Books interview: Ronald Reng

The tragic life and death of Robert Enke.

On 10 November 2009, the goalkeeper of the German national team, Robert Enke, stepped in front of a passenger train near Hanover. He was 32 years old. Before his suicide, Enke had been talking to his friend, the journalist Ronald Reng, about working together on his autobiography. After Enke's death, Reng wrote a book about his late friend. A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke has now been translated into English. I talked to Reng when he came to London last week.

You were going to work with Robert Enke on his autobiography, weren't you?

Yes. We never discussed in detail what we would write about. It was something that was spur of the moment, and to be honest for many years it was more his idea than it was mine. In particular because I didn't know about his depression. So we talked about it vaguely. I remember one conversation I had with him in 2008, where I suggested to him that maybe we could have a double biography about his life, and his best friend Marco Villa. Because, frankly, I thought just his biography wouldn't be enough of a story.

When we met we were romanticising and dreaming about one day writing the book. Later on, when he had died, I learned from [his wife]Teresa and his two closest friends that he talked quite a lot about the book to them. He and Teresa had this vision, a dream scenario, that one day Robert would have moved to Lisbon and we would all sit on a roof terrace and contemplate his autobiography.

You say you didn't know about his depression. And that was true of everybody close to him apart from Teresa wasn't it? His teammates and his managers didn't know.

In total, including members of his family, there were probably about ten or 12 people who would have known. And I think it tells you a lot that he didn't tell someone like me; it tells you a lot about the illness. People feel ashamed, basically, and they feel they can't tell anybody. Occasionally he discussed with Teresa whether he should tell me. I remember one phone conversation when he said to me "Ronnie, I was discussing with Teresa if you know something". I said "what do you mean?" And he said "No, no, I'll tell you later." That day I'm pretty sure he was thinking about the depression.

At some stage I wrote a newspaper article about him, a profile. And he thought at that stage I might know about his depression and write about it in the article. I realised that, particularly when he went to Barcelona, he was very sensitive and he was blaming himself alot. I saw him when he was down and I remember one time when I talked to him that his face was like a stone wall, it wasn't moving. But I had no notion about depression, I didn't realise. I just thought "what an unhappy man".

There was a feeling in German football that Enke was unusual. Successful German goalkeepers have always been of a certain psychological type - flamboyant, arrogant. One thinks of Sepp Maier, Jens Lehmann, Oliver Kahn and Toni Schumacher. Enke was not like that at all was he?

And he suffered from that. We talked about that many times because he had this feeling that the public in Germany didn't appreciate him as a goalkeeper, in particular because they always compared him to the goalkeepers you just mentioned. He was taking on everything, it was him against the world. There were a lot of comments being made about Robert when he joined the Germany team. People were saying "Is he strong enough? He should be more outgoing." But I think that in Tenerife from 2004, he consciously chose his goalkeeping style and technique. He wanted to be somebody different from Oliver Kahn. I think because he played abroad so many years, and he saw the Argentininian goalkeepers school, the Spanish goalkeepers school ... They are very different from the German school. More technical, not as expressive as someone like Oliver Kahn.

The former German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld once said: "Enke has no charisma" - an extraordinary thing to say.

Yes, that sums up the public mood towards Robert at the time when he joined the German squad. People were just looking at him and judging his his unexpressive style as a lack of charisma. But there were a few people in German football, people like Andy Köpke, the German goalkeeping coach, who regarded it as a strength that he didn't make a show of things, that he was rather looking to position himself very well in goal and was not looking for the great save.

The position of goalkeeper is more exposed than any other on the pitch isn't it?

Yes, definitely. In the end, you are always measured by mistakes. And I think what is particularly strong in goalkeepers is the fear of letting others down. In Robert's case, the fear of making mistakes. I think at some stage every goalkeeper knows that fear, and in the best times he uses that fear to make him concentrate even harder. But obviously Robert had a very different fear as well. Depression is a different level of fear.

Even as an adolescent, he was gripped by that fear wasn't he?

I think in hindsight there were signs that he was prone to depression. And obviously it's the question that I, and the people that know him, ask ourselves all the time now: would it have been different if he hadn't been a goalkeeper? And obviously we can't answer that. It seems that he was prone to depression and he might have got depressed in a different environment and a different job as well. What is clear is that his bouts of depression were often triggered by football.

You mentioned his time at Tenerife. That was when his career got back on track, because his unsuccessful spell at Barcelona had been a pretty dark time for him hadn't it?

He was basically a forgotten goalkeeper in the Spanish second division. He played fantastically in Tenerife because he was so happy to be alive. But it was just one man in German football who discovered him and still believed in him. Ewald Lienen, the manager of Hannover 96, had been the coach at Tenerife years before that. Robert was always acutely aware that his career could have petered out in the Spanish second division. Though at the time in Tenerife he certainly wouldn't have minded; playing wasn't that important to him anymore.

Do you think Tenerife was where he was happiest in his career?

Yes I would think so. I's known him since 2002. He was happy maybe in the first year at Hannover 96 as well. Obviously his daughter had been born with a heart disease and that took away a lot of joy from him later on.

After he died, there was an extraordinary expression of collective national mourning in Germany. Did you expect that?

I was certainly taken aback. There was a feeling of not knowing what to make of it, and a lot of people were absolutely moved by his death and they wanted to show their grief There was a beautiful feeling in the nation of a will to do things better, to treat each other better. This was something totally new in Germany - a big crowd gathering together to mourn.

It's only two years since Robert Enke died. Do you think attitudes to depression and mental illness have changed in Germany. Specifically inside German football, which is a very hard, unforgiving environment.

In football in Germany it has changed a lot; people are much more aware of depression.

How closely did you collaborate with Enke's wife Teresa on this book?

A closely as I could. Teresa handed over to me everything she had of Robert's. I went to his office and found huge boxes of photos, of newspaper clippings. I could have stayed at her house for weeks. I think I went over four times, each time for a week. I found old boxes of letters they had written each other. I didn't want to read these, so I gave the letters to Teresa and she read over them again. She had s different kind of motivation to me, of course. She wanted his story to be told once and for all.

For the ten months I worked on the book, I was living with a dead friend, doing nothing else. I interviewed 40-odd people and not a single one turned the interview down. The interviews turned into conversations and we were sitting down for hours. Even with someone like Victor Valdes at Barcelona - the press officer said half an hour, and Victor said "No, no, he must have all the time he needs." It was extraordinary, because everybody was so moved by Robert's death.

Ronald Reng's "A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke" is published by Yellow Jersey (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear