Christoph Hein
Chronicler of the Present

Christoph Hein; © Jürgen Bauer / Suhrkamp Verlag
Christoph Hein | Photo (detail): © Jürgen Bauer / Suhrkamp Verlag

With the novel „Der fremde Freund“ / „Drachenblut“ (The Distant Lover / Dragon Blood) began the career of one of the most important narrative writers of East Germany. Today Christoph Hein remains a keen observer of our fragile present.

Christoph Hein’s works now span three decades. Born in 1944 in Silesia, he lived through the early years of GDR in adverse circumstances and bore witness to his experience, first as a dramatist and then as a narrative writer. Since as a pastor’s son he was barred admission to high school in East Germany, Hein struggled along in simple jobs until, after taking a belated high-school diploma and studying philosophy at university, he found his way to the Volksbühne in Berlin. He remains associated with the theater to this day. Since Schlötel oder was solls (Schlötel, or What’s the Point, 1974), Hein has continued to write theater pieces; for example, Die Ritter der Tafelrunde(The Knights of the Round Table), which in the eventful year of 1989 was felt to be an allusion to the congealed GDR government.

His best known narrative work is the novella Der fremde Freund (The Distant Lover, 1982), which, for reasons of title copyright, was published by the West German Luchterhand Publishers as Drachenblut (Dragon Blood, 1983). Growing success in West Germany enabled Hein take a critical position towards his own government: in a speech to the 10th Writers’ Conference of the GDR, which took place from November 24 – 26, November 1987, he sharply criticized the practice of censorship; as a speaker at the mass rally at the Alexanderplatz in Berlin on November 4, 1989, he spoke up for a reform of the ailing state.

Hein’s novels often deal with individual fates: from the doctor in The Distant Lover, who shuts herself off from the outside world, to the painter Paula Trousseau and the academic Rüdiger Stolzenburg is not a long way. This continuity is the recipe for the success of Hein’s books: the turning-point years of 1989/90 have led him neither to a lapse into silence nor to a radical transformation. In re-united Germany after 1990, a new novel by Hein has appeared almost every year.

The continuity of history

At the beginning of Hein’s current phase of work is the novel Landnahme (Settlement), which the newspapers celebrated as a “great novel about Germany”. The historical novel, published in 2004, begins in the GDR of the early 1950s and extends to the unified present day. It focuses on the fictional small town of Guldenberg, where Bernhard Haber, the outsider, rises to become the most important man in the place. In this tale the continuity that is characteristic of Hein’s work comes clearly to the fore: in a vast panorama, he treats the history of the GDR without pathos and links it to history after 1990. Business relationships, cliques, cronies and economic success are the factors that endure. Under which prevailing system this happens is secondary: that is the sober message for all those who hope to learn a lesson from history.

The sobriety with which Hein, who sees himself as a chronicler without a message, narrates his stories can get out of hand: critics were unconvinced by his In seiner frühen Kindheit ein Garten(2005) (In His Early Childhood, A Garden). The tone was too sedate, the story of a father who fights against the windmills of the justice system and is condemned to failure too ponderous. The explosive subject of the terrorist attack at Bad Kleinen, in which a terrorist and a policeman were killed, was not able to help the novel become a bestseller.

Far from all GDR nostalgia

Hein followed the success of Landnahme with a dramatic but exceptionally quiet and lovingly told story of a woman whose last resort is suicide: like Settlement, Frau Paula Trousseau(2007) (Mrs. Paula Trousseau) spans the period from the 1950s to the present. The main character, a painter at the Leipzig Art Academy, is initially successful, yet ultimately fails with herself: exploited by men, unhappy in her work, she drowns herself in the Loire at her last residence in France. It is remarkable how consistently and sensitively Hein succeeds in changing perspective: a woman’s autobiography, movingly written from the point of view of a man.

Hein’s most recent novel, Weiskerns Nachlass (2011, Weiskern’s Legacy) is a contribution to the debate on the state of our spiritual milieu. The literary scholar Rüdiger Stolzenburg is confronted by certain bankruptcy when he receives a tax arrears demand that he cannot possibly settle. With masterly precision, Hein shows how a human being is reduced to bare existence: suddenly Stolzenburg is threatened not only economically but also in life and limb. He enters into a dubious deal with purportedly invaluable documents concerning his research area, the Mozart contemporary Wilhelm Weiskern.

In the last ten years Christoph Hein, with his thorough psychological studies of individual fates, has made a place for himself in contemporary German literature that is far from GDR nostalgia. He has retained his trademark sobriety and precise observation, but the subjects he has taken up in recent years are anything but from yesterday.