Made in East Germany
Editor literary supplement of the newspaper DIE ZEIT
Above all literature, as we can conclude today – has enjoyed an almost triumphal success story after 1989. Whether comedy, tragedy, farce or sci-fi, realistically recollecting or surrealistically alienating that which is becoming ever more irreal – the taste of the east gives the overall German cultural brew a special seasoning, at once existential and exotic, which is also very much enjoyed in the western part of the country.
The complicated memory of this temps perdu crosses generations and milieus. The so called German-German literary dispute raged in the early 1990’s: how close to the government was official GDR literature? Did prominent representatives such as Christa Wolf, Stephan Hermlin and Heiner Müller make too many compromises with the regime? How was one to assess various cases of informant activities for the Ministry of State Security? Despite these controversies the established authors of the older generation remained fixed magnitudes in the overall German literary world, apart from Wolf and Müller, above all Günter de Bruyn und Volker Braun, who was awarded the Büchner Prize in 2000; but also authors such as Sarah Kirsch, Wolfgang Hilbig and Hans-Joachim Schädlich, who had previously resettled in West Germany.
But a new generation quickly appeared: one born in the 1960’s. In 1995, the 33-year old poet Durs Grünbein from Dresden was awarded the Büchner Prize, later two Dresden natives, Ingo Schulze and Uwe Tellkamp, also caused a stir. Today, both count as the most significant contemporary authors to have a go at GDR themes. How can one still go about remembering this distant past, which is becoming ever-more alien even to those who went through it? Uwe Johnson, the grand master of memory obsessed with detail, once reconstructed German history in a small town in Mecklenburg in his tetralogy “Anniversaries” (“Jahrestage”). Schulze and Tellkamp no longer had any faith in the authentic, precise form of memory. For this reason, Schulze chose the antiquated form of the epistolary novel, reminiscent of the 18th century, for his great novel about the year 1989 in the provinces, “New Lives” (“Neue Leben”), building distance in this fashion to the content of his narrative. Then, in 2008, Uwe Tellkamp’s surprise success “The Tower” (“Der Turm”) broke all records: a demanding novel of almost a thousand pages, a complex panorama in which a Tolstoy-esque mass of figures bustles. More than half a million purchasers discovered the book; author Uwe Tellkamp was awarded the 2008 German Book Prize for his saga of Dresden. However, the novel’s real greatness by no means lies in the alleged hymn to German Bildungsbürgertum (cultured bourgeoisie) to sway along with in the name of identity that Tellkamp, as his superficial critics would have it, sings. Tellkamp’s brilliant intuition lies in finding an aesthetic way out of the dilemma of memory of the post-GDR: the irreality of the world before 1989 that grows along with increasing distance. He does not attempt to show how things might have been by means of a pseudo-exact realism, but instead revels in lushly surreal scenes: the catastrophic winter chaos in the city, brought on by ice and power black-outs, becoming a hellish nightmare, Christian Hoffmann’s nocturnal ride on a tank through the Elbe, disciplinary extra duty at blast ovens and in brown coal open cast mining, all of which seemingly emanating from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Out of the declining GDR, Tellkamp creates a darkly luminous fantasy world filled with magnificent images: he does not simply delineate a dying epoch, but paints it anew as an expressive dreamscape in panorama format.
If Tellkamp fantasised the bildungsbürgerliche family saga of the GDR, Eugen Ruge has written a similarly autobiographically based Berlin family narrative of the Communist intelligentsia. In 2011 he also was awarded the German Book Prize for his novel “In Times of Fading Light” (“In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts”). The novel encompasses exile in the Soviet Union, labour camp experience, then later on existence as a functionary in the GDR to the rebellious generation of grand-children shortly before the downfall of the GDR. Finally the third great family novel spanning several generations focuses on normal family life in the province of Thuringia: In “Brothers and Sisters” (“Brüder und Schwestern”), Birk Meinhardt tells about the family of Willy Werchow, director of the printing works “Aufbruch,” an honest, hard-working fellow with private recesses of the soul and typical conflicts within the system. Willy’s three children from his marriage decide in the course of the novel, which also continues up until 1989, either to conform or opt out. As in the case of Tellkamp, there will be a follow-up to this book.
It would be unfair to fail to mention other narrative forms for all these family studies – with his just-published debut novel “Die Lüge” (i.e. the lie), poet Uwe Kolbe has depicted an alienated and yet profound father-son relationship. Today, the image of the GDR is being lent a nuanced complexity – one can read one’s way into an entire social cosmos in books.
In her works “The Girl” (“Das Mädchen” /2011) and “April,” the continuation published this spring, Angelika Klüssendorf depicts a girl’s development: a dreadful, squalid childhood that nonetheless cannot break her, later her searching, rebellious life in Leipzig in the ‘Eighties – until her departure to West Berlin – a powerful novel of self-discovery against all obstacles, composed in a laconically precise realism. Things are on a smaller and more intimate scale in Torsten Schulz’ “Nilowsky.” In Berlin in the late ‘Seventies, fourteen-year old Markus makes a mysterious new friend who is three years older than he is: Nilowsky, overflowing with wild tales. It is a world apart, with so called little people speaking the Berlin dialect and leading Berlin lives, far removed from important events and acts of state, everyday life in East Berlin in the ‘Seventies.
Today, great novels telling of the hidden afterlife of the GDR also live in each and every one of its former inhabitants. Petra Morsbach’s “Dichterliebe” (i.e. love of a poet /2013) revolves around the problems of a once-celebrated GDR poet, Henry, who in 1994 is killing time with the help of a grant in an East Frisian artists’ residence. With her subtle sense of psychological nuance, the author offers not just a new variant of artist parody. The portrait she paints of the yammering East German intelligentsia is accurate in its finest nuances. Henry is consumed with disgust at young performance artists and old colleagues who secure their own survival into the new era by sitting on committees. This novel depicts the difficulties of the new era in a manner both pitiless and compassionate – it is also a parable of the mundane ludicrousness of artistic self-aggrandisement. The double dose of compassion and unmasking in the bestselling novel by German literature’s shooting star also functions in very similar ways: in her novel “The Giraffe’s Neck,” Judith Scharansky depicts the intellectual and philosophical problems with which Inge Lohmark, a biology teacher is wrestling in Western Pomerania, Germany’s poverty-stricken northeast in the process of depopulation due to emigration. Posthumous GDR ideology and a bizarre biologism pervade this woman’s inner monologue – this, too, a reaction to personal and social crises.
The GDR experience is the stuff of bestsellers and prestigious awards in contemporary German literature. In no other area of society has reunification been such an undisputed success as in literature. To be sure, this success also has to do with a touch of exoticism: west German readers encountered a vanished dreamland, pre-modern, archaic, pervaded with existential conflicts – so very different from the Bundesrepublik experience up to 1989 – in these books, the western part of Germany was able to set off in search of a lost authenticity which it believed it would find in the east. In any case, we can look forward to an abundance of material “Made in East Germany” in the coming 25 years – since the story of this peculiar part of the world has not by any means been fully told.
Born 1973 in Rostock, lives in Berlin and starting in 2009 is an editor
of the literary supplement of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT