Madgermanes by Birgit Weyhe

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

Review by Annabel

It’s been exciting to see the variety of German books in translation coming from V&Q Books who launched in the UK last autumn. We’ve reviewed a couple of them (here and here). This autumn they’re publishing their first graphic novel, the intriguingly titled ‘Madgermanes’.

‘Madgermanes’ is the moniker given to those 20,000 Mozambican workers who were contracted to go and work in East Germany in the late 1970s until they were sent home in 1990, the People’s Republic of Mozambique making the arrangement with the GDR, their partners in socialism. Birgit Weyhe was born in Hamburg but spent her childhood in Uganda and Kenya, forging a love for Africa. On a later visit to Mozambique, she met some of the Madgermanes, and felt compelled to tell the story of this these dispossessed people who had been lied to, stolen from, and lost their sense of home in their own country. The stories of her many interviewees were combined into three fictional characters to represent the main stories of the Madgermanes, Toni, Basilio and Anabella.

We begin with Toni, a mild-mannered and idealistic teacher. On arrival in Berlin, he is shocked at the cold, but settles quietly into the hostel, where he soon acquires a roommate, Basilio. They all have to take a three month German course before being assigned to their jobs – it’s fair to say that Toni wasn’t expecting to be a railway worker. But he does the work and lives a quiet life, which gets more interesting when he discovers the public library and that he can sign up for evening classes. It’s three years before he meets Anabella, who wanted to be a nurse like her father and brother, but gets assigned to the hot water bottle factory. Anabella is less politically naïve than Toni, who was still taken in by the promise that the 50% of their earnings being looked after for them by the govt will be returned. Their relationship doesn’t last.

When the Berlin wall comes down, the Mozambicans suffer even worse racist abuse, so Toni takes the offer to return home. But he arrives back to a country that had been devastated by the recently ended civil war and finds he has nothing in common with his remaining family. His money is gone, the locals are suspicious of him, and he is even more lonely.

Basilio, however, is a flamboyant and fun-loving chap, who loves sneaking out of the hostel and proves popular with East German girls! He is determined not to get ground down by being forced to be unskilled labour, whatever his situation. He loses his job and after the wall comes down is also forced to return to Maputo without the money he’d hoped to open a bar with.

When Anabella tells her story, it was her father and brother being accused of being spies and being disappeared that sent her to the GDR, where she meets Toni – we hear her side of their relationship and what caused their break-up. Anabella is the one that gets away, managing to get a work permit to study in Germany, going on to become a GP.

The life stories of the three ‘Madgermanes’ are shocking, not just losing family and friends in the civil war, but the way their government treated them is terrible – they never got the rest of their wages. Displaced, they struggle to belong in their new world.

I enjoyed the way that Weyhe wove the trio of stories together, so they appear in each other’s tales. Each of the three begin their narration with what memories mean to them, from Toni’s ‘dog in heat’ to Basilio’s ‘clear lake’ to Anabella’s sharp-spined ‘sea urchins’, before telling us of their journeys to East Germany and their life there.

Basilio in particular likes to pepper his speech with African proverbs, such as ‘The cockroach is a wonderful singer and dancer, but the hen stops it from performing by day’ and ‘A wandering hunter meets wandering animals’. I found this rather endearing, and Weyhe’s illustrations for these bring Africa to Germany. The drawings are in black and white with khaki highlights which is very effective.

I was vaguely aware of the ‘Gastarbeiter’ programmes in post-war West Germany but wasn’t aware of the extensive equivalents in the East, where the conditions were far harsher. Workers came to the GDR from various Communist countries allied to the Soviets. It’s a story that needs telling, and Weyhe’s depiction of the ‘Madgermanes’ from Mozambique is an excellent illustration of these good people who found themselves taken advantage of.

I enjoyed reading and looking at this book very much. My normal taste in graphic noveIs tends to the quirky and Gothic rather than the political, however Madgermanes, being strong on social justice and telling some touching human stories with Weyhe’s distinctive inking made for a refreshing change. Highly recommended.

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Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny New Books and one of the editors.

Birgit Weyhe, Madgermanes (V&Q, 2021) ISBN 978-3863913069, flapped softback, 240 pages.

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