Book Three of TJ’s 12 Germans in 2016 and, at last, things are coming together. I abandoned Book One (Sasa Stanisíc’s How The Soldier Played The Gramophone), and read, enjoyed and promptly forgot everything about Book Two (Judith Hermann’s Summerhouse, Later). No point trying to blog about it now.
But here we are blogging – to schedule – about Book 3 … even though I wouldn’t use the word enjoy to describe the (s)experience!
Maria is 16, has fled her divorcée mother’s home because she can’t stand the sadness. She now lives with her boyfriend, Johannes Brendel, in his attic bedroom on his family’s farm. Although they are both still attending school, Maria is playing truant, unsure whether she will ever return. She biding her time. The Brendels take her in, accept her and gradually she learns some useful skills – how to cook, how to sell in the farm shop, serve at the local tavern. She also learns the arts of duplicity and deception … because she meets a man.
Hard-drinking Henner, 40 years of age, abandoned by his wife years ago, lives alone on a neighbouring farm. Even with a bad reputation, he’s a bit of a hunk. Johannes’s mother has the hots for him. But from the moment he makes a pass at Maria, she is his, as he awakes desires in her that Johannes has yet to imagine. From here on in, its one tryst after the next. The emphasis on feeling, not graphic physicality, but there is sufficient detail to know that Henner is not a tender lover – in fact, he is abusive more often than not.
And here I take issue with the blurb. Does this rather sordid tale sound like “a magnificent love story” to you? There’s only one piece of evidence that convinces me that Henner is not simply taking advantage of a gullible young girl, and that’s the ending.
Fortunately there’s more to this novel than the affair. Set in the Thuringian countryside, during the transition – after the fall of the Wall but before reunification- the concerns of Johannes’s family reflect the worries of DDR farming communities of the time. Will Western safety laws and machinery standards force their antiquated farms out of business? At the same time new opportunities arise. Freedom of movement, for instance. There are a number of outings to the West, where the wonders of the consumer society become apparent. A brother who left the East is reunited with his family 25 years later. And most importantly, doors to higher education that had been closed to Maria, due to her refusal to pledge allegiance to the socialist state, are suddenly reopened.
Not that she has grasped this as the story starts. Perhaps those closed doors account for her lack of purpose and what I’m seeing as her captivity to Henner. It’s only when she’s entirely free from Henner aka the DDR that a meaningful future is possible. Or am I reading too much into it?