Rory MacLean meets Torsten Schulz
Schulz is a Berlin-born author, dramaturg and director. His best-selling novel Boxhagener Platz is published this month in the UK by Impress Books. Its translator is the renowned British poet Harry Guest.
‘In my work I try to catch hold of the past, and to use it in my fiction. I reveal character through dialogue and manner of speech. I want to be sure that my prose has the ring of authenticity. Harry has been fantastic in rendering it faithfully into English.’
Boxhagener Platz – retitled A Square in East Berlin – tells a bitter sweet story of life in communist East Germany. Set in 1968, the narrator is Holger, a twelve-year-old boy modelled on Schulz himself. The action revolves around Boxhagener Platz, the city square where Schulz grew up. Around this quiet and brooding small world – busy with neighbourhood football matches, patriotic parades and a feisty grandmother who tends her friends’ and family’s graves – the larger world unfolds in Parisian student riots, Mexico City Olympics, and the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks.
‘I had this story inside me for years,’ Schulz told me. ‘It grew in my mind and soul until I had to write it down.’
‘Life in East Germany was both difficult and absurd,’ he recalled. ‘For example I cheered our Olympic athletes, and was happy whenever they won a medal. Yet at the same time I was very critical of the regime. My family was against so-called Real Socialism but we – like so many others - didn’t know what to do to effect the situation. As I grew up I vowed to try to change the system from within, like Mikhail Gorbachev aimed to do. That was the plan, the vision.’
In his teenage years Schulz began to write short stories. His fellow writers were impressed by his distinctive, filmic narratives, and encouraged him to study film-making. He felt a natural affinity with the genre, and enrolled in the HFF Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen in Potsdam-Babelsberg.
‘The DEFA studios where we worked were near to the Griebnitzsee, and the Berlin Wall. On foggy days we joked about swimming across the lake to reach West Berlin. But in truth I didn’t want to escape. I wanted to stay, and make critical films that would help to bring about change in East Germany. In retrospect I see that those days were the beginning of the end but – in the 1980s – that was my dream.’
Schulz believed in a ‘third way’, a humanistic synthesis of communism and capitalism as advocated by former Czecholslovak premier Alexander Dubcek. After the Wall fell he founded the Civil Rights newspapers The Gazette and edited The Other to encourage debate on East Germany’s future. But rather than fight for a new political system, most of his countrymen chose to run headlong into West Germany’s waiting arms, sacrificing their identity for capitalism and consumer goods.
‘I was not against unification,’ he recalled, ‘but I did want another sort of power for East Germany.’
For the next decade Schulz turned away from politics, focusing on scriptwriting and directing documentaries. Then in 2000 he decided to write a novel.
‘When I turned 40 I wanted something new in my life. I loved - and love - working in film, in collaboration with a director, producer and crew, but a part of me wanted greater creative freedom. More importantly, I wanted to keep hold of my childhood memories, which were slipping away with time, and to capture something of my own language, the language of 1960s East Berlin.’
The result was Boxhagener Platz, his heartfelt and nostalgia-free bestseller. Its commercial success led to prize-winning radio and film adaptations, as well as a new two-book deal. Revolution und Filzläuse ('Revolution and Crabs'), his compilation of a dozen short stories, was published in 2008. His next book, an East German love story, will come out in the spring. A third novel sits at home in a shoebox, awaiting revision and completion.
At the same time he has adapted novels for the screen, taught at his alma mater film school and worked as a dramaturg on television dramas.
Torsten Schulz is a man in a hurry, at once humble and intense, rushing forward in his determination to keep hold of the past, and to preserve true voices from a vanished country.
‘I am now 52 years old. I want to write and write for the next ten years. I have so many stories which I want to tell. That’s my priority now.’