Winner of the 2008 German Book Prize

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Well, I certainly exercised my muscles reading this one!  My biceps have been toned by a 1004 page chunkster, published by Allen Lane, though for those who prefer e-books, it is also available from Frisch & Co.  

The Tower is an elaborate and intricate novel, requiring serious attention. It doesn’t read quickly and is as good a work out for the brain as for the biceps. I suspect it will spawn many a Ph. D.  I took six weeks to read it (with interruptions – I found I needed some light relief now and again) but I can’t think of a more appropriate book to review on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.

Tellkamp’s novel charts the last five year’s of the GDR, mainly through the experience of the Hoffmann family: Richard, the father, Christian, the son, and Meno, Christian’s uncle.  It starts in the run-up to Richard’s 50th birthday gathering, a set-piece which Germanists will recognise is a nod to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.  Further nods are evident in the long, complex sentences (which the translator Mike Mitchell has chosen to preserve) and the echo of the novel’s subtitle. Tellkamp’s scope is grander than Mann’s though.  This is not only a family going to ruin, but a whole society, and that without an iota of Ostalgie. 

Not that Tellkamp blasts with both barrels blazing. His is an intellectual dismantling of the state.  Richard is a surgeon; Meno a literary editor; Christian is at the start a high school pupil, wishing to follow in his father’s footsteps. They have as comfortable an existence as possible in the GDR.  They live in the Tower – a district, on the heights of Dresden, a kind of intellectual space, cushioned in some respects from the crass realities of life in the GDR.  This allows them to enjoy their social gatherings, their musical recitals, and the relative freedom to make the state the butt of their jokes.

Their ‘freedom’ is but an illusion. The state is everywhere and chinks in personal armour ruthlessly exploited. Richard has sired a second family and the Stasi uses that to exert pressure on him to become an informer. His refusal has repercussions on the whole family but most particularly on Christian, a Tonio Kröger figure (more allusions to Mann), who pays the price of his father’s missteps and his own youthful naivety. His story, which contains elements of the author’s own, is of a person who must be crushed.  Extended army service, it transpires, is an excellent vehicle for such uncompromising outcomes.

Of the three, Meno fairs best.  A zoologist by training, he now works as an editor for a prestigious publisher. While there is no doubting his love of literature, and his recognition of literary talent, he is not the man to disregard state policy and he continues to censor the works of those he publishes. Nor will he defend the talented female author, Judith Schevola,  even when she is threatened with expulsion from the Writer’s Union and the loss of her livelihood. 

The scientist in him makes Meno a keen observer, and parts of the novel take the form of his personal diary and notebooks.  I’ll be honest here.  I dreaded those italicised sections.  So much detail equalled too much detail for me.  Although I resisted the urge to skim, these sections often felt like a call to admire the author’s descriptive prowess. Instead they killed the pace …. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t some skillful writing to be enjoyed and admired. The stealing of the trees for the hospital’s inter-departmental Christmas tree contest is priceless; the visit to the Leipzig Book Fair illuminating. (Actually, a Meno entry, so they are not all tedious). Christian’s experiences are harrowing, as the state reduces him to the no-one indicated by his nickname, Nemo.  For those who love nothing better than layer upon layer of literary intertextuality, Tellkamp offers many, many more than I could register.

Behind it all, however, is life as it was lived in the GDR. The mundanity, the shortages, the farce, the corruption, the fear of the hidden informer. Lives made and broken at the whim of a faceless state.  It is only in the final 50 pages, or as holes in Iron Curtain appear in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that dissenting voices find the courage for public protest. The army is deployed to control the masses.  This state is not about to surrender. 

But then, all at once …

The clocks struck, struck 9 November, ‘Germany, our Fatherland’, their chimes knocking on the Brandenburg Gate:

 The rest they say is history.