. The crew will have to work on this – auditions! Some of the refugees are contemplating the prospect of getting to Europe; Berlin is expensive, why would anyone want to go to Berlin?
“Blonde women,” Mahmood says, then takes a drag of his cigarette.
“so what? Who wants blonde women?”
“Me. To try out.”
“But Mahmoud!” The refugee steps in Mahmoud’s way. “Blonde women are the devil’s own creation. If you let blondes into your house you reap bad luck…” (Remember this is satire but then there’s “Nadeche”)
So we have differing opinions on whether Europe is the holy grail, the land of milk and honey. Of course, everyone’s perspective of everything is about to change, Nadeche Hackenbusch is about to go to the largest refugee camp in the world. From her arrival in Africa to her journey to the camp journalist Astrid von Roëll will chronicle her story. Beginning with the fashion show for refugees, Nadeche knows how to connect.
“It took two hours at most for every last soul in the camp to know that an angel was coming from Germany.”
‘An angel from the television’. The Angel in Adversity, or A2 for short, is about to go stratospheric, there’s a lot at stake, refugee vetting soon begins. In a private moment, Nadeche, ever sensitive, turns off the camera while she talks to a girl rescued from Boko Haram they bond over shoes. When Nadeche meets Lionel things go to a whole new level of crazy. Reality TV show, love story, it all adds to the public appeal, advertising revenue, syndicating:
“This time it’s not merely a love affair. It’s probably the most important love affair in the world.” [von Roëll]
Lionel has an ingenious idea: why not take the refugees in the camp to Germany, 150,000 people walking all the way there! And so begins the journey of the biggest caravansai in history. While von Roëll works on Nadeche’s beatification and presenting the upside there are qualms over the seedier side of the enterprise, poeple always have to drag things down. But this is, of course, an enterprise too. Who is making the money? How? And, how come the gangsters and people smugglers are more efficient than governments at keeping the caravan fed and watered? New people join the caravan every day, slowly it marches to the heart of Europe. Imagine what will happen if this caravan of people makes it all the way?
It’s easy to get swept up in this story, as if being part of the march, for all the humour Vermes is a natural storyteller. Crucially for this kind of work the characters stay the right side of caricature while not being entirely real. Hackenbusch is a wonderful creation greedy, ambitious, vain, power-hungry and cynical. Her TV boss Sensenbrink is a weasel, apologies to genus mustela, but you know what I mean.
This is a novel about the ludicrous and disgraceful situation of the refugee crisis. It’s farce, wicked satire, but as I have said this is not a polemic. It’s hard to avoid thinking that this it is an attack on the inhumanity and lack of intelligence being brought to this issue by governments. Be in no doubt there is sickness, child prostitution, infant mortality, poverty, and death accompanying the caravan. The gangsters, people traffickers, rogue states, and bottom feeders abound. The Hungry and the Fat tilts at our attitudes to terrorism, misogyny, and xenophobia. This is a novel with teeth, it bites but you should be prepared to get bitten, it’s an enriching experience and a reminder of what really matters in the world.
Jamie Bulloch’s translation conveys the energy and vibrancy of the writing beautifully.
Where does the problem lie? The fat make the decisions that the hungry live with.
Paul Burke 4/4*
The Hungry and the Fat by Timur Vermes
9781529400557 Quercus Hardback January 2020