The German who yearned for Syracuse

Escape from Paradise

I’m not sure if, according to Blaise Pascal, the origin of all the evils in the world is due to man’s inability to stay put in one room.  However, I do know that the woes of citizen Paul Gompitz were born from his inability to stay put in one country, the old German Democratic Republic.  Although sometimes every cloud has a silver lining, and what could have been a tragedy – one of so many tragedies during the time of the Cold War – turned into an admirable example of patience and overcoming.  This book tells the story.

A panorama of Rostock, Germany by Lauchi

One of the many good decisions from the newly established publisher, Sajalín, has been the recovery of work by the German, born in Rome, Friedrich Christian Delius.  Another good choice was to start with this title, the epic of a waiter who, back in 1981 and inspired by the wanderings 180 years previously of the Saxon writer Johann Gottfried Seume, decided to travel to Syracuse, the beautiful Sicilian city.  This whim, which today is within reach of anyone for the price of a Ryanair ticket and a hotel bed for 30 euros a night, was little more than a fantasy for a subject of the GDR.  (Trans. note: the book is also available in Italian under the title: La passeggiata da Rostock a Siracusa and published by Sellerio. The following Delius title has been published in English: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman and is partly set in Italy. Seume’s original journey is also available in English: A Stroll to Syracuse.)

El paseo de Rostock a Siracusa
Cover: El paseo de Rostock a Siracusa

The worst thing about fantasies is that they often hypnotise, and in Gompitz’s case we can almost say he was bewitched: it obsessed him to the extent that, overcoming all the initial obstacles, he acquired a notable skill in navigation whilst saving money and gaining the confidence of those who surrounded him.  His only fixation was being able to weigh anchor someday (or better still, some night with no moon) towards Denmark, cheating the police checkpoints, heading for the free world in order to reach his destination of choice.   It would take him seven years to do it.

Delius also tells his story with lingering mastery.  His straightforward language puts the translator’s maritime skill to the test in certain passages (“he takes the mainsail from the kit bag, dyed a dark blue and still sticky, he passes the foot through the boom rail, fixes the tack to the boom and ties up the clew with the rope…”), but there are more technical terms in Moby Dick and we don’t have any ifs and buts about them.  On other occasions, it’s the translator who takes a bit of licence, as with the somewhat incongruous “it ain’t like that”, rather jarring perhaps for the speech of the 80s… (Trans. note: the Spanish ‘va a ser que no’ can be loosely rendered as above.)  In any case, as much the story as its translation into Spanish can be read breathlessly, with pleasure, in a couple of sittings.

Gompitz, one ought to underline, isn’t a dissident.  As Delius affirms, “he lacks for nothing except the rest of the world”.  His escape plan from the communist paradise includes his return to tell the tale.  However, he is willing to do anything to leave, even to run serious risks, almost thinking that it’s better to die than lose his life.  Furthermore, deep down he’s unaware if the place he’s heading for will be really worth the effort.  That’s secondary: it’s essentially about him putting things to the test, not letting others recount the story for him, as with Seume’s voice from the past thundering away in the background.

Syracuse from the air
Syracuse from the air – Image: I fratelli Angelo and Giorgio Bonomo

In fact, the story of his Italian meanderings in the book is less interesting, and shorter in time, than the preparations for the journey.  It’s in the latter that we clearly see the cruel absurdity of frontiers, the no less cruel and false paternalism of regimes whose worst nightmare is the voluntary exodus of their compatriots.  Yet we also see the strength of men like Gompitz who are set on peering through to the other side of reality.  Some are pushed by hunger, wars or desperation.  He did it, a year before the fall of the Wall, because he didn’t want to die without walking through the hometown of Archimedes.  Whoever has lived under a dictatorship will understand.  Whoever has spent a morning under the sun of Syracuse will too.

This article first appeared in M’Sur (8th June 2015). Available here:

Alejandro Luque, is the author of a compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’. Click the cover to view on Amazon.

The Sicilian Defence

Alejandro Luque
Alejandro Luque
Alejandro is a journalist who writes for the Culture section of the Spanish newspaper, El Correo de Andalucía. He is also part of the team behind the website Mediterraneo Sur. He has had two books with Sicilian themes published: the collection of short stories, La defensa siciliana and his travelogue in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego – The Sicilian Defence is now available in English translation; the Journey is awaiting publication.

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