Dörte Hansen A Sense of Home – On Escape and Coming Home

Best-seller author Dörte Hansen;
Best-seller author Dörte Hansen; | © Sven Jaax

Dörte Hansen’s “Altes Land” (i.e. The Old Country) was the surprise hit of 2015. Without bogus romanticism, the debut novel tells about life in the country.

There is a widespread prejudice that best-sellers are now made by the marketing departments of publishing groups – and not by readers. While it cannot be denied that publishing houses have the corresponding budgets for arousing the desire to buy and read, the largest investments are put into those books that have already enjoyed a great success abroad, whose authors have already written several sales successes or are well-known in film or television. Dörte Hansen had none of this to offer. And yet she has written a best-seller. Born in 1964 and reared in a North Frisian village near Husum, the writer went to university in Hamburg, worked at the North German Broadcasting Corporation (NDR) and moved from the city one day, with her husband and daughter, to the countryside – to that rustic, apple and cherry tree paradise south of the Elbe which gave her debut novel its title: Altes Land, The Old Country. It took Hansen some years of complete silence before she could make a book out of her observations and experiences and, above all, her feelings for the landscape and its inhabitants.

Middle-class life, described with a malicious eye

Altes Land takes place in a farmhouse south of Hamburg. There, after the Second World War and flight from the East, arrives the East Prussian countess Hildegard von Kamcke together with her daughter. “Polack child” is what Vera, five years old in 1945 and the central female character of the novel, is called in her strange new home. All her life she feels strange in the big, cold farmhouse and yet remains bound to it, at least after she inherits it from her mother. Then a few years later her niece Anne, also a kind of refugee, joins her. She can no longer bear the middle-class hell, described with a malicious eye and satirical pointedness, of Hamburg-Ottensen. Thus a central theme of the novel may be seen as the necessity to flee, but also running away out of one’s own free will. Unmissable in the background is the question what then ensues: will the old country become a new home, can it become a place of rest, a truly sheltering home?

A home from which you can be expelled last of all is language. And so it is no accident that the Frisian Hansen speaks Low German with her husband, her daughter, her grandparents. Thus the little-spoken language becomes a home; you take it with you wherever you live. “We’re no longer born somewhere and stay there, as our parents or grandparents”, Hansen has said in an interview. “We have this immense freedom: Go wherever you like. Where that is isn’t always easy to say.” For from freedom under certain circumstances comes insecurity, a lack of shelter. Not knowing where you belong can often give you a feeling of painful loss. Many may see the remedy for this in a backward-looking nostalgia for the apparently intact life of the country.

No sentimental glorification of country life

The reviews therefore sometimes took Hansen to task for having based her great success on such magazine market publications as Landlust (i.e. Desire for the Countryside) or Mein schönes Land (i.e. My Beautiful Countryside). But in the pages of Altes Land the reader will find no pastel-coloured, sentimental glorification of country life. The characters are rough, all damaged, yes, perhaps here and there a little too conspicuously gnarled. For example, the taciturn farmer Dirk zum Felde, who mulls over whether he should convert his farm into a guesthouse. Or the perpetually ill-tempered neighbour Heinrich Lührs with his angular face. Their counter-image is the somewhat caricature-like portrayed journalist Burkhard Weißwerth, who significantly wants to found a magazine entitled Land&Lecker (i.e. Country & Delicious), a dig by the journalist Hansen against her own guild and the nature hype rampant amongst urbanites.

Shortly after the publication of Altes Land in March 2015 the novel made it to one of the top places on the Spiegel best-seller list, reaping almost without exception good reviews. The TV critic Dennis Scheck called Hansen “a psychologically savvy author”, whose novel strikes “somnambulistically the right balance between family novel and satire”. Die Zeit praised its “refreshing entertainment”, and the NDR chose Altes Land shortly after its publication as the March Book of the Month: “This novel is refreshingly different. No romanticism. Cliché free. [...] A story that leaves a deep impression on the mind, like the groaning and creaking of the big, dark farmhouse“. Finally, at the end of 2015, the association of owner-operated bookshops selected the novel as Favourite Book of the Year.

Contradictions remain

Paradoxically, however, the novel, which over the summer climbed to the top of the best-seller lists and stayed there for months, may owe its success to exactly that romantic glorification of the countryside practiced by the urban readership and so aptly caricatured in Hansen’s journalist character. This contradiction remains; it is broached in the novel itself, but then left as it is. Dörte Hansen has doubtless written a Heimat novel that makes use of the corresponding longings. But the old house is never glorified; it affords the opportunity of feeling at home only temporarily. “Dit Huus is mien und doch nich mien, de no mi kummt, nennt’ t ook noch sien“ stands fittingly in Low German over its door: “This house is mine and yet not mine; those who come after me will also call it theirs”.