East German Literature: Challenges and Triumphs in Cultural Recognition
Friday, 19 July 2024 20:40

East German Literature: Challenges and Triumphs in Cultural Recognition

Published in Fiction

Germany’s minister of state for culture, the senior Green politician Claudia Roth, one of the almost exclusively West German-born government officials, voiced her surprise at a recent literary event upon discovering that there were other books on East German (GDR) bookshelves than the ones she knew. This was a rare admission of sheer ignorance of the cultural background of one fifth of the German population – well over thirty years after ‘unification’.

The sum total of Roth’s knowledge of the arts in the socialist part of Germany is the Western knee-jerk response: ‘repression’. This view reveals fathomless ignorance, both of a highly cultured and educated public with thousands of outstanding, world-class writers, artists and musicians, and of the German and international humanist tradition from which they arose.

Instead, everything is done to extinguish any memory of this: literary prizes are awarded to writers who reinforce the Western hegemony of ideas, its sole claim to the interpretation of history.  Not only in Germany, but internationally too, novels about the ‘horrors of socialism’ tend to get more traction than books that present a more differentiated picture. The International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, has not had a local, East German management for 20 years, with Ms. Roth controlling the coffers. Any attempt to grapple with the radical denial of achievements and well-lived lives is suppressed or ridiculed.

And so it is with Jenny Erpenbeck: including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which preceded the International Booker Prize, it is the sixth time this author has been nominated for the award. No other German writer has achieved this. While Erpenbeck is very well-known abroad, Der Spiegel has ignored her. She has never won the German Book Prize or the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Indeed, Kairos did not even make it onto the longlist for the German Book Prize.

So the appreciation on the international stage of East German literature, written from an informed perspective, must be warmly welcomed. Not only did Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn Mon Amour win the 2023 Dublin Literary Award, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is now on the shortlist for the 2024 International Booker Prize. Indeed, Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall has been received far more favourably internationally than in Germany.

To read Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel is an eye-opener for those who wish to find out more about life in East Germany (GDR) in the final years of its existence and beyond. Unprejudiced readers will discover a highly cultured society, a place where everybody has free access to education, training and a job. For readers who remember the GDR, the book includes deeper levels of meaning – a wealth of references to a dizzying array of fine artists who lived there or those who were  part of the antifascist tradition.

The novel spans the years 1986 to 1992, with the final section depicting the dissolution of the state, mass redundancies, plunges into unemployment, unaffordable rents and cultural hollowness. Erpenbeck knows what she is writing about: She was a young adult during the years the novel is set. Her paternal grandparents had been persecuted in Nazi Germany and lived in exile in the USSR, where her father was born. Both her grandparents were well-known authors in the GDR – her grandfather, Fritz Erpenbeck, was a publisher and wrote crime novels, and her grandmother Hedda Zinna addressed many themes, including the situation of women in the GDR. Erpenbeck’s father, John Erpenbeck, is a physicist and a writer. Her mother was an Arabist who lost her academic post with unification.

Jenny Erpenbeck builds her story of the final years of the GDR around the narrative of a relationship between a 19-year-old woman, Katharina, and a 53-year-old writer and radio broadcaster, Hans. The relationship soon develops into one of psychological control and masochistic overtones, making the young woman feel unworthy and dependent. Erpenbeck portrays her male protagonist Hans as a very well-read author who has had frequent affairs. In several respects, his childhood in Nazi Germany has cast shadows on his adulthood. This includes Hans’ need to blame and punish others for perceived ‘betrayal’, his latent violence, his need to feel superior and be controlling.

Katharina, on the other hand, only realizes late on that the relationship is destroying her, because she considers herself emancipated. Hans’ trajectory from a Hitler Youth to one who now unquestioningly follows a different flag is representative for his generation, while Katharina is more characteristic of her own age group, born into the GDR and naive to Hans’ manipulation.

Why does the author connect the story of this affair with the collapse of socialism? Erpenbeck herself explains in an interview that “Betrayal and lying are at the center of my work, as are the layers of truth”. When Hans in a fit of jealousy emotionally torments Katharina for having a fling with someone her own age while on work practice, she learns that if “I tell the truth, I get punished.” Erpenbeck explains:

Kairos is a slow process of how something meant as a kind of truth actually transforms into a relationship with lying at its centre. As it was in the political history of the GDR. Ideas were received enthusiastically in the beginning, a new start after fascist times. Slowly, a certain vocabulary was forbidden, a certain exchange of opinions not allowed. People started to deliver ready-made sentences.

However, she adds, “we are coming to a similar time now, because there are certain sentences that you are supposed to deliver and others sentences that you are not supposed to deliver anymore.” Erpenbeck does not turn a blind eye to the new reality of post-socialist Germany.

Aside from the relationship at the heart of the novel, Erpenbeck strives to capture not the spectacular or dramatic, but the everyday lives of people. Hans’ knowledge of early post-war cold-war history certainly adds to the deeper dimensions of history, reflecting times before Katharina was born. This includes, for example, the efforts made by the Soviet Union for a unified neutral Germany after the war:

“Adenauer sold the East for NATO membership.

What do you mean by sold”?

The Russians, he tells her, were willing to allow free secret elections throughout Germany — there was only one condition: a unified Germany was not to join a military pact directed against the Soviet Union.

Aha, she says.

Which makes sense in view of twenty-seven million Soviet dead in the War. They even applied to join NATO.

Who did? The USSR?

The USSR. But of course that wasnt approved. Anti-Communism was the name of the project all along — from Hitler to the Western Alliance to the Federal Republic.”

As the story progresses to the dissolution of the GDR and its annexation by West Germany, Erpenbeck incorporates detailed references and documents regarding the aspirations of many for socialism. These desires are integral to the intricate historical backdrop of the book:

Socialism must find its own democratic form, but not lose itself. That’s what it says in a paper that Katharina’s mother and Ralph put their names to and showed her over their drinks. In its quest for a durable form of social organization, humanity needs alternatives to Western consumer society. Welfare must not be at the expense of poor countries.

However, the swift emergence of capitalist, semi-colonialist reality soon dashes any hopes for a more democratic socialist system:

Already the eastern districts have started to smell different, clean and nicely scented West Berliners are inspecting streets that are named for the working-class president Wilhelm Pieck, the Bulgarian Communist leader Dimitrov, the socialist prime minister Otto Grotewohl — all names that mean nothing to them. They will use the word grey” to describe the section of the city that has no neon advertisements.”

(NB It is regrettable that the people mentioned here mean as little to the West German translator Michael Hofmann as they do to the West Berliners mentioned in this passage, resulting in incorrect translation. A cursory check in Wikipedia would have enlightened him, and even electronic translation software gets it right. I have therefore retranslated the excerpt above). 

In contrast to the flood of so-called memoirs of the East, often written by people who have no knowledge or memory of this epoch, Erpenbeck's narrative diverges from the prevalent Western discourse. Through her portrayal of ordinary lives, she poignantly illustrates the losses endured after 1990. There are no signs of dissatisfaction or social unhappiness on the part of the characters and their wider circles. When Katharina travels to Cologne for her aunt's 70th birthday, it is not a trip to paradise. Her aunt is no better off than before; she lives quite poorly in a basement flat. Money is very central, as are other Western values. Similarly, the characters' excursion to Moscow is depicted with depth and insight, reflecting Erpenbeck's nuanced approach.

In the book's concluding section, the atmosphere during the fall of the Berlin Wall is vividly recreated. In an interview with an East Berlin newspaper, Erpenbeck discusses her research into the momentous social upheaval of 1989/90 for the novel, highlighting discrepancies between historical facts and her own memories:

And it was only then that I realized how short the gap was between the fall of the Wall and the moment when it became clear that reunification was imminent. It was just eight weeks! From November to January. In my memory, the euphoria, the feeling of self-empowerment and the new beginning took up a huge amount of space. In reality, from January onwards, everyone had to make sure that they understood how the Federal Republic worked as quickly as possible. By then, the brief period of coming of age was already over.

About the wholesale redundancy of GDR employees she writes in Kairos, recreating the exact circumstances:

Early in December 1991, Hans is dismissed, along with all the other 13,000 employees of the broadcasting services of a state that no longer exists. And because the waiting rooms and corridors of the Berlin labor exchange are too small to take the 3,000 who are suddenly out of work in the capital alone, the labour exchange sets up for three days in the great broadcasting hall of the East Berlin Broadcasting Service and gives a guest performance there.”

On the full-scale destruction of a literature, reminiscent of the Nazi book burning, she comments:

Books Worth 240,000 Marks in the Trash: The Karl Marx bookstore on Wednesday cleared out its unsold stock. The manager says he needs warehouse space for new titles. Even quality literature had proved unsalable. For many tons of books, the trash heap is the final destination.”

Erpenbeck provides an insider’s perspective. Her characters are believable and lead fulfilling lives. East German readers appreciate Erpenbeck's portrayal of their lives and achievements, which resonates with their own experiences and preserves their dignity. Whether or not Kairos receives the International Booker Prize on 21 May, it is a book well worth reading.

Editor's Note: The judges clearly agreed with Jenny Farrell, as the book has won the 2024 International Booker Prize.