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.

Hulu
Show Hide image

Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

0800 7318496