In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Distance tells the story of Hakan, a young Swedish boy who is sent with his brother to travel to New York to make a new (and better) life. Before they even leave Sweden, Hakan and Linus are separated and since Hakan’s understanding of anything of the world outside his home village is limited to  the words“New York,” he determines that the best course of action is to continue on to New York on his own and meet Linus there. He ends up in Argentina and then California, and his quest truly begins.

Hakan had never before left his small village in Sweden, and knew no one and no language other than Swedish. He was young and impressionable and the cast of characters he met took on an almost Odyssian proportion. He meets a prospector, a female saloon proprieter and landowner (perhaps- her exact role beyond Hakan is unclear in the book, as it was unclear to Hakan), and a naturalist, among others, but mostly his journey is one of extreme solitude.

In this journey, Hakan, or ‘The Hawk,” to non-Swedish speakers, ponders questions about the nature of humanity, god, and nature. Upon hearing, and mostly accepting, a theory of evolution from his naturalist companion, Hakan thinks, “Even more outrageous and insulting was the notion of the primordial snot. Had he not been created in god’s image? What, then, was god?” (66). Statements like these gave me the unique experience of both snorting in laughter and yet contemplating the profound question at the same time.

The nature and land around Hakan become a character in the story. This makes the book about a single man who spends most of his time avoiding other people feel rich and descriptive rather than barren and navel-gazing. Hakan becomes enveloped in the different landscapes he encounters, and makes them each feel alive to the reader, while at the same time allowing the reader to feel not just the beauty, but also the starkness, fear, and danger which accompanies each new terrain.

The people in the story, although there aren’t many, give us windows into humanity and humanity’s many sides. Most of it isn’t pretty, as we’re exposed to greed, lust, possession, religion, and violence. But we get as well a small glimpse of knowledge, friendship, and love which sustain the book and save it from utter bleakness.

The language is truly one of the books strengths, and while it’s magnificent, it’s not pretentious. It had me returning to the book in my thoughts when I couldn’t return to it physically, but at the same time, my notes are surprisingly spare. I got caught up in reading experience and didn’t get feel blasted by forced platitudes.

This book is a great choice for someone who loves the American West (although not too much, for this isn’t your typical triumph of white man over nature story), adventure tales, and stories of introspection and a touch of magical realism.

Questions for Discussion:
How does Hakan’s growth and size both influence and represent the story as a whole?

What role did nature and landscape play in the story- could it have been told in any other place?

On page 105, there’s this sentence: “Sometimes it rained, and it was always a miracle.” What other miracles did Hakan witness, and did he always recognize them? Did he make you see ordinary events as miraculous?

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a retiring classics professor who becomes intrigued by the story of some African refugees after they stage a hunger strike to raise their visibility in Berlin. Richard has nearly no previous knowledge about he refugees, but is well equipped to do research and learn about things in general, so he sets out to do just this and goes to meet and learn about and from the refugees.

The early parts of this book have an almost surreal quality to them- as Richard has just retired and becomes intrigued by the situation of the refugees, but he is still ruled by the quotidian routines of his widower life- he has Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar for breakfast, along with one slice of bread with honey and one with cheese. Without his wife, lover, or work, these routines provide both structure and purpose for his day. As he takes on this new ‘project’ of learning what he can- the project itself takes on a “life of its own” and we get more and more glimpses into Richard himself.

Frustratingly, in order to set the stage for just how Richard (and the larger German population, which he is meant to represent), we have to wade through phrases like “For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans” (51), and “one person’s vantage point is just as valid as an others, and, in seeing, there is no right, no wrong” (55). These are revelatory for Richard, but it’s hard to believe that he could have made it through the academy without having some exposure to post-colonial thought.

Once we wade through these preliminaries, however, Richard gets to know the refugee men. This part of the story is well done- while Richard is learning about the Africans, he does so without passing judgements on them or attempting to impose on them an inappropriate value system. He contrasts what he’s learning about them in discussions with them with the vitriol he reads about them on the internet as he does more and more research to learn about their legal conundrum.

I appreciated this book because, while I knew in a vague sense that there was a significant difference in the refugee situation in continental Europe than here in the U.S., I actually had no idea what that meant legally. It explains the conundrum of only being legally able to work in Italy, where there are no jobs, and then traveling to Germany where there’s a labor shortage only to be denied the legal ability to work. As each man tells his story, we get a small taste of the politics that drove him out of his native country and continent, and what that journey and transition was like.

The lives of the refugees are often juxtaposed with the mundanity of Richard’s life. Even the greatest upheaval in his life- the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR- pales in comparison with the lives of these men, who have no idea that there was once an East and West Germany. Yet at the same time, the loss of one’s wife and partner is a universal theme that they all can bond over.

Richard helps the men in the small (and larger) ways that he can- but I appreciated that this book didn’t present these small assists as any sort of savior actions. Even when Richard is able to help one of the refugees buy land in his native country- it’s clear that the family back home will have to wait a year for the crops to grow and the refugee in Germany would still be unable to go home.

I can see why this book was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. It illuminates an important issue and does so for a broader audience than merely that of its original language. It explores themes of transitions, memory, and power (both personal and political), applied in an all-too real setting.

 

Questions for Discussion:

What was the significance of the man drowned in the lake?

Richard returns time and again, in his thoughts, to the transition when the Berlin Wall fell and the GDR was dissolved. Why does he do this? Is it an appropriate juxtaposition with the refugees’ experiences?

Ultimately, is it appropriate for this story to be told through Richard’s eyes? Or is this yet another example of a white man trying to understand refugees? Would it have been more or less powerful or educational through another viewpoint?