Empty Hearts


The year is not that far into the future, near enough that it could almost be now, but far away enough that it really couldn’t, at least one hopes not. A bit like Black Mirror, perhaps.

But the location of this book couldn’t really be anywhere else but Germany, and a decent-sized city in Northern Germany at that. I’d forgotten that Braunschweig is Brunswick in English, but as soon as I remembered, the Pied Piper of Hamelin echoed in my head: “Hamelin town’s in Brunswick, by famous Hanover city…” That makes sense, as being led astray is a big part of both stories. I suppose you could even read the poem as a sort of dystopian political thriller.

Because that is what Leere Herzen is. Die Zeit described it as a political pamphlet disguised as a thriller, and that certainly fits the bill. The protagonist and her best friend seem to want to stay out of politics. But that in itself is political. You can easily imagine a world where given the choice between keeping your vote and keeping your washing machine, most people will choose the latter. But what does that do to a society? And if no-one’s even voting anymore, who’s running the show? This is a late capitalist, post-Brexit, post-Trump world that is uncomfortably close to home.

Unusually for me with a German book (usually I travel there armed with a long list of must-reads) this was a spur-of the-moment purchase, a paperback picked up at a train station kiosk while changing trains in Osnabrück on the way home from the UK. I really, really, did not need any more books at that point. But I absolutely loved Juli Zeh’s Unterleuten and here was another one by her right under my nose. I don’t regret buying it, although it wasn’t quite as good as Unterleuten (and if you haven’t read that, you really must). There are parallels between the two books. The tension between city grit and an unrealistically romanticised countryside is in both novels. The protagonist is again a middle-class, middle-aged, comfortably-off woman, like the author perhaps, and also like me. But I found the characters in Leere Herzen a bit harder to believe in. Britta seemed believable enough at first, but her partners in crime felt rather two-dimensional.

Which is a shame, because the story certainly is not. It’s very exciting. I raced through it as fast as the high-speed train to Stockholm I was reading it on. Britta sets up a practice to help people at risk of suicide called The Bridge. But all is not what it seems: she invites the ones that are really determined to kill themselves to do it for the good cause of their choice, selling their “skills” to the highest bidder among terrorist organisations looking for a suicide bomber. Soon, she’s cornered the German market. Until a bomb goes off at Leipzig Airport, the bomber isn’t one of hers… and everything starts to go badly wrong.

I read this in German, but you read it in English or even co-read it in both languages with a friend, because it has been published by Penguin in translation by the prolific and multilingual New Yorker, John Cullen. Cullen has noticed that books in translation are becoming more successful in English in part due to domestication, or a “noticeable trend to try sounding like the living language as spoken,” but in this case, Zeh was trying to do that in German, too. And Cullen didn’t need to look far to translate the title; Empty Hearts – in English – is the name of a pop song and movement that is central to the story. How empty will you feel at the end? Wait and see. I don’t want to reveal the final plot twist, but when you get to it, I’d love to hear what you think.




Translator, editor, writer, reader

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