Cherrypicker  Strong anti-hero

Railroad station of Gittersee in Saxony, cover of the book "Gittersee" by Charlotte Gneuß © S. Fischer Verlag (Cover), Echtner, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons (Background)

Charlotte Gneuss’s everyday drama set in East Germany is surprising for its oppressive intensity and extraordinary, ordinary protagonist.

Gneuß: Gittersee © S. Fischer 16-year-old Karin Förster, the protagonist of the debut novel by Berlin author Charlotte Gneuss, is living the reality of socialist existence in the Dresdner suburb of Gittersee. Her life comprises her dysfunctional family, her school, which rigidly adheres to the socialist dogma of the time, her best friend, the somewhat chaotic Marie, and her boyfriend Paul, an aspiring artist. It is Paul she is worried about, however – and it is he who ends up turning this dubious idyll upside down. Overnight, the young man has disappeared, and the police turn up at Karin’s door asking questions, as the authorities suspect him of having defected to the West. The good people of Gittersee are appalled and Karin makes acquaintance with the local Stasi, who turn out to be far less secretive than films have us believe.

Where is Paul?

The various attempts to piece together Paul’s departure reveal little about what has happened, as his plan and its execution remain obscure. Paul’s best friend appears to have helped him but failed to escape himself; he is still there but has no idea where Paul is now. Karin knew nothing of Paul’s plans either, and is left with far more questions than answers. Meanwhile, life in Gittersee goes on, somehow. And yet everything suddenly seems to have begun shifting, and doubts have been cast on relationships. Karin’s best friend turns her back on her and family life at home is fraught with marital and alcohol problems. Karin allows herself – naively and with some modicum of pride, though also hesitantly – to be recruited by the local authorities as an informant and finally begins to understand that she too is but a small cog in a large machine.

Everyday life in an unconstitutional state

Charlotte Gneuss’s novel Gittersee is a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of the totalitarian system of East Germany, which knew just how to conceal its perfidious ideological iniquity behind a conventional facade of bourgeois order. Told consistently from the first-person perspective of an adolescent young woman, details such as exactly when the events took place remain vague, as does information about the political environment. Readers are immersed directly in the world of the sixteen-year-old and experience the brutal way in which this unconstitutional state intervenes in the everyday lives of its citizens, the transgressive behaviour of her male “friends”, which she accepts as a matter of course, the indifference and hypocrisy of a society touted as a socialist community, and the ridiculous bullshit of the propaganda slogans.

None of this reads like a kind of final reckoning with the system, but rather like a diary whose resigned matter-of-factness appears all the more tragic. Karin is neither unhappy nor helpless, she is strong, realistic and rational. She does not despair of her life but rather questions it and searches for answers, she is inquisitive and shrewd. Despite her various faults and weaknesses it is impossible not to like her, this anti-hero whose laconic accounts paint such a precise picture of her world that it becomes almost palpable. Just like the places where the action happens, the few characters are sketched out in only rudimentary fashion, and yet their presence is tangible. As Karin would say, they are simply there, and there’s not much one can do about it.

Narrated GDR

Charlotte Gneuss’s short and unspectacular story is quite a read. That the publisher S. Fischer Verlag should have submitted it for the German Book Prize was no doubt a strategic decision to some extent – a young debut author writing on a theme that is very much in vogue just now – yet the subsequent nomination for the longlist is entirely deserved. Young Karin’s voice continues to echo in one’s ears long afterwards. She leaves the reader with that all too rare sense of having experienced how life must have been like in East Germany. And yet Charlotte Gneuss is familiar with the GDR only from the stories of her parents and from the countless interviews she must have conducted while researching the book: she was not born until 1992 – three years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – in the West German city of Ludwigsburg.

Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank Charlotte Gneuß: Gittersee. Roman
Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 2023. 240 S.
ISBN: 978-3-10-397088-3