There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafés, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops, or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house, modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern. You can’t quite hear the eddying rills of the Elbe—the river lies a few miles to the west—but in the cathedral silence of an afternoon in Sumte you might easily imagine you hear flowing water, or a pan flute, or the voice of God. You’re in the great European nowhere, where cows outnumber people and the darkness at night is as unalloyed and mysterious as a silent undersea trench.
One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED streetlamps, which cast a spearmint glow over the chicken coops and the alien corn. The lights are a concession to the villagers—all 102 of them—from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hannover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax dollars and goodwill. It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks, and commuters who cross the Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, ninety minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.
Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwälder, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. Sumte’s mayor, Christian Fabel, has read in the Lüneburger Landeszeitung about the bivouacs at Austrian border towns. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis, the so-called Flüchtlingskrise. And they wonder where these people—more than a million migrants, displaced from the world’s bomb-cratered imbroglios and forsaken urban wastelands—are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.
Only Reinhard Schlemmer watches the workmen and knows for sure. A grizzled figure with a wild nest of silver hair, Schlemmer lives on the far edge of town. He was once an officer in the National People’s Army but these days his voice is as soft as a low woodwind C. He’s retired, and to keep himself busy he sells roller trays and cans of primer out of the detached shed behind his house. He does it to chat with neighbors, keep himself informed. He may have lately fallen into the role of odd old man on the margins—the unreformed Communist with his cans of paint—but he was Sumte’s mayor when the border came down, a decorated Party member, and his bearing still suggests something of the phrase pillar of the community.
Read the full text at VQR Online.