Society’s cracks show in a crisis. To many observers, the pandemic has conclusively revealed the limitations of a laissez-faire system that leaves public services chronically underfunded and offers scant rewards to genuinely “systemrelevant” workers.
Silvia excuses herself, wipes her eyes, and gets back to work. What else is she to do?
Last month, Berlin indie press Mikrotext released a fascinating literary treatment of Germany’s long-standing care crisis. In her confronting memoir Nachts wach (“Awake at night”), the 80-something former care worker Berthe Arlo (pseudonym) offers a direct insight into challenges faced by aged care employees. In journal-style short chapters, Arlo conjures vivid scenes from the daily – rather, nightly – life of a care worker in addition to memorable portraits of demanding elderly patients and exhausted fellow Pfleger*innen. The dominant note, throughout, is frustration. One chapter focuses on Silvia, a dedicated worker renowned for her patience who is, on this occasion, completely overwhelmed. At the end of her monologue – “I just want to be friendly, helpful, to everyone…but none are ever nice, none of them say thank you…” – Silvia excuses herself, wipes her eyes, and gets back to work. What else is she to do?
The book’s epigram is a quote from Bertolt Brecht: Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht, “Those in the darkness, you don’t see.” He wasn’t referring to the chronic under-visibility of nightshift workers in modern culture, but it might has well have been. Increasingly, however, German authors have been setting out to report from the world of socially unrecognised work. Clemens Meyer’s recent novels Dark Satellites and Bricks and Mortar used marginalised jobs to probe at the economic and social underbelly of post-Wall eastern Germany; Thorsten Nagelschmidt’s untranslated 2020 novel Arbeit (“Work”) focused on the various late-shift workers that operate in parallel to Berlin’s famous nightlife. A sunnier – in both senses – take on the genre comes in Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn, Mon Amour, which recounts her experience working as a podiatrist in outer East Berlin. Literature cannot solve the problems of a market-dominated society. But it can bring the hidden to light – raise awareness, demand empathy. It isn’t much, but it’s a start.