Monday 23 July 2012

A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng: a review

Depression. There, I said it.

It’s a word which means different things to different people. For some, it can be just a bad mood. For others, an illness that is all-consuming.

Before I read A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng I fell somewhere between the two: I knew depression wasn’t just a bad mood, but I was also slightly ignorant of how serious it could be. I guess I always saw people with depression as slightly weak people not able to handle everyday life like the rest of us. I was wrong.

The book is the real-life account of the German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 when on the cusp of being Germany’s No. 1 at the 2010 World Cup.

The story in how he got to that dark day when he stepped in front of a high-speed train is the heart of this book. In many ways, Robert was in the wrong job. England’s goalkeeper Joe Hart recently commented that he doesn’t like letting in any goal – whether he could have done something about it or not. It eats away at him for days, he conceded.

And that’s one of the many contradictions about Robert’s life detailed in this book: he was in a job that added to his mental stress constantly, but it was the one thing he was very good at. He was trapped.

He was driven to his suicide not by the death of his daughter who had a heart defect, but when he had adopted a daughter, was a father again and his career was on track at Hannover 96. Again, contradictions.

The accounts of his isolation, despair and solitude as football games go against him are beautifully written and painfully sad. One passage in particular, where having finally got a start at Barcelona in a game against lowly opposition he concedes three goals and they lose the match to widespread condemnation, is desperately sad.

It highlights the mental fortitude goalkeepers need to do the job they do, always one mistake away from humiliation.

Knowing the ending gives the book an inevitable black cloud – even the happier moments are tinged with sadness at knowing where the tale ends. But don’t let that put you off. This is the best sports book I have ever read. Life changing; oddly life-affirming.

Many would argue that Robert was unlucky: unlucky to have conceded those goals for Barcelona, unlucky to lose his daughter, unlucky to break his arm when on the cusp of the German national side. He wasn’t. Not at all.

He was just blighted by an illness with a job that compounded it. And the black dog he described as chasing him finally caught up with him in the train tunnel on that dark day.

That’s not unlucky. It’s just desperately sad.

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