When World War II ended, ten-year-old Bernhard Haber and his family came to the small east German town of Guldenberg as refugees. They were part of the German population expelled from their homes when lower Silesia and other lands were transferred to Poland as "recovered" territories. As a schoolmate of Bernhard's recounts, the hard-headed Haber boy told their teacher that he was from Breslau. Herr Voigt demanded a politically correct revision from Bernhard: "[Y]ou come from Wroclaw in the Polish People's Republic. Understand?" After a long, tense standoff, Bernhard acknowledged, "I come from Wroclaw." He then blurted defiantly, "But I was born in Breslau."
Thomas Nicolas, the schoolmate, recollects the hard life of "Pollack" Bernhard. His father lost a hand in the war, severely impairing his ability to ply his trade as a carpenter. Still with Bernhard's help, his modest woodworking shop sustained the family -- until someone burned it down and yet another new beginning had to be made. Bernhard's beloved dog was killed too. Bernhard's reaction was to vow revenge and become harder and even more withdrawn.
Besides Thomas, four other Guldenbergers relate how their lives intersected with that of Bernhard. There is the girlfriend who watched Bernhard get involved with local Party politics in order to strike back at a wealthy farmer, the young man who got jobs from Bernhard smuggling people to the West, Bernhard's seductive sister-in-law who tells the tale of the hot-air balloon ride, and the lumber mill owner with whom Bernhard forms a prosperous business alliance after the fall of the Wall.
Christopher Hein doesn't allow the reader to know Bernhard firsthand. We must rely on these very different and generally not particularly sympathetic outside views of him. This creates a curious and unsettled remoteness. Furthermore, although Bernhard as subject ties SETTLEMENT together, he tends to take a back seat in some of the reminisces as the narrators tells stories about themselves and East Germany as it evolved after the war. For instance, Peter Koller is more wrapped up in his own girlfriend's betrayal and in his rebuilt Adler "limousine." Peter gets to know Bernhard only tangentially and as someone who could conceivably (but not provenly) have betrayed him too.
One is not sure when Bernhard releases his grudges, including one about his father's death, or exactly how he does. Perhaps time, maturity, and investment in the community lessen them. But throughout the novel. one wonders exactly how far Bernhard goes to further his youthful agenda of payback. He and his role in the lives before us are largely inscrutable.
He remains in the shadows, a taciturn person irrevocably shaped by being a refugee, but a man who ultimately prospers despite setback and sorrow. In this he is arguably a symbol of his defeated country which carried its burden and agony largely in silence, but advanced and flourished again in the postwar world.
SETTLEMENT (which of course evokes meanings for a place settled, becoming a permanent resident, and an act of payment) is sometimes too preoccupied with the non-Bernhardian aspects of the narrators' lives to effectively hold attention, but the novel is an unusual and enlightening examination of many of the historical actualities of postwar East Germany such as refugee integration, communist collectivization and property confiscation, postwar values, and the economic changes after reunification. Spend some time with the fictional Guldenbergers to gain some insights into Germany. 3.7 stars.