The year before the fall of the Wall
In the past Uwe Rada has written non-fictional works, often about Eastern Europe, and often about rivers: the Memel, Elbe and Oder. Now he has published his first novel. It is mainly set in West Berlin in the era prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the main characters travel back to the east at some point, towards Poland.
Jan, the protagonist in Uwe Rada’s debut novel 1988, lives his contemplative life in the left-wing alternative/radical scene in Kreuzberg during the eponymous year, joining in with demonstrations and becoming involved in the riots of 1st May. People are certain that they’re on the right side and fighting for the right cause. They are strictly anti-capitalist – but in this environment there is a tendency to romanticise the Communist Eastern Bloc and be irritated by the anti-Communist feeling manifesting itself in Poland and elsewhere.
Jan enjoys sitting in pubs and cafés in his neighbourhood near the “Lauseplatz”, as the Lausitzer Platz is also known here. At some point he encounters the enigmatic Polish girl Wiola, who likes to be provocative and persists in quoting “her Adam”, as she calls the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. She refers to Jan as a “revolution romantic” and convinces him to travel with her to Poland, a country largely unfamiliar to him. It’s a short year of love, but it makes a big impression on Jan. For him, 1988 is the personal year of fate rather than 1989. Right up to the present day he doesn’t know whether the thing he experienced that summer was friendship or love. At any rate it was over quickly. Around 30 years later he receives a letter from Wiola – and embarks on a journey back there.
The No Man’s Land of historyThus begins a journey in two directions: to the Poland of today, and into the principal character’s world of memories. Rada embeds his love story in a historical and personal minefield. Jan experiences a sort of re-emergence of things he has suppressed. He looks at his past and present self, but also at the historical situation in 1988, when Berlin is still a divided city with large areas of “no man’s land”, lots of “non-places”, which will quickly disappear as reunification progresses. “In fact we sometimes went to the Wall in West Berlin, in the same way that you might go to the seaside today. Looking to see if the water’s still there, or the Wall, did that make any difference? In both cases people were reassuring themselves that they were standing on solid ground. Life on an island had created its own day-to-day rituals.”
Even if in 1988 no one yet guesses what will happen in Autumn 1989, there are signs hinting that change is afoot, including the way in which the Eastern neighbours are perceived: “At the latest with the Polish market at the end of 1988, or the start of 1989, the heroes of Solidarność had become traders selling their possessions”, according to Uwe Rada in an interview.
Rada’s writing style is not as sassy as that of Sven Regener, whose most recent book Wiener Straße brought 1980s Kreuzberg to life, it’s more serious. In 1988 everything feels really grey and joyless, when everyone was just muddling their way through life and love. From time to time the novel is only too clear in its historical lesson-teaching, for example when dealing with the politically correct way of referring to Polish cities: “The main thing is not to say Posen, saying Posen is like saying Breslau, Danzig or Stettin, you may as well have a stamp on your forehead saying displaced “Heimat” lover, diehard “Deutscher”, border revisionist.” The personal relationship between Jan and Wiola, the hunt for answers to questions that perhaps cannot be answered – the way Rada tells this story is complex and sensitive. Essentially Jan is wandering around the no man’s land of East/West history – as well as of his own life.
Rada, Uwe: 1988. Roman
Berlin: edition.fotoTAPETA, 2017. 253 S.
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