A mere quarter-century ago, the Berlin Wall opened. Soon after, the Soviet empire fell. Yet much of that cataclysmic history has already faded into kitsch and platitude. Happily, literature can resurrect a reality beyond the scope of official commemorations. Three novels from authors who grew up in the lost world of East Germany - all brought to us in outstanding translations - anchor that obliterated landscape to intimate memories, beliefs and emotions. Fiction can dig the tunnel that takes us under the Wall and back through time.
Time and the ironies of history chime like the novel’s many clocks through The Tower, Uwe Tellkamp’s mammoth saga of middle-class family life in the German Democratic Republic (translated by Mike Mitchell; Allen Lane, £25). Winner of the German Book Prize, this 1000-page chronicle of a medical and literary clan in 1980s Dresden does for the professional elite of “socialist” Saxony what Thomas Mann did for the merchant class of Lubeck in his Buddenbrooks. Along with a vividly-drawn crowd of relatives, friends and colleagues, surgeon Richard Hoffmann; his wife Anne, a nurse; her brother, the publisher Meno; and the Hoffmanns’ rebel son Christian people this immersive, panoramic portrait of Dresden life.
Between 1982 and 1989, the Party “gerontocracy” slowly loses the plot, while the “chemical empire” of the GDR chokes on its industrial toxins. Stage by stage, the city’s elite shift from whispered cynicism to outspoken dissent: from Brezhnev’s unlamented death via the nuclear nervousness of 1983, that “year of the apocalypse”, through post-Chernobyl environmental calamities and the growth of organised opposition. Beyond his flair for densely-textured realism, Tellkamp’s inner monologues and close-up chamber dramas also owe a debt to the sort of “decadent” writers Meno and his fellow literati love to read but fear to praise – Joyce, Proust, Musil. This cornucopian novel also finds space for social comedy, marital upheaval, teenage rebellion and lyrical intermezzi. Time passes, seasons change, and the “music of the river” Elbe endures, for all the noxious filth dumped into it.
Tellkamp excels at edgy set-pieces, from the 50th birthday party at which Richard and his chums say that “Reagan’s got the right idea” (and then worry who might report them) to the trial that sentences Christian – now an army draftee – for public defamation of “this shitty state”. A surgeon by training, the author observes Richard’s operations (often impaired by power-cuts) with the same close-up zest he devotes to Meno’s literary wrangles with censors, Party hacks and diehard Communist idealists. A love of music unites this cultivated, somewhat conservative middle-class, stranded under state socialism. For eccentric GP Niklas, “the present seemed to be one possibility among others in which one could live, and not the most pleasant”.
Grumblers, dreamers, nostalgists, practitioners of “inner emigration”, Tellkamp’s men occupy centre-stage. Yet their womenfolk take the most decisive steps towards change. Like dissenter Regine, they seek to escape the bureaucratic prison of the GDR; like Josta, Richard’s mistress, they end an affair that confines them in other ways; like Anne herself, they move from passive complaint to public protest.
In the manner of some super-intelligent soap, The Tower puts a small group of related characters under the microscope. Not coincidentally, Meno is a keen zoologist. It also zooms out to dramatise the wider forces that will gather to drown this “island” of bourgeois life within a dying system. If this domestic epic calls for stamina, its rapid shifts of voice and viewpoint banish monotony. Tellkamp deserves readers like Christian, who “loved long books”, and thinks that “at 500 pages the ocean began, anything less than that was paddling in a brook”.
Whereas Tellkamp covers eight years in 1000 pages, Jenny Erpenbeck spans a century of transformation in little more than 200. In her previous novels, the writer has honed an extraordinary gift for focusing the sweep of European history into intimate moments, captured in prose of a haunting beauty and tenderness. The End of Days (trans. Susan Bernofsky; Portobello, £12.99) compresses almost 100 years of war, exile, revolution and persecution into rapt snapshots from a single life. Born in 1902 to a Jewish mother and Christian father in a backwater of the Habsburg empire, Erpenbeck’s heroine meets, but dodges, the various fates that might have killed her - from the fragile baby’s cradle in a harsh Galician winter through starving Vienna after the Great War to Stalin’s purges in late-1930s Moscow and the random accident that might have felled this defiant child of the century - now a garlanded Communist author - in the GDR.
Erpenbeck shows how chance and accident may outsmart destiny - even for a revolutionary who believes in historical inevitability. Throughout, collective tragedy leaves scars deep in mind and body. The narrative reveals how historical circumstances and “events of general nature... can infiltrate a private face”. From anti-Semitic pogroms to the paranoid terror of Stalin’s Moscow and the bureaucratic socialism of the GDR, The End of Days traces this “constant translation between far outside and deep within” via a series of hypnotically involving scenes. History might always have turned out otherwise, even down to the fall of the Wall in 1989, “flattened, breached and scorned” as an entire system is “wiped off the map”.
Both Tellkamp and Erpenbeck spent all their youth within the GDR; Julia Franck, along with millions of other East Germans, fled to the West as a child with her mother and brother. That experience informs her novel West (trans. Anthea Bell; Harvill Secker, £12.99), first published in German a decade ago. In flight from her partner’s death and under suspicious scrutiny by the regime (in part for her Jewish origins), scientist Nelly Senff crosses the Wall only to languish with her children in the limbo of the Marienfelde refugee camp. In this twilight zone of surveillance and interrogation, Nelly remembers and survives, her troubled family story enriched by the voices of Polish migrant Krystyna and CIA spy John. As abstract liberty dwindles into claustrophobic half-life, Nelly loses her “sense of the meaning of freedom”. The promised land has shrunk into a bugged waiting-room.
As much as for Tellkamp and Erpenbeck, Franck’s vision of the German, and European, past encompasses the Third Reich as well as the Warsaw Pact. Obliquely, all three of these novels imagine the GDR as a home-grown allergic reaction to Hitler’s tyranny as much as the imposed offshoot of Soviet Communism. We should bear that longer legacy in mind as celebrations mark 25 years of a reunited Germany. Spare a toast, too, for the first-rate translators who have guided us safely and stylishly through the walls of language.
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