New novel by Theresia Enzensberger: There are also gurus on the water
A utopia suffers serious shipwreck with viewers: Theresia Enzensberger’s second novel “At Sea” is on the long list for the book prize.
Every search for a utopia begins with a self-deception: that one can leave behind the shortcomings and struggles of civilization and start over. Utopia may be as old as mankind, but the present harbors dystopian expectations for the future. So it is not surprising that in Theresia Enzensberger’s novel “At Sea” a utopian alternative is transformed into a dystopian prison.
Located off the coast of a near-future Germany, Seestatt was founded in response to a looming societal collapse. But the sanctuary turns out to be a cult that exploits workers and is centered around a guru. And it falls to Yada, the cult leader’s daughter, to lead the rebellion against the paternal oikos.
Enzensberger’s failed utopia consists of a series of floating, honeycomb-shaped modules, is a mixture of “water world” and platonic bee state in which algae bloom and rust gnaws at the dwellings. The water-based subsistence economy does not work, the actually green promise fails due to the pitfalls of the neoliberal subject constitution. And that neoliberalism is what this conceptually strong novel, which operates on three narrative levels, is about.
Yada, whose speaking name means “the one who knows” in Thai, appears as a first-person narrator and has to solve the mystery of her deceased mother. On the second level, a personal narrator tells of Helena, the missing mother of the sect. This level is in the past from the perspective of the novel present. Helena is an artist. Basically, their sect is an artistic experiment, but the promises take on a life of their own. Helena is a child of her time, namely our present, in which everything is ambiguous and ironic.
Self-optimization and heaven
The nice point is that Helena suggests self-optimization to her sect members as a way to the earthly kingdom of heaven, that instead of promising lands of plenty, the hamster wheel-like circles around one’s own ego takes the place. Perhaps one can think of Helena as a sister of Christoph Schlingensief. Just imagine that hundreds of thousands of bathers had actually thrown themselves into Lake Wolfgang at Schlingensief’s behest to flood Helmut Kohl’s holiday home.
On the third narrative level, an archive speaks to the reader. It is Helena’s archive, which brings together a multitude of utopian projects, all of which turned out to be swindles and frauds. The archive also reports on the great founding congress of the neoliberal movement in 1947.
You don’t need much imagination to read Seestatt as a parable of the neoliberal ideology whose co-founders and idea generators Friedrich August von Hayek and Ayn Rand are worshiped by their followers like gurus today. And their central promise, according to which freedom from the state enables freedom of the subject, is unfortunately not realized in global capitalism. The Seestatt Vineta, a platform capitalism in the literal sense, can only be maintained through the exploitation of the human environment.
The Seestatt or the luxury yachts of the rich that head for tax havens are symbols of the process that Bruno Latour describes in his terrestrial manifesto: that the global elites decided years ago to decouple themselves from the rest of the world. Neither the criticism of neoliberalism nor the comforting horror of literary dystopias is new. Most recently, Sibylle Berg prominently played through the fear-lust scenario with two brick-heavy novels: A total surveillance platform capitalism turns the world population into ideology-saturated zombies.
But where Berg’s sermon-like sound lulls the reader into a lull, Enzensberger creates a narrative distance that is good for the text. The archive in particular, with its references to global financial capitalism, which supplements old colonial strategies with more subtle forms of power, provides motifs that Enzensberger can play through on the other narrative levels. Seestatt and all the other contemporary guru utopias no longer have to wrest land from anyone. They strive for autonomy, which is realized at sea.
Enzensberger’s scenario is very original in the amalgamation of elements. On a metafictional level, however, something is frustrating that is too often noted instead of made visible. Yada also has a penchant for sentences with pseudo-depth. “Each part of my schedule that I completed took me back to a past that would soon be nothing but memories.” That’s the thing about the past.
That could, very wrongly, accuse the Roman ofMidcults in the way Moritz Baßler directed against contemporary novels written by younger female authors. In fact, Enzensberger just lacks trust in the reader. He turns out to be the one who knows, faster than Yada.