Where the wild winds blow

Kruso. By Lutz Seiler. Translated by Tess Lewis. Scribe; 462 pages; £16.99.

WITH its thin body and chunky head (“the seahorse with the sledgehammer muzzle”), the German island of Hiddensee faces northwest across the Baltic Sea towards the coast of Denmark. Part of East Germany during the cold war, Hiddensee became an “island of the blessed”: an enclave of freethinkers where dreamers and idealists sought to escape the oppressive conformity of state socialism. Crucially, in “Kruso”, an outstanding debut novel by Lutz Seiler which won the 2014 German Book prize, it became home to refugees—swimmers, or sailors in makeshift craft—who tried to flee the GDR. Many drowned. Most were intercepted; but hundreds succeeded.

Mr Seiler’s student hero, Ed Bendler, abandons his course after the trauma of his girlfriend’s death to spend the summer of 1989 washing dishes in the Klausner Hotel on the island. Mr Seiler himself worked there in 1989. During East Germany’s final months, Ed joins the Utopian community of “esskays”—slang for seasonal workers—as they toil, drink, love and explore the meaning of freedom, “all of them dedicated to the nebulous star of a liberated life”. Drop-outs or dissidents, the rebels follow the charismatic Alexander Krusowitsch, known as Kruso. Son of a Soviet general, he leads this subversive platoon with “saintly earnestness” after his fugitive sister Sonya becomes one of the “unknown dead”, swallowed by the sea.

Mr Seiler draws cleverly on the fiction of enchanted islands or refuges, from Thomas More’s “Utopia” and Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”. Above all, he evokes the moods of Hiddensee with visionary power and precision. Although a sophisticated fable of liberty and its discontents, “Kruso” roots every idea in the salty, sandy landscapes of this “last hope of all the freedom-seekers in this land”.

Through a battered old radio, the castaways learned that “continents were shifting”. Summer turns to autumn and the GDR crumbles like the eroding cliffs of Hiddensee. Ed’s idyll must end, and an epilogue sets out the history behind this parable. Beautifully phrased and paced, Tess Lewis’s translation delights on every page as she conveys “the contagious sense of liberation” that blows through Mr Seiler’s mesmeric novel. As for the Klausner: it’s still there. Off-season rates start at €30 ($31.80) per person.