“The middle years, when you’re neither young nor old, are fuzzy years. You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re heading for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming. You pause, at a loss, and turn around in circles, again and again. Fear sets in, the fear of sinking halfway, without a sound, without a cause.
You’re almost fifty and you’re realised that the time for you to do the things you want is now, not later. (…) You’re almost fifty and you’re even nor invisible that you were (…). The bitterness I was carrying around has disappeared, along with the last reminders of youthful arrogance. (…) No one can see me.”
Marzahn, Mon Amour by the German writer, Katja Oskamp beautifully translated by Jo Heinrich is a novel based on the author’s own life experiences. It tells a story of a woman in her mid-40s who after her novel was turned down by twenty publishers leaves her career as a writer to retrain as a chiropodist in the suburban borough of Berlin called Marzahn created in the 1970s which is known for the high-rise Communist blocks of flats. Some say it is “a concrete wasteland” but to some “it is exceptionally green”.
Marzahn explores the meaning of ageing, the importance of close-knit community, human touch, the need for warmth, affection as well as of small daily gestures of kindness. It serves as a reminder that ordinary lives often marked by brutal historical and political events are deeply meaningful. This novel presents a piece of German history through the observations of singular lives at the very basic human level.
This is also, in some sense, a reflection on how these days people’s identity is linked to one’s job and career, “job is mistaken for one’s personality”, often person’s humanity can be perceived through the lenses of one’s job title. Our protagonist did not tell anyone about her career change as she previously experienced “revulsion, incomprehension, and the hardest to bear, sympathy” from people who saw her re-training as “a spectacular comedown”.
While working as a chiropodist our protagonist meets a wide variety of clients, mostly the elderly who share their life stories, anecdotes, daily struggles during the session when our protagonist takes care of their feet. She is a meticulous, sensitive listener and a profoundly compassionate observer of the uniqueness of ordinary life.
Each chapter is dedicated to a different client whose story is told with respect and profound empathy. Each vignette offers deep insight into the daily lives of the elderly inhabitants of Marzahn. We learn about the experiences of people who lived during the times of the 1940s East Prussia, pre-1989 East Germany and the 1990s German reunification. Our protagonist looks after the feet of former nurses, cleaners, bricklayers, petrol pump attendants, immigrants form Eastern European countries who often “do not speak to anyone, are not in contact with anyone”. Often their pension is minimal, they hold strong and clear opinions, and they don’t see themselves as victims despite their fragile bodies and often painful lived experiences. They are fiercely independent and very protective of their own independence: some have already paid for their funeral to ensure their own independence until the end of their journey.
The importance of people we work with rather the job title itself is also explored in the novel. For our protagonist being with Flocke with whom she works “feels like home”. We also learn about Flocke’s hard work life who “spent her whole life on those soles. A life behind the bar, a life of standing, a life of walking. (…) Always shift work, often weekends”.
This is also a thoughtful mediation on ageing and the perception of women “ashamed of their ageing bodies” by the society once they are forty years old when “the invisibility befalls [them]”. I particularly found the descriptions of women taking part in the Chiropody course very moving. These are often women experienced and exhausted by life who knew “what failure felt like”. They were “middle aged mothers, eager and obedient, nameless players in a nameless midfield, relegated to the footnotes of [their] own lives”. They were “all humble, modest and subdued, ready to forget [their] previous lives, erase [their] accomplishments and start again with clean sheets”.
Our protagonist like myself loves visiting the old cemetery. In her case it is Marzahn Park Cemetery. “It’s lovely to start the day in a deserted cemetery. (…) Coolness, peace and space. (…) It’s lovely to end the day in a deserted cemetery”.
Marzahn reminds us that behind every human being there is a multilayered story, a person with their own interests, passions, desires and their job title is just a station in life and not a reflection on their humanity.
Marzahn constitutes a sort of collective history bearing the witness to the close-knit community, their problems as well as unique connections they have forged over the years. This is a very thoughtful portrayal of lives lived as best as possible despite all odds. This is a gentle collection of stories full of empathy and understanding for struggles of our fellow human beings.