Translated from German by Douglas Irving
I’m extending my stay in Thuringia (following Goethe week) and heading back behind the Iron Curtain for the final read-as-you-please week of this year’s #germanlitmonth. It’s time for a glimpse into the life of a fictional East German family, starting in the fledgling days of the socialist state and ending in 1992, 2 years after its demise.
You might think that is a lot of history, but I wouldn’t call this historical fiction. Richter’s focus is very much on the lives of her protagonists; the politics is the backdrop against which these lives are lived. The episodic structure keeps things in check, the author has to keep the narrative tight, and that she does, delivering a multi-generational family history in just 220 pages.
The cast list comprises of just 7 characters, grandparents, parents and an only child. So this is the story of two very different families and the starting point is when the middle generation meet and marry. Margret is the daughter of a university lecturer and staunch supporter of the socialist regime. There is some antagonism between her and her father, Friedrich. Hans is the son of a rural family. His father is severely disabled and helps his mother, Lene, care for him. When Margret is sent to a farm, for a period of practical study before going to university, she finds herself ostracised because of her father’s connections. Hans is the only country child that shows her any kindness. Thus is the friendship formed that leads to marriage.
The two are hopelessly mismatched and the marriage is not a happy one. But rather than give chapter and verse, Richter jumps a few years and switches point-of-view from Margret to Hans, and tells us all just enough through the personal thoughts of her character to enable her readers to build up the big picture for themselves. This tactic of switching narrators occurs throughout resulting in detailed intimate portraits of all seven characters and their lives. The matter-of-fact delivery means that shocking events are sometimes downplayed, but emotional shocks reverberate nonetheless.
The story of an East German family cannot be told without reference to the state and its institutions, and the translator has provided a useful glossary of cultural and historical terms. But to repeat, the state is not the centre of this novel, the characters are and that is evidenced by Richter centering the narrative around personal not political milestones. For example 1989, the year the Wall fell, and 1990, German reunification, don’t register. The narrative jumps from 1988, when Sonja, Hans and Margret’s daughter, begins to attend meetings where Christians and Marxists are in dialogue with each other. The changes we know with hindsight are afoot are coming, but the characters don’t. And Sonja’s future is at stake, because her involvement could mean her being denied an education ….
Jump to 1991. The only reference to that time of political upheaval is a reference to “momentous changes”. Why does 1991 matter? It’s the year Hans’s mother, Lene dies. This is a chapter that Richter writes with such obvious affection for her characters that I had to swallow hard in places. (Besides I love Lene.)
I found this relegation of major political events refreshing. The location outwith Berlin was also a welcome change . This is ordinary East German existence with its drabness, limitation, but wealth of emotional experience. Of course, “after the wall” everything was hunky dory, wasn’t it? Richter ends the novel in 1992. Sonja has now made a life for herself in France, but it’s obvious that her French partner considers her very much “the poor cousin”. The West/East divide persists. But the main question to be asked is, is she about to repeat the personal mistakes of her parents?