Südstern by Tim Staffel

Author:  Tim Staffel

Südstern by Tim StaffelBerlin. Kanon. 2023. 287 pages.

As a former resident of Berlin, I was thrilled to see Tim Staffel’s Südstern, billed as the great Berlin novel, nominated for the 2023 German Book Prize. Named after the plaza and underground station in the notorious Berlin district of Kreuzberg, the novel does not disappoint, taking us on a journey through the squalor and despair of Germany’s capital but at the same time not letting us forget the joy and beauty it also has to offer.

The unlikely romantic pairing of a drug dealer and a policeman guides us through the action, taking turns as the first-person narrator. We first meet Vanessa, a pharmacy student about to embark on her lucrative side hustle, closing the bar where she works. She reads the minds and the fortunes of her customers in a scene that feels like Wim Wenders’s classic film Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) put into words in every heartbreaking detail. Vanessa lives with her partner, a member of the German parliament and ironically also the drugs spokesperson for his party. But no matter how much he trusts her, their relationship cannot last after she meets Deniz.

Deniz patrols the streets of Kreuzberg with a colleague who suffers anxiety and leaves him to deal with dangerous situations on his own. He uses a sixth sense to deescalate situations, which nearly always works. Deniz lives with his father, a Parkinson’s patient, and works double and triple shifts to be able to pay for his care when the health insurance falls short. Since Deniz’s mother was Turkish, he is sometimes regarded as a traitor by others of Turkish descent whom he meets through work.

Deniz’s and Vanessa’s worlds should never collide, but when they do, there is no going back. Yet Südstern is much more than a love story: it’s a tale of loneliness in its various obvious and not-so-obvious guises; it’s a tale of Berlin, a city whose heart keeps beating no matter what; and it’s a tale of a drug epidemic permeating every level of society. Staffel’s prose is so sensitively and beautifully written that you find yourself rereading paragraphs for the pure joy of it.

Catherine Venner
Durham, UK

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