German Unification In Search of the Novel of the Turnaround

Eugen Ruge, Christa Wolf, Uwe Tellkamp (from left to right);
Eugen Ruge, Christa Wolf, Uwe Tellkamp (from left to right); | Photo (montage): © private, Archive Gerhard Wolf, Sven Döring/Suhrkamp Verlag

German authors have repeatedly included the theme of reunification in their books, yet many of them reject the label “novel of the turnaround” (Wenderoman).

On winning the 2014 German Book Prize for his novel Kruso, the author Lutz Seiler assured us that it was not a novel about the turnaround. And the fact is that the historical events around German reunification play only a peripheral role in Seiler’s story, which is set in 1989: they are broadcast on a radio located on the remote GDR island of Hiddensee, where a group of people have set up a poetic utopia far removed from affairs of state.

Seiler’s rejection of the term “novel of the turnaround”, or “Wenderoman”, may also be motivated by the fact that today, a quarter of a century after those events, a paradigm of literary criticism has since been reversed: the much repeated question, “Where’s the novel about the turnabout?” has in the meantime given rise to the realisation that there are already very many of them. One could even claim that most German-speaking writers of any distinction have approached the theme in one way or another, albeit with a similar scepticism towards the label as Seiler’s.

Lutz Seiler about “Kruso”

Considering this scepticism about the term “Wenderoman”, the question of what it actually is becomes all the more relevant. That any literary involvement with unification should be more than a verbal chronicle of the collective memory that gelled swiftly into iconic TV images had made many authors take the view, particularly in the early 1990s, that the theme would be better dealt with in an essay or diary. Nevertheless, whenever authors approached the theme in fiction, many of them chose a poetics of blanks and mystification: there was already a certain tradition of novels treating the turnabout as a non-event, even before Kruso, from Monika Maron’s Stille Zeile Sechs (1991), in which a critical historian writes the memoirs of an old communist, to Reinhard Jirgl’s formally and chronologically difficult story of two brothers separated by German division, A Farewell to Enemies (1995), to Sven Regener’s novel Herr Lehmann (2001), which may well be set in autumn 1989, but takes place mainly in pubs in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Absurd alternative story of the Fall of the Wall

Any book which addressed the theme of the night of 9 November 1989 directly had to reckon with strong criticism: in Thomas Hettche’s short novel Nox (1995), which describes an act of oral sex uniting East and West, among other things, cultural editor with Der Spiegel, Volker Hage, saw little more than “a crude mixture of genital and wall openings”. Thomas Brussig’s best-selling novel Heroes like us (1995) also attempted a similar mix, albeit in a satirical way; his picaresque narrator tells an absurd alternative story of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Critics tended to celebrate as “great novels of the turnabout” mainly those works structured as a panorama which basically also provided a full, or at least extensive, history of the GDR, like Michael Kumpfmüller’s Hampel’s Flights (2000), Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower (2008) or Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light (2011).

The term “Wenderoman” however was also often criticised as mere wishful thinking on the part of literary critics and publishers’ advertising departments. What is more, it was sloppy and ambiguous, as it often only referred to books written after the turnaround and ignored such works as possibly even helped bring it about: the debate about the “intellectual-ideological turnabout” did, after all, originate inside the late GDR.

An “eastern German male preserve”?

As the theme gradually becomes historicised, the question soon to be raised is who is actually writing “Wenderomane”. With a view to names like Jurek Becker, Wolfgang Hilbig, Clemens Meyer, Ingo Schulze, Uwe Tellkamp and Lutz Seiler, one could get the impression that the “Wenderoman” was an “eastern German male preserve”, to quote Andreas Platthaus, literary critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Yet in that very broad literary field one can in the meantime find numerous counter-examples, of which the works of Christa Wolf, Monika Maron, Julia Schoch, Kathrin Aehnlich, Peter Schneider, Ernst-Wilhelm Händler, Jan Böttcher, Sven Regener and Günter Grass are just a few. Even foreign-language book like Nicholas Shakespeare’s Snowleg (2004) can be counted among the “turnaround novels”.

Yet while ever new novels of the turnaround appear, and will continue to appear, particularly around anniversaries – 2014 and 2015 saw the publication of André Kubiczek’s Der kurze Sommer der Anarchie and Peter Richter’s 89/90 – it is difficult to make out trends. Just when you think you perceive a development from the more ideological debates of the early phase to a lighter, also popular literary tone, you will quickly be put right by highly poetic works rich in literary and historical references, such as Kruso.