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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem