The spy who came...

As East Germany totters, our hero just wants to get laid. All in all, it's just another dick in the Wall, says Shaun Whiteside
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Heroes Like Us

by Thomas Brussig, translated by John Brownjohn

Harvill, pounds 9.99

Long before her name is mentioned, the spirit of Christa Wolf haunts Thomas Brussig's diverting satire on the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the novel's picaresque narrator, Klaus Uhltzscht, apologises in advance for the "dick-heavy" qualities of his reminiscences, the spectre of Wolf is evoked in absentia. Never was an author less dick- heavy than Christa, the sombre high priestess of East German literature.

As a child growing up in the GDR, Uhltzscht is tormented by a father who addresses him in the third person, and by his mother, a failed doctor obsessed with personal hygiene. He is, crucially, cursed with an unnaturally small member, a "shrimp". Hopelessly trounced at peeing competitions, Klaus graduates to febrile sexual obsession as a teenager, feeding his fantasies with the lingerie section of the West German Quelle catalogue. Can such voluptuous creatures exist as those capitalist women, so alluringly out of reach across the Wall? The notion drives him to distraction; drives him, indeed, to lie sprawled over an air-vent at Friedrichstrasse tube station, hoping to inhale some of their erotic aura.

After an adolescence of wet dreams and imaginative masturbation hand in hand, as it were, with snooty contempt for his fellow-teenagers, Klaus finds himself recruited to the Stasi, where he discovers he is following in his father's footsteps. At least he thinks he has been recruited to the Stasi. "I should have found it uncommonly reassuring to be told, if only once, that I was in the Stasi, just to be on the safe side," he muses. "Was I really in the Stasi, and, if so, was there a me?"

Klaus's job is to liaise with the "Unofficial Informants" who inhabit every sector of East German society, winning self-worth by denouncing their neighbours, impugning them for such abhorrent crimes against humanity as "individualism". Come 1989, and Klaus has saved the life of Erich Honecker, developed a very handsome appendage and, through force of circumstances, knocked down the Berlin Wall. In the novel's pay-off, narrator hands the microphone to author, and the true villain of the piece is finally unmasked.

Step forward, Christa Wolf. A subliminal presence throughout Brussig's novel, Wolf was herself an "Unofficial Informant" in the 1960s, and author, post- Wall, of a famously self-exculpatory story, Was bleibt. In it, as Brussig savagely observes, "the Stasi unnerve a woman writer by staring at her for weeks on end, so much so that she eventually devours an entire box of chocolates in half an hour." To make Christa Wolf single-handedly responsible for 45 years of political oppression seems a little steep, but you can see Brussig's point.

may indeed be dick-heavy, but it is engagingly so. Fluidly translated by John Brownjohn, who demonstrates considerable cunning with German and English wordplay, it provides evidence that German writing may be rediscovering a mission to entertain as well as to instruct. Congratulations, as ever, to Harvill, but a mild slap on the wrist for misspelling Gunter Grass's name on the front cover.

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