Book Review: Eugen Ruge’s “Cabo de Gata”

GataYou may occasionally have the same idea as Eugen Ruge’s main character in his short German novel “Cabo de Gata”: opt out of your present life and start somewhere new. People usually have this urge, after life has dealt them a series of serious blows.

Eugen Ruge, who won the prestigeous Deutscher Buchpreis in 2011, has dedicated this book. “Für M. Diese Geschichte habe ich erfunden, um zu erzählen, wie es war”. The story found the writer to be told what it really was like. Which made me wonder: who was M and is the story autobiographical?

The last sentence in the book reads “Aufgeschrieben zwischen November 2011 und August 2012”. But this only tells us it was written between November 2011 and August 2012. It remains one of Cabo di Gata’s mysteries: is the story fictional, or partly autobiographical? Regardless: this slender novel is pretty impressive.

Mine had an excerpt from a review by Sandra Kegel in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “… wie unafgeregt, ja fast heiter Ruge vom Scheitern erzählt. …” on its back. The story is indeed told in a very tense manner, without frills. It ends with a description of a dying fish and how witnessing this death causes Peter Handke to catch a bus and pick up his life.

But before Peter Handke boards this bus, the reader meets him in this novel’s first part called: “Die Kündigung”. Peter is still in Berlin, drinking coffee at a local café and something triggers him to chuck everything in: a “Kündigung”.

The book has two timelines. Events are described by a Peter who’s somewhere in the future who retells events “as they were”. He’s going over his memories and feelings and events, from the moment he decides to quit Berlin.

He sells stuff. He chucks things out. He buys a few things for a journey. He stores a few precious belongings in the cellar of his father’s small house. By then, it’s clear that Peter is upset, unhappy, angry, shattered. His mother died – a while ago. His relationship broke down – a while ago. But where Peter’s father and Peter’s ex are starting new relationships, Peter has no one and nothing left.

On New Year’s Day, he leaves for Spain. He’s looking forward to a warm winter, but the Spain he finds does not live up to expectations. An out-of-date travel-guide brings him to Andalusia, where he ends up in the small fishing village Cabo de Gata.

Part two is called “Der Krebs”. Peter rents a room at a small café – for the night. The village resembles a ghost town, occupied by dogs during the day and cats during the night. He has only one book with him: “Colossos” by Miller; a book he does not like much. Moreover, the night turns out to be extremely cold.

The next morning, Peter goes for a walk along the beach searching for shells. On his way back, he discovers one of the shells was occupied by a now dead crab. As Peter’s astrological sign is also the crab, he decides to stay in the village.

Slowly the sun “warms” him, he establishes a routine, picks up writing, establishes some kind of nodding relationship with a few villagers.

Towards the end of this part, a tourist arrives. This tourist turns out to be an Englishman who has also chucked in his previous life. He now travels through Spain on a motorbike. He wants to visit the nearby nature reserve. Together, the men find the village’s flamingo colony. Afterwards, the Englishman moves on.

In part three “Die Katze” or “The cat”, Peter lists the mysteries in the village. The mysteries are linked to bits and pieces of civilization left behind in the village. These range from a tower to a locked suitcase. It’s clear Peter becomes more interested in his surroundings, though the mysteries will not be solved.

Another tourist arrives. This time an American, who later mysteriously disappears during a night out on the beach. Did he leave? Was he murdered? Did he drown?

Peter starts taking care of one of the village’s stray cats. He has become part of village life and though an outsider, is now able to have short Spanish conversations with a few inhabitants. Peter starts to relate to life again.

When the cat disappears, Peter is unable to find it again. Letting go is difficult, but then he goes off to Almeria, stays the night there, and decides to walk back along the beach. At Cabo de Gata, the fishing boats have pulled in. Peter watches the catch being sold and decides it’s time to leave.

This synopsis makes the story sound simple, but it’s beautifully told and described. It shows how someone who opts out of life, spends months picking up the pieces at a small village till he is able to face things again. The healing process is written with the minimum of details, stark yet very moving, impressive and powerful.

“Cabo de Gata”, Eugen Ruge, 203 pp, Rowohlt Verlag, 2013.
The complete German review of “Cabo de Gata” by Sandra Kegel in the FAZ.
Interested in visiting Cabo de Cata: tourist info on Cabo de Gata, Analusia

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