Saturday, August 5, 2023

Book Review: About People by Juli Zeh

 Outside there’s a pandemic, inside there’s unemployment, on the other side of the wall there’s a Nazi neighbour with glioblastoma. Everything’s fine.

Dora is tired of all the strict stay-at-home rules during the COVID lockdown and the stricter rules imposed by her climate activist journalist boyfriend. She decides to flee Berlin with her dog to Bracken, a countryside village, by buying a dilapidated house. But she is terrified to find that her neighbour is the village Nazi and that she is surrounded by right-wingers. What she eventually undergoes is a life-altering, paradigm-shifting transformation, and Dora is forced to question all her biases, her fears, and her prejudices.

About People was originally a German bestseller written by Juli Zeh and is now translated to English by Alta L. Price. Netgalley and the publisher, World Editions, graciously provided me with an advance copy of the book that is scheduled for an October 2023 release in anticipation of my honest feedback. Its title is Über Menschen in German and is set during the period of the first Corona lockdown, when everybody—the governments, the public, politicians, and health workers—panicked. It was the time when human nature, with its ugliest and prettiest sides, was put to the test against all the ideologies, biases, and fears of others. The novel tells such a story.

The novel paints a realistic picture of angst among the normal public living in cities during the informational overcrowding of COVID updates. Conspiracy theories and fears added fuel to the panic. But it also shows how people who are away from the effects of the media circus and who carry on with everyday life are untainted by this. The contrast between Berlin and Bracken is also a cultural divide that Dora has to cross if she wants to survive.

About People is a deeply personal narrative that explores the effect of fissures rapidly developing among people along ideological, political, racial, or communal lines. It is a document about how these biases and prejudices are never addressed and, over time, cause total disengagement between different sections. Its beauty lies in stressing the need for engagement on a humanitarian level even when the other person is an ideological or political 'other'. 

The novel is narrated in third person, though it follows the thoughts and actions of its protagonist, who is confused by the fish out of water situation. The novel deals with a dark and serious subject, though there is enough humour and warmth to qualify it as a feel-good novel. It can also be termed a coming of age novel (though the protagonist is approaching middle age) because it is also about a person who is protected inside an ideological fortress, enters the world, learns to deal with conflicts, and realises the real meaning of living.

It contrasts two of the protagonist's preferences—one being her boyfriend, Robert, who has a more similar background to her. He is polished, knowledgeable, and someone with whom she was able to talk for hours. Over a period of time, he gets obsessed with ideologies and demands total submission to them. Even when it can be argued that his views are totally veracious, it leads to Dora getting her personal freedom restricted. On the other side are the Goths, the village nazis, the brutes, the racists, and the 'other'. He is rough and impulsive, unclean, and foul-mouthed. But, in his own manner, he demonstrates that it is still possible to have meaningful engagement, which need not be all about agreement.

The question that lingered for a long time in my mind after closing the book was this: who is the real Nazi among them?

... politics was yet another filter ensuring your social life led you to encounter fewer and fewer mentalities that didn’t mirror your own.


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    1. Some formatting issue. I have to correct this everytime. Blogger is a pain, no updates from years. I've migrated the full blog to substack. Slowly I will stop publishing here.