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written on 18/12/2020
by Hubert Rauscher

This great novel by Juli Zeh is set in the village of Unterleuten in Brandenburg, one of the former East German Bundesländer.  

The village is about one hour’s drive away from Berlin and seems to be an ideal spot for Berliners who are weary of the city and seek the authenticity and simplicity of rural life.

Unterleuten combines the stories of numerous colourful characters to tell the history of a village which serves as a microcosm for society and of the recent German past.

It examines contemporary life and questions about environmentalism, neoliberalism and the urban-rural divide, and blends this with an exploration of the fraught legacy of German reunification. At the same time, it tells personal tales about love, hatred and betrayal. 

The chapters in the novel are narrated from the perspective of the central characters who are bound together in a web of loyalties, conflicts and debts. These individual plotlines together tell two bigger stories: the proposal to build a wind farm that divides the villagers, and an attempted murder twenty years earlier.

 As we see the story and the social relations through different perspectives, we understand that all characters make assumptions about the other villagers which turn out to be wrong.

All characters only want the best, from their point of view, and nobody really intends mischief.

Juli Zeh is fearless of any stereotype in this novel when she aims right into the centre of human nature and how humans function in their society. You could empathise with any of the characters when you see the situation from their point of view.

But the social machinery has its own dynamics and Unterleuten inexorably plays this through until the bitter (well, not quite) end.

The book is written like a good thriller and it really is a page-turner. In fact, I found it more thrilling than a thriller and much harder to predict what will happen next – and how it ends.

Juli Zeh writes that bad people do not cause the worst evil in the world. The truth is that there are surprisingly few such people. Much more dangerous are those people who unshakeably believe they are right. 

There is an enormous amount of them and they show no mercy. People who have lost the ability to make compromises with others who also believe they are right. No doubt that this is a universal truth of the times in which we are living.

Juli Zeh | Unterleuten | Luchterhand Literaturverlag 2016 | 640 pages | ISBN-13 : 978-3630874876