Eugen Ruge Explores Alienation in 'Cabo de Gata'

by Hans Rollman

16 November 2016

Ruge's latest muses upon the routines and ruptures of belonging.
 
cover art

Cabo de Gata

Eugen Ruge

(Graywolf)
US: Nov 2016

The narrator of Eugen Ruge’s little tale Cabo de Gata is a restless wannabe writer who ditches his steady job in the newly reunited Germany in order to focus on creative aspirations. After the collapse of his personal relationship, he spends his dwindling cash reserves on a last-ditch effort to go somewhere and write his Great (and now necessarily bitter) Novel.

His increasingly desperate and erratic decision-making leads him to the small Spanish fishing village of Cabo de Gata—‘cape of the cat’ in English (it’s a real place, in Andalusian Spain). Sure enough while there he’s met a cat, whose brief presence provokes some existential musings before it’s all over on a rather anti-climactic note.

The novel is a mostly worthwhile read, provided one ignores the cat (it doesn’t appear until the end, its presence and purpose is a bit forced, and what positive role it plays is merely to accentuate themes that are already being better explored without it). The use of pets as literary tools and counterfoils for alienated loner characters in contemporary literature is all fine and well, but it does threaten to get out of hand. The real beauty of this little work lies in what it says about an alienated writer who no longer feels at home in the country he grew up in—his inability to cope with surroundings and life circumstances in Germany is nicely detailed—and sets out, ostensibly to write a novel, but really to find somewhere he feels at home.

What makes a place home? In the tiny fishing village of Cabo de Gata the narrator stands out like a sore thumb, struggles to communicate in a foreign language with the aid of his dictionary, and irritates his landlady’s daughter who now has to add cleaning his room to her other duties. Having inserted himself into the daily routines of the village fisherfolk, they treat him mostly with a confused disdain.

But gradually he develops daily routines: eating a baguette with olive oil for breakfast; sitting on a bench outside the restaurant after breakfast; a bottle of red wine with lunch provided by his landlady. His interactions with the townspeople—for example, the bartender who serves him coffee in the morning—develop an aura of familiarity.

I order coffee. I order coffee every day. All the same, he lifts his chin in a silent query every day. Every day he goes over to his machine, and once he has taken his attention away from the TV set, he devotes it to the machine for some time, then places a cookie in a heat-sealed wrapping and a little tube of sugar on the saucer of my cup of coffee, although I ostentatiously leave them on the counter every day, and the only part of the little drama that has changed in the course of time is that, since my hundred pesetas are lying ready for him on the counter, he can save himself the single word, Cien! that he used to utter.

The three sons of his landlady—fishermen all—also begin to acknowledge his presence as the weeks pass.

I sometimes meet one of the sons on my walks, when I pass the moorings on the outskirts of the village. His name is Alfredo; he is the eldest of the three brothers, owns the largest boat, a cutter really, and is always tinkering with it. Once, as I pass, he calls to me as he disentangles separate fish from the mesh of his net. Mucho trabajo, poco pescado! A lot of work, not many fish! After that I call, every time I see him on the beach beside his boat: Mucho trabajo! And every time he replies: Poco pescado! And I am moved almost to tears by this little play on words. It could hardly be put more concisely and it links the two of us, strangers as we are to each other, in close complicity.

So it goes. The narrator’s own nascent novel doesn’t really progress, and his effort to domesticate a cat in the final third of the book doesn’t really contribute anything meaningful to the narrative (it’s another way to deal with the theme of daily routine and deviations therefrom, and with the cat’s own cautious and perhaps disingenuous commitment to its new home in the narrator’s room), but Ruge’s principal success with this book lies in depicting the gradual coming to terms of the narrator with his new environment; the slow adjustment of an alienated writer to a feeling of ‘home’ in a tiny fishing village in a foreign country.

The other notable characteristic of the narrator is his increasingly desperate search for signs to inform his decision-making. Perhaps to counterbalance the sense he has of a life going nowhere (in tandem with his literary aspirations), and the fact that everyone seems to think he made a bad life decision by quitting a secure job to become a writer, decision-making becomes imbued with almost otherworldly qualities for him.

It’s the result of bitter year-end reflections that he’s driven to board a train for Barcelona on New Year’s Day; once there, a random picture in a newspaper convinces him he must seek out the village of Cabo de Gata. When he gets there it turns out to be a let-down, so he determines to move on and seek his fortune in Africa. But while he’s waiting for the next train he picks up a seashell, which turns out to have a dead crab in it, and his star sign is the crab, and so he decides to stay.

Erratic decision-making like this are the sign of someone desperate for deeper meaning in their life; a sense of connection to something. He gradually finds it in Cabo de Gata, not through any exciting or out of the ordinary achievement, but through the gradual familiarity and monotony of everyday routine. The cup of coffee; the sunny bench outside the restaurant in the morning; the exchange with the fisherman at his boat, the fact he comes to recognize every person in the town (and they him) even though they know nothing about each other.

The point is that a sense of home and belonging are not achieved through any great personal or even collective accomplishment; they are the inherent products of monotony and routine. Even a place where you know nobody and can’t speak the language can become a familiar home.

Ruge came to international notice with his award-winning 2011 debut novel In Times of Fading Light, chronicling multi-generational family life in the former East Germany. Cabo de Gata, translated from the original German by Anthea Bell, is a much more modest effort, but it’s a quick and not unpleasant little read. The setting is not very interesting and the narrator is not very likeable, and the much-lauded cat which appears toward the end feels awkward and didactic, but there’s still something that resonates here; a musing on the minutiae of daily life. The novella reveals how deeply even the most standoffish among us yearn for a sense of belonging; and how that feeling of home and belonging can, given a routine to become accustomed to, emerge in the most unlikely of places.

Cabo de Gata

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