New generation of East German writers transcends the clichés of ‘Ostalgie’

New generation of East German writers transcends the clichés of ‘Ostalgie’

On paper, East and West Germany united thirty-four years ago in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, but in reality there was never any real unity. As if in a bad marriage, the inhabitants of East and West look at each other with alienation, suspicion and incomprehension. That’s a shame for all those disillusioned Germans, it’s a great gift for literature. Not only an unhappy childhood is a gold mine for a writer, any form of misery is, and the East German misery after the fall of the Wall has now been a healthy, vibrant literary lifeline for almost thirty-five years.

Although the production of what is called ‘Wendeliteratur’ in Germany has been constant for quite a long time, you can see a change in tone. In the years after unification, anger prevailed on both sides of the crumbling wall. The Western story about the end of the GDR is about liberation, about the abolition of the dictatorship, the victory of democracy. What is lost in this is the fact that most East Germans, including those who en masse took part in illegal protests all over their country, not wanting the end of the GDR but a better GDR. The prevailing hope was for a more humane, but still socialist, alternative to the ruthless capitalism of the West – a socialism ‘for the sake of freedom’, as the East German writer Christa Wolf put it.

Instead, their country ceased to exist overnight, being swallowed up by West Germany. There was then disillusionment and panic among East Germans – about the rent suddenly increasing tenfold, the familiar institutions being abolished, the protective socialist safety net under which everyone (apart from the party apparatchiks) was equally rich – or equally poor, depending on how you look at it. There was incomprehension among West Germans about the lack of gratitude from their eastern neighbors who, finally freed from their brutal police state, could not stop complaining – earning them the nickname ‘Jammerossis’.

In his overview work Literaturgeschichte der German Einheit 1989-2000: Fremdheit between East and West (2019), literary scholar Arne Born shows how the deep alienation between East and West Germany dominated literature in the years after the Wende, in the form of clichés, accusations, caricatures and stereotypes. West Germans are cold, superficial, incapable of true friendship, and they only care about money. East Germans are lazy and lax, passive, stupid, lethargic. Wendeliteratur was, in short, a literature of disappointment, of mutual incomprehension.

New Generation

A new generation of East German writers – because it is primarily an East German genre, ultimately it is the former inhabitants of the GDR on whom the fall of the Wall had the greatest influence – writes differently. This generation grew up in the GDR, but was young enough to learn how to live in the West after the collapse of their country. They write with less rancor and bitterness, with more attention to the everyday lives of ordinary people in the GDR, to whatever good was lost with the end of the dictatorship – in a way that goes beyond a simplistic ‘Ostalgia’.

This is shown by two new novels by writers who both experienced the fall of the Wall as young adults: Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck and The love couple of the century by Julia Schoch. In both books, an obsessive love begins and ends against the background of political changes in East Germany.

Masterful novel

Jenny Erpenbeck (1967) is well on her way to becoming the new grande dame of German literature. Her work is praised and wins many prizes and Erpenbeck is regularly tipped for the Nobel Prize. Several of her books were translated into Dutch and received a lot of attention here too. In her new, masterful novel, an increasingly grim affair mirrors the end of the GDR.

Katharina and Hans met in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall. Katharina – nineteen years old, full of life, inquisitive, a bit naive – just catches the bus with Hans on and almost immediately a passionate passion ignites between the two of the kind that can only end badly. Hans is fifty-three (ten years older than Katharina’s father), a renowned writer with glasses, nicotine fingers and a cynical view of the world.

The first months of their love are told in breathless prose, without quotation marks; thoughts and spoken words intertwine in a way that reflects the intensity of their attraction. At the same time, the compelling style underlines how different they are from each other. When they lie in each other’s arms for the first time, we read: ‘It will never be like today again, Hans thinks. It will be like this forever, Katharina thinks.’

From the beginning, Hans is more teacher than lover, he wants Katharina to see everything through his eyes. From the beginning, Hans has been busy shaping Katharina to his wishes. This happens so gradually and subtly that Katharina hardly notices it. Very casually we read, for example, that Hans ‘put a lot of effort [heeft] done to ensure that she adapted to him.’ She listens to his music, reads the books he recommends to her. Hans introduces increasingly violent kinky games in the bedroom – tying up, whipping, that work; she accepts it resignedly, almost gratefully. In this way, Katharina increasingly becomes his doll, his toy.

When Hans – himself married and no stranger to affairs – finds out that Katharina has slept with a fellow student, he imposes a brutal punishment on her that lasts for years and the way in which Katharina meekly complies with his revenge is difficult to read. Hans turns out to be a sadistic master manipulator.

Like the totalitarian East German state with regard to its citizens, Hans will not rest until he has completely subdued Katharina; Just as the Stasi wants to know everything about its subjects, Hans demands access to her innermost being. Katharina has to show him her diaries, her diary, her notes and letters, and as a reader you get the feeling that the reason she gives in so easily to his demands has to do with the fact that all her life she has been used to to her equally tyrannical state. Hans’ longing for control and being Wille zur Macht take on a deeper political meaning towards the end of the book that I won’t reveal here, but that will make you see the story in a new light.

Paralyzing melancholy

You can tell that Katharina is finally starting to break away from Hans in the style before you see it in the plot: slowly but surely the novel is only told from her perspective, a sign that she is developing her own voice. But instead of relief, she is overcome by a feeling of paralyzing melancholy. She frees herself from her tormentor, but has also lost her great love. The end of the affair is synchronous with the end of the GDR, both started in euphoric hope, ended in pain and desperation. Kairos beautifully shows how harrowing the fall of the Wall was for ordinary citizens, how the world as they knew it was wiped away in one blow. ‘What was familiar,’ Katharina thinks, ‘is about to disappear. The good and the bad.’

Kairos grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let you go, which almost makes you feel relieved when you close the book. The Love Couple of the Century on the other hand, it takes you loosely by the hand and pulls you deeper and deeper into the story and when it’s over you think, what? already? It is a completely different kind of novel – fluid in form, austere in tone, abstract and philosophical and full of self-mockery – but no less impressive than Kairos.

Historical begins The loving couple Where Kairos ends: the lovers of the title, who remain nameless, meet each other a few years after the fall of the Wall. But here too it is about the way in which the GDR has permanently shaped its citizens. In The loving couple the narrator obsessively clings to her lover because she has lost her identity with the demise of communism.

Rising star

In her own country Julia Schoch (1974) is a rising literary star, outside Germany she is less known; this is the first of her novels to be translated into Dutch and hopefully not the last.

The loving couple falls straight to the point. “It’s actually very simple,” the first sentence reads, “I’m leaving you.” This story is not about what happens, but how it happens and why. For the woman, this is not just love from the beginning. The man keeps his own life, goes his own way, but she is completely absorbed in him, becomes increasingly dependent on him. “It made sense to me to give up everything for you,” she says quickly. She wants to identify with him so much that she starts dressing like him, even cutting her hair so that she looks more like him. She is not so much looking for a man as for a new narrative for her life; she always calls her relationship ‘our story’. When, somewhere in the beginning, he doesn’t show up for a while, she worries: ‘Not so much about you. I was worried about our story.”

The story of her childhood was wiped out with the end of the GDR; the woman has a DDR-shaped hole inside her that needs to be filled. “We both grew up in a dictatorship,” she reflects. As a non-GDR citizen you expect a treatise about the repressive regime, about fear and paranoia, but what she then thinks is: ‘It is difficult to describe the sweet hopelessness in which our childhood took place.’ “There was freedom,” she writes elsewhere. “Yet it seemed like all my friends, including myself, wanted to die.”

Even though the woman was seventeen when the Wall fell, young enough to start over, she still failed to settle in the new Germany. She longs for ‘a time full of coercion and tutelage from outside… In such a time you know that others are responsible for your misery and the feeling that you are unhappy. In the world of total freedom in which we lived, it was only a private matter, only my business. It seemed to me infinitely easier to strive for freedom than to live in it.’

As the years pass, a woman breaks free from the unhealthy bond that has tied her to her husband. What initially attracted her to him was his desire to be unique; it’s something new for her. ‘In the world of my childhood it was better not to be an individual. And even now it feels a bit like a swear word.’ In order to function in the reunified Germany, you have to be an individual, not absorbed into the collective as was expected in East Germany. The woman must also become an individual, but she cannot do that as long as she is absorbed in her husband. That is the painful paradox of their marriage: what she had to learn from him is the same as what is now driving her away from him: “You could say that emancipation is the death of love.”

Kairos and The love couple of the century show how perhaps only now, thirty-five years later, is it really becoming clear what the fall of the Wall meant for people. Is the end of ‘our story’ an account ‘of a gradual loss or of a liberation?’ the woman asks The loving couple wonders. Erpenbeck and Schoch ask the same question with their novels about the GDR and the answer, each in their own way, is of course: both.