Translated from German by Samuel P Willcocks and Shaun Whiteside
Seagull Books have been turning their attention to German cult classics of late. With a fair number in my TBR, I thought it was time to get started with the latter, an uncompleted East German novel written between 1959 and 1965, but never actually published in Germany until 2007. The long, complicated story of how it came to be banned in the DDR is available in German on wikipedia.de. The essence is simply that Bräunig omitted the sugar-coating demanded by the state resulting in a novel that depicted life in the early DDR 1949-1953 warts and all. Not that Bräunig was unsympathetic to socialism. He just wanted to show the difficulties of building a successful socialist state in a new country, decimated by war and with limited natural resources.
Bräunig is writing of the generation coming of age through the formative years of the DDR; the years during which ideology and pragmatism were often at loggerheads, when those who wished to be practical were often silenced by the idealists. So it is that the vast majority of his cast are young people, late teens to early twenties, beginning their adult lives in the Wismut uranium mines or the paper factory at Bermsthal. Both settings familiar to the author – he had first-hand experience of working in both.
To rebuild the economy the DDR needed workers. To compete with America, Russia needed atomic weapons. Hence the strategic importance of the Wismut uranium mine. Work there was strenuous and dangerous, but wages, in comparison to other trades, were good. The novel begins as Christian Kleinschmidt and Peter Loose start their contracts at the mine. The backgrounds of both couldn’t be more different. Christian has just been denied university for 2 years because his father is an intellectual, and has been sent to the mine to condition his mind. Peter Loose, his father a Nazi, has been thrown out of his home by his stepfather. Down on his luck and yet his downward spiral continues without letup. Christian, however, comes to terms with his fate, digs in (pun unintended) and makes a success of his time in the mines.
The two are mentored by Hermann Fischer, a communist by conviction, who provides a bridge to the paper factory, as his daughter, Ruth, works there. With the support of management, she becomes the model of the female socialist worker, becoming a machine leader, despite the opposition of the male workforce. Her romance with the personnel manager flounders, however, when he begins to align with the more zealous idealogues.
The older generation are represented by the afore-mentioned Hermann Fischer, and the director of the paper factory, Dr Jungandres, a denazified pragmatist, too old to seek a new future in the West, who is left to pick up the pieces when the rest of the management team, with the exception of Ruth’s boyfriend, abscond en masse!
I’m barely scratching the surface of the novel here, but you can begin to see why it would attract the ire of the East German authorities. Bad things happen to the proletarian characters (Peter Loose, Hermann Fischer), those disloyal to the state get away with it (the absconders), those ambivalent to the socialist cause manage to get ahead (Christian Kleinschmidt, Dr Jungandres) and the newly converted comrades are shown to be unsympathetic. It’s not exactly the model of a state-approved socialist realist novel, is it?
Following the ban, Bräunig put the manuscript in a drawer and never worked on it again. A pity because had he finished and honed it, this could have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it is excellent providing insights into life in the early-DDR without being overly dry or sensational. There are some lovely literary touches also. I loved the opening paragraphs in which Bräunig uses the wind blowing across Germany to sketch the historical context before bringing us right back the present and the first shift in the mine. (Hopefully you can magnify the picture on the right to read this for yourself.)
There are some weaknesses – sub-plots that are tied up in a perfunctory manner, as though the author simply lost interest. The parallel stream set in West Germany which, I assume, is meant to show the superficiality of the easy lives there, just diminishes the novel’s power, imo. Surprisingly, too, after 528 pages the ending feels rushed. But then, it would. The novel’s unfinished. I didn’t know that as I read, which is just as well, because had I known, I wouldn’t have read it. And that would have been my loss.