Thomas Brussig interviewed by Rory MacLean
with Rory MacLean
We perched on stools by the window, eating a spicy hot pot from heavy stone bowls, surrounded by Biblical quotes. The Korean waitress wore the Icthys Christian fish symbol on her apron. I wondered aloud about the importance of that other doctrine in Thomas' work.
"I grew up under communism," he told me. "Of course I was luckier than others. It was not so cruel for me because the times were changing. But there was a lot of anger in those days. I have paid in my life for writing my books."
Thomas' most successful book is Heroes Like Us, a bold and hilarious comedy of terrors set around the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s now been adapted for screen and stage, as well as translated into almost a dozen languages, but before all that it was a runaway best-seller in Germany.
"When the book was first published, there was a kind of relief in the east that you could make jokes about totalitarianism. People were happy that such a funny and crazy story could be brewed from those days. And in the west, reading about East Germany had always felt like a duty. Heroes Like Us demonstrated that reading about that life could be enjoyable. That’s the power and freedom of laughter!"
Thomas once said that East Germany makes a good story because there were so many absurd situations. In Heroes Like Us he wrote of the absurd iniquity of a death strip cutting through Berlin’s heart, of the U-Bahn trains running beneath it, of a child spying on the STASI, of the penis responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall.
"I learnt a great deal from writing that book. For me, it was a kind of investigation into how literature works. I discovered the importance of exaggeration, of pushing ideas and characters further and further." He pulled a bottle of cola from the cooler. "I loved writing it. After all, if the author doesn’t enjoy writing a book, how can a reader enjoy reading it?"
Born in East Berlin, Thomas had no early ambition to be a writer. In school he trained as a builder and found odd jobs as a museum guard and hotel porter. His spell in the Volksarmee was unhappy, not least because he had difficulty in wielding a weapon. But he discovered a love of reading, and that gave him a passion for words.
"When I was young I had no clear direction for my life. Through reading I discovered that words could articulate my contradictory emotions. Suddenly I saw that I wasn’t alone, and I became fascinated by the ability to express myself on the page. So I started to write as a means of helping me to make decisions. Then I saw that I had a talent for it." Thomas laughed at himself. "In other words, I began writing because I didn’t know what I wanted to become, and in the process became a writer."
Thomas is a humble man – no designer shades, no mobile phones cluttering the table – yet he radiated a boyish excitement for the unexpectedness of his success. He has written five other books, including Am Kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee which has been filmed by Leander Haussmann. At the moment he’s busy sketching out his next two books, as well as negotiating a movie contract. Refreshingly his interest in the cinema seems to be motivated – at least to some extent – by his hunger for life. "Film business people throw the best parties," he confided in me. "If I didn’t write screenplays I wouldn’t get invited to them."
Beneath the walls of Biblical quotations, our conversation turned both to Berlin (he considers the city to be free of dogma and autocrats, where rich and poor, young and old, can equally fashion a good living) and to Germany itself. Naturally – given his background – he is fascinated by questions of identity and nationalism. I reminded him that he once expressed a fear that a reunified Germany might "in a great failure of imagination" carry on where it had left off in 1945. Unexpectedly he revealed that this fear had been swept aside by football.
"During the Second World War the Nazis abused patriotic feelings. They created heroes who later turned out to be murderers. Then in the Sixties intellectuals responded by banning certain words and emotions. Since those days, there has been a little man inside every German head telling us not to trust our feelings." Thomas swallowed a mouthful of cola.
"During the 2006 World Cup Germans realised that this had changed. We saw – in a kind of patriotic virginity – that we could show our pride, and still be liked. This in turn helped us to like ourselves again. We felt a healthy new patriotism that celebrated our technology, our generosity with development aid, our protection of the environment, our society that is totally non-unilateral. Strangers put their arms around each other and sang the national anthem. We realised that we were patriots of a new stripe. What a miracle!"
I told Thomas of my conviction that this change had come about as a consequence of Germans taking responsibility for their history. Modern Germany – in a courageous, humane and moving manner – has unearthed and memorialised its past for the psychic health of the country.
"You are partly right," he told me. "Events often leave their traces in architecture, and we are good at preserving those buildings as witnesses to history. Usually. But of the socialist period that I knew, all that remains now is the TV tower at Alexanderplatz. The Palace of the People has been demolished, despite many protests. The Rathauspassagen has been westernised. Lenin’s monument has been removed even though he can’t harm anyone any longer. Above all I feel so sorry that nowhere can we still see a stretch of the Berlin Wall, in all its naked brutality."
If not the Socialist monuments themselves, Germans have Thomas' remarkable books to remind them of that dark, bitter history, and his rich satire to help them come to terms with the emotion and pain of division. As he writes at the end of Sonnenallee, "Happy people have bad memory, but rich memories." At the end of our meal beneath the gospel, Thomas added, "Heroes Like Us is of course an ironic title, and irony is a very good means of creating distance and enabling one's emotions to be examined."