Warning – Julia Franck’s Back to Back is not for the faint-hearted. This story of two siblings, Ella and Thomas, and their single mother, Käthe, in the DDR of the 1950’s is a catalogue of systematic abuse be it emotional, physical or psychological. The perpetrators are varied: the mother, whose indifference to her children defies belief; the lodger, a member of the Party, who torments and rapes the daughter with impunity; the state, which insists in pulling the son down a peg or two, dismantling his ambitions and future prospects, simply because he is the son of an artist and refuses to join the party.
I almost decided to abandon the book at the end of chapter one, where Franck paints a picture of the mother so black, Cruella de Ville appears like the fairy godmother in comparison. I continued because I admire Franck’s previous novel, the German book prize winning, The Blind Side of the Heart. I also realised that Käthe is metaphorical. I came to terms with her behaviour only by viewing her as a monstrous representative of the indifference and brutality of the totalitarian state. et it be said though that Franck’s portrayal is slightly more nuanced than that. In the second half Käthe becomes more human. Historical details explain her attitude and when her son is endangered, she displays, as far as she can, genuine concern. Is this enough to excuse her? Not by a long chalk.
The hub of the novel is the sibling relationship, so close it is almost symbiotic when the children are small. Without each other they would not survive, even if they are powerless to change anything. As adulthood approaches, life sends them, scarred and ill-equipped, in different directions. While the grip of the mother lessens (a good thing), the hold of the state tightens with the appearance of the Berlin Wall (a dreadful thing). Without each other, Ella and Thomas are hopeless and lonely. Will they be able to find consolation in the arms of a lover?
In terms of unrelenting misery, Back to Back is on par with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Once upon a time I would have found this uplifting in a there-but-for-the-grace kind of way. Right now, though, I’m missing the light and shade that Eugen Ruge injected into In Times of Fading Light. Then again, that novel is set at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when hope was on the horizon and individuals could once again find themselves.
Thomas’s existential crisis is that he is always following the Wall. With no view over or beyond it, he is hemmed in. The despair that engendered is revealed by poems, interspersed throughout, which were penned by Franck’s uncle when a young man. They serve as evidence that (some of) this fictional world isn’t over-exaggerated at all.