Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (2020j

You could not make it up! You just couldn’t.

A committed communist – first jailed, then sent to the concentration camp by the Nazis, where he became a librarian. In 1940 he was conscripted into the 999th Penal Battalion winning the Iron Cross for bravery. After 5 years of war, which he wasn’t meant to survive, he lived in the GDR where he accomplished amazing things when put in charge of the East German steel industry or the construction of the Schwarze Pumpe industrial complex. And yet, time and time again this man was disciplined and demoted back to the production lines. His “crime”? Getting things done! Give him a problem and he would solve it, although not always according to SED-approved policy and method. That kind of pragmatism it seemed was politically inconsistent and punishable.

The man – Hasso Grabner – was completely unknown to me, and his life, rightly labelled absurd in the subtitle by author, Francis Nenik, felt so satirical that for a while I felt that it had to be fictional. But no, the astounding fact of the matter is that this is a non-fictional account of a gifted man, ground down into obscurity by ideology. An extraordinarily gifted man in fact. Finally tiring of being the SED’s yoyo – up and down, up and down his career goes at the party’s whim – he became a freelance writer. He won awards: in 1969, the GDR Ministry of Culture’s award for young people’s books and the Theodor Fontane Prize for Art and Literature. Yet he always preserved independence of thought. The final tussle with the party came after trying to smuggle forbidden literature into the country. It was a humdinger in which Grabner, not keeping quiet at the Regional Party Control Commission for once, finally had his say and reminded the whippersnapper chairman, that he was still wearing short trousers, while he, Grabner, was risking his life for the communist cause. A moment’s satisfaction = a life and an afterlife of obscurity.

Nenik too is a whippersnapper of sorts. Born in the early 1980s, after the death of his subject, he had no experience of the regimes that coloured and restricted Grabner’s life. But that distance works to his advantage, allowing the injection of irony into the proceedings. This tone, captured very amusingly by Katy Derbyshire, lifts his work from being just another dry-as-dust-biography and turns it into a entertaining literary work. It’s as though the narrator himself is saying, you couldn’t make it up. You just couldn’t.