No roof over your head
Munich is a known as a city of affluence and comfort. But Markus Ostermair has devoted his impressive debut novel to the city’s underbelly: the homeless.
By Holger Moos
Markus Ostermair is a writer, translator and German teacher. In 1999, he did his community service (in lieu of military service) at the mission in Munich’s main station. And after that he did volunteer work helping the homeless. He’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel about his experiences ever since his studies in German literature, and now his debut novel has come out: it’s called Der Sandler (The Vagrant).
The main character is Karl Maurer, a former maths teacher. Karl led a settled life with his wife and child until calamity struck and threw him off course. Now he’s become a sort of walking barometer: he has a scar that’s sensitive to changes in the weather and tells him when a storm is coming. But Ostermair doesn’t just tell the story of Karl's uprooted life, he paints a multi-faceted portrait of the whole social milieu, as Karl shuttles daily between the mission at Munich station, the Sankt Bonifaz homeless shelter and various other scenes.
A HOMELESS PHILOSOPHERShame, self-marginalization, alcoholism, violence and humiliation – Ostermair describes the attendant phenomena of homelessness in detail. Over the course of six days and nights, we share in Karl's inner and outer life. He meets many people, but has precious few friends. There isn’t much solidarity amongst the homeless, he actually has to be on his guard against some of the others.
Another important character is Lenz, one of Karl's few friends. Lenz serves in the novel as a critical commentator on the prevailing social conditions: he feels he has a politico-philosophical mission and pens a whole tangled mass of notes, including laws for a better world, e.g.: “Fifth Law: You get paid not for the work you do [...], but for the children you have and provide for. Your pay increases from the first to the second child, stays the same for the third child and goes down with each additional child. This law applies worldwide!”
A MOVING READING EXPERIENCELenz kills himself in despair and leaves Karl the key to his flat, which represents the springboard Karl has been longing for to get back to an ordinary settled life. At first, however, to avoid arousing suspicion among the neighbours, he only enters the safety of his own four walls at night, under cover of darkness.
But then Kurt – aka “Eisenkurt” (“Iron Kurt”) – shows up, a criminal with a volatile temper and a raspy voice, who ends up on the street himself. Eisenkurt has it in for Karl – though we’re not told exactly why. We do know that they’ve had it out in the past, hence the deep scar on Karl's face that has marred and marked him for life. Karl holes up in Lenz's flat with two bagfuls of food, hoping he can eventually make it back to a normal life: “He excited as a kid.[...] It wouldn't stink of piss, nobody would be able to steal from him anymore, nobody would start yelling in the middle of the night. No more shared rooms, no more sleeping rough either.” But Eisenkurt tails Karl, finds the flat and lays siege to it. Karl’s new digs become at once his fortress and prison. “Stay or go?” is the title of the last chapter. And the all-important question.
Ostermair's novel is a highly successful literary depiction of harsh reality and a good example of socially engaged fiction. The various points of view and internal monologues replete with philosophical digressions and the storyline’s arc of suspense make for a gripping and moving reading experience.
Markus Ostermair: Der Sandler
Hamburg: Osburg, 2020. 371 S.
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