Friday, 25 October 2013

A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

by Bill Kirton

There are two things about this book that might make some people decide not to bother reading it. The first is that it’s about sport. The fact that it won a top British Sports Book Award in 2012 makes no difference; some people just don’t read sports books. The second thing makes it even less palatable: it’s not just about sport, it’s about football of the soccer variety and, as everyone knows, soccer players are spoiled, overpaid thugs with an inflated sense of their own worth. But this book transcends football, transcends sport. It’s the story of a likeable, gifted, seemingly grounded individual who suffered from depression and it leads us through the tangles of his mind as his illness dragged him inexorably down to the point at which, on November 10th 2009, he stepped in front of a train.

In the early years of the century, Robert Enke was one of the best goalkeepers in the world. As well as playing for clubs in the Austrian and German leagues, he also played in three other top European sides: Barcelona, Benfica and Fenerbahce. He played for his country at junior and senior level and was scheduled to be Germany’s number one in the 2010 World Cup. He was young, handsome, wealthy and in a secure, loving marriage. In other words, he was living what should have been a dream life but, as this account of it shows so powerfully, the dream was too often nightmarish. The writer notes tellingly that his suicide, at the age of 32, wasn’t really a result of a free choice. ‘The death of a depressive,’ he writes, ‘is never a free decision. The illness narrows perception to the extent that the sufferer no longer knows what it means to die. He thinks it just means getting rid of the illness.’

The irony is that the book takes the place of one which Enke and the author were supposed to be writing together. They’d been friends for years and Reng had access to his diaries and to many other sources which allowed him to record the impact Enke had on those around him and piece together the contradictions, the moods and even the thought processes of his subject. The material is handled with care, honesty and one could even say with love, and it gives us a moving account of the life of a complex, intelligent, caring individual who was haunted by a darkness which resisted attempts by psychiatrists, friends and a loving wife to offer ways to combat it.

Depression isn’t just sadness. Enke and his wife had a daughter who was born with a heart defect and died at the age of two. Naturally enough, the effect of such an event was disastrous for both of them and yet it was only one of the demons that spread their poison through his mind. It’s too easy to identify an event we can all sympathise with and make the seemingly logical link: event-sadness-suicide. But, as Reng reminds us, there are more deaths from depression-related suicide every day than there are from road accidents.

More complexities are added to this analysis of the condition by the nature of Enke’s job. In a soccer team, the goalkeeper is unique. He’s the only player allowed to handle the ball and also the only one whose mistakes are usually far more costly than any made by players in other positions. In a way, it’s a negative position. The object of the game is to score goals but the keeper is there to prevent them. As the last line of defence it’s also important for him to be (or at least seem to be) calm, in control, unlikely to panic. Any sign of stress or frailty sends a message to the rest of the team that he’s vulnerable. And goalkeepers aren’t allowed to be vulnerable. Some of the most fascinating and heart-rending passages of the book come near the end when his wife and friends are watching him play a game, knowing that he’s in a deep depression, seeing the truth of his body language and facial expressions while others interpret them differently. To the uninitiated, Robert Enke seems to be in ice-cool control of the situation.


The book begins and ends with the suicide. At the start it’s the helplessness, bewilderment and anxiety of those close to him that’s stressed; at the end, the pace is such that both the reader and those same people are dragged inexorably towards what they all know is to be a tragic outcome. The writing is skilful, Reng’s love and compassion are self-evident, but the force that overwhelms everything is that of the dark, incomprehensible monster that harried Enke to his death. This is not simply the story of an individual, it’s a frightening chronicle of how depression overwhelms all else, fragments and distorts values, undermines everything that makes life so precious.