Tolstoy’s famous adage about unhappy families might well apply to dysfunctional families, but as Ulrike Almut Sandig demonstrates in her starkly disarming debut novel, a harsh sameness can run through seemingly dissimilar families with equally tragic consequences. Sandig, a poet and writer born in Saxony in 1979, famously began her writing career as guerilla poet, posting poems on lampposts and handing them out on flyers. She has published four volumes of poetry and two collections of short stories and engaged in collaborative projects with composers, musicians and visual artists. Her poetry is at once politically charged and playful, as evidenced in her collection released in English translation in 2020, I Am A Field Full of Rapeseed, Give Cover to Deer and Shine Like Thirteen Oil Paintings Laid One on Top of the Other, which examines such subjects as the fate of migrants, the nature of modern warfare and the rise of nationalism through the revisiting of themes drawn from European folklore, in particular the tales of the Brothers Grimm which, in their unvarnished form provide ideal instruments to explore the barbarity of human nature. One could say that with Monsters Like Us, she is fashioning an elaborate, contemporary fairy tale that revolves around one of the most brutal realities haunting too many families. And like the original Brothers Grimm, the darkness runs deep.
So, off the top, let it be known that this is a story about families and it is a story about childhood sexual abuse. There is humour, there is affection and there is horror. The family as a microcosm of the world at its best and its worst, reimagined through a narrative that simmers with poetic intensity and suppressed rage.
Monsters Like Us is a coming of age story set in a rural village in East Germany during the final years of Communist rule. Ruth, like Sandig herself, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a chemist’s assistant. She has an older brother called Fly, a reference to his love of being in the air whenever and however possible, and their lives revolve around their father’s profession, which, given the political context, makes him a bit of a reactionary. But their home contains a degree of tension, a feature not unknown in other homes in the community where a certain measure of negative physical interaction commonly marked the relationships of spouses, and parents and children. Ruth narrates the opening and closing sections of the novel, addressing a Voitto—a future lover, it turns out—with a matter-of-fact tone that increasingly appears to mask her emotion. Early on she describes overhearing a confrontation between her parents that ends with a slap:
That is the first slap in the story, Voitto. No idea whether it was Mother or Pap who delivered it and whether it was Pap or Mother on the receiving end. But after a few times round this haematoma of the sun, I can tell you this for one: it all starts with believing a slap can be the natural conclusion to a conversation. Fly and I turned over onto our sides and rolled in under our duvets. Then Fly turned off the light.
Soldiers on maneuvers were a frequent sight in the area due to the fact that barracks were located nearby. One day a new boy appears in Ruth’s kindergarten class, tall with white blond hair and a face that wrinkles when he smiles. Viktor’s father was a non-commissioned officer in the barracks of the People’s Army of the Republic, located next to the Soviet barracks, and his family had moved into a newly developed part of town. This all set him apart, earning a frequent “that Russian boy” epithet. Although he was not Russian, his mother spoke Ukrainian to him at home, a background she endeavoured to hide. Ruth is drawn to this strange new boy and they soon become fast friends. Unknown to one another at the time, it will turn out that they each harbour terrible secrets: Ruth’s maternal grandfather touches her inappropriately every chance he gets, a behaviour she does not understand but fuels a fascination with and fear of vampires; Viktor’s brother-in-law, his half-sister’s husband, enters his room whenever they visit or are invited to babysit, and forces him to engage in sex acts.
Neither family suspects a thing—after all, are these not trusted people in the children’s lives? And the children themselves? “If you don’t talk about it, then it hasn’t really happened,” Ruth says. “That’s right, isn’t it, Voitto? That’s how we learned it.” As the years pass, Ruth seeks to find escape in music. Naturally gifted she spends hours with her violin. It allows her to forget everything. She is aware that her playing seems to have an emotional affect on anyone else listening, even if she feels nothing. And that is fine. Viktor pours his energy into his body, building his muscles, protecting himself with a veneer of power, while at school he works his way into the local gang of tough kids, a group that will become small scale neo-Nazi styled punks as they get older.
The second half of Monsters Like Us, takes an unexpected turn. Unable to find work in the now united Germany and eager to put distance between himself and both his extended family and his rough riding friends, Viktor heads west to France where he has applied for a position as an au pair, feminizing his name on the application to aid his ability to secure an placement. As he gets off the train at the station in a town near Marseilles:
These were the last few metres during which the boy felt completely himself. That didn’t occur to him particularly at the time. But by the time he had left the platform, he was just another exhausted passenger arriving. Later he would be a salaud de Nazi. The stubborn boy with the inadequate vocabulary, the East German colossus in combat boots, Germanic giant-child, a case, a traumatized hobgoblin and other things besides. For his parents, he would simply be our successful son travelling abroad.
For the wealthy family in the expensive villa, he is an unwelcome surprise. But as he is the sixth au pair to be with the family, they have little leverage with the agency and have to give him at least a week or two. He will stay for months, gradually improving his French, preparing complicated recipes, ironing their laundry and walking the children to and from school. It is a most unlikely outcome. Yet behind the fancy façade, a very damaged family drama is playing out, one that daughter Maud is too young to understand, and Madame is either too naïve or too proud to acknowledge. Viktor recognizes his own agony magnified in the son, Lionel, who refuses to meet his eyes for the boy’s circumstances are an order of magnitude more terrifying than his own troubled history. As he keeps telling himself “everything is fine” he knows that it is not.
It may be hard to imagine, given this very rough outline, but this is a brave novel charged with a brutal beauty. The underlying subject matter is exceptionally difficult, but is dealt with with great care—openly as needed, but more often alluded to indirectly, echoing that unspoken awareness no one wants to address. The effect is all the more powerful for it allows the tension build within the reader. Where Ruth suppresses her pain, channelling her energy into her music, quiet, sensitive Viktor is potentially a ticking timebomb. Sandig’s lyric prose, captured brilliantly by translator Karen Leeder who has translated two volumes of her poetry, is tight and spare, directed into carefully crafted scenes that often end on an open note. Her narrative sensibility is well played. Ruth’s first person account, directed to an otherwise unknown adult contemporary captures a child’s spirit through a more mature perspective. Viktor’s time in France is a third person narration, from his perspective, with the regular insertion of Maud’s child’s eye observations and commentary. Although young, she is perhaps the most sensible member of her family, but one can only worry about the ultimate fate awaiting both of the unfortunate children of the wealthy Madame and Monsieur.
As her poetry clearly shows, Sandig does not resist shining a light on the darkness in our world. With Monsters Like Us she turns over another stone that many try to ignore, and shows that it would be easy to point to a troubled state that is falling apart to explain a level of domestic discontent and even violence, but this is far more than a fairy tale set in a crumbling landscape, it is a horror story that can just as easily unfold in the most ostensibly desirable settings of wealth and privilege. And if the “monsters” of the title refers, as it does, to those who have been hurt by time or circumstance, the true monsters too often go unnoticed and unpunished. This vital book is one of the most intense and moving works I have encountered in a long time.
Monsters Like Us by Ulrike Almut Sandig is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.