Three friends in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the year of the turning point: Susanne Gregor’s novel is both an coming-of-age story and a portrait of a turbulent era. The political upheavals in Eastern Europe are felt even in the small town of Žilina and in the private lives of the main characters.
By Eva Fritsch
It is 1989 – the GDR will soon be dissolved. On 9 November, the wall that divided East and West Germany for 28 years falls. It is a major upheaval, not only in Germany. At the same time, a similar development takes place in neighbouring Czechoslovakia: the state is also nearing collapse, and with it forty years of Socialism.
The author Susanne Gregor was born in Czechoslovakia and tells her own story – in part – in her novel Das letzte rote Jahr (The Last Red Year). She emigrated to Austria with her family in 1990; at the time of the turnaround she was eight years old.
The first-person narrator in the book is Miša, a fourteen-year-old who likes to read and spend time with her two friends Slavka and Rita, who happen to live with their families in the same building. All of them live in Žilina. At that time, the city was part of Czechoslovakia; today it is in Slovakia.
The fascination of the WestThe girls’ initially harmonious friendship soon becomes fractured as political events increasingly influence the coexistence of the three families. It’s unavoidable; at some point, politics always gets mixed up with private life, the author noted in an interview. She wanted to portray this in her novel and “make history come to life.” Susanne Gregor succeeds in this due above all to her detailed descriptions of the surroundings, the moods within the families and the social fabric in general. While Slavka and Miša can’t escape their fascination for Western television, Miša’s brother Alan calls his father a “socialist boot-licker” because he gets a free washing machine from Comrade Brzda. And yet he and his young lover, Miša’s girlfriend Rita, dare to flee to Germany at the end of the novel.
A possible exit “to the West” is a constant theme of the novel and affects the three friends in various ways. Slavka’s father has lived in Sweden as a “dissident” for several years. Rita is a fervent Young Pioneer and looks with contempt on the souvenirs Miša’s father brings home from his business trips in Austria. But in their everyday lives, the girls are confronted with “two versions of our reality,” the “one full of peace and progress, [...] and that other reality of scarcity, which was clearly felt when watching Western television.” With vibrant language, Gregor illustrates that this can’t go well for long; it finally comes to an end in the social upheavals of Czechoslovakia’s so-called Velvet Revolution.
A slice of contemporary historyWith her novel, the author not only produces a story about friendship and growing up in uncertain political times, but also a slice of contemporary history: East Germans in the Prague Embassy, Honecker’s resignation, and finally Hungary’s proclamation as a democratic republic are addressed as well as use of media. Radek, Miša’s first boyfriend, listens to a pirate radio station to learn of the upheavals in the neighbouring country. “Radio Free Europe broadcasts from Germany; if they say it, then it’s true: East Germany is free.” In a way, readers can “taste” the spirit of 1989, become engrossed in the events, the personal and the political – whether or not they witnessed the era themselves.
Gregor, Susanne: Das letzte rote Jahr
Frankfurt: Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 2019. 224 S.