This was the first Daunts Publishing title I bought in Daunts Books, Marylebone some 8 years ago: a German novel which was written in English (hence not a valid choice for all the intervening German Literature Months.) Stefan Heym was a Jewish socialist who fled Germany from the Nazis, America from the McCarthyists, ending up in East Germany, where his work was banned from publication from early 1966 through to the mid-1970s. He was too outspoken about the GDR’s failure to confront the real nature of Stalinism and the need for writers to write honestly. For example in The Architects, written 1963-1965 though first published in 2000, in which Heym decries the dictator of the proletariat for producing those whose spine is crooked from constantly looking back over their shoulders and whose mind is split from saying one thing and thinking another.
At the centre of the novel are the wrongs perpetrated on German communists in Stalin’s Russia. Instead of finding a welcoming safe haven these refugees from Nazism were viewed suspiciously. Many were sent to the gulags, often denounced by their own German comrades. One such injustice provides the catalyst to some fairly substantial unravelling in The Architects. You can well imagine how unpopular this theme would be to GDR authorities, many of whom would would be returnee survivors from days spent in Russia. But survivors at what price?
The novel’s prologue begins with the transportation of Julian Goltz, whose memories invoke his arrest, during which he entrusts his eight-year old daughter, Julia, to the care of his friend, Arnold Sundstrom.
16 years later Arnold Sundstrom has become a successful architect, the foremost architect in the GDR. He is also married to Julia. If that sounds somewhat icky, it certainly is. There’s something about his obsession with her, and her dependence on him, that is not quite normal. But she is now a grown woman and mother to his child and the future looks bright. Except that it is now 1956, and Nikita Khrushchev has denounced Josef Stalin for crimes against the party. German communists, imprisoned in Russia, are being released and rehabilitated. Daniel Wollin, Sundstrom’s one-time colleague, is one such … his imminent return makes Sundstrom very nervous.
This is the classic stranger-coming-to-disturb-the-equilibrium device, is it not? But even before Wollin appears on the scene, there is a foregleam of conflict to come. Sundstrom, pragmatically, has eschewed all Bauhaus influence in his architectural style. He pontificates: the artificial cubist constructions derived from the teachings of the Bauhaus professors are in essence negative, soulless, anti-humanistic … and repugnant to the healthy instinct of our working people. He has fully embraced dialectical materialism in architecture … allegedly. Julia, who works alongside her husband, is shocked to find that there are aspects of the design for the reconstruction of the Charlottenburger Chausee that are taken straight from pages of Neue Deutsche Baukunst, written by the the Nazi architect, Albert Speer. This is the first time that she has had to question her husband’s judgement. It won’t be the last … there are other revelations, riding over the horizon with Wollin, that will have a much more profound effect.
There’s no denying that the themes are weighty, with Sundstrom’s pontificating ponderous at times. Yet the novel reads quickly, because of the unhappy family at its heart. (Well, happy families write white, don’t they?) To be fair, Sundstrom does have his good points – he truly loves his wife. Actually, let me rethink that. He, the metaphorical embodiment of the state, truly loves controlling his wife. However, Julia is not entirely a sacrificial lamb. (I might suggest that she’s perhaps a bit too quick in finding an unsuitable replacement.) With Shakespearean references invoking Othello and Hamlet, there’s a hint of tragedy too. Without giving too much away, it doesn’t end as badly as the bard’s plays. In fact, it might even be called a happy ending though I see it more as characters making acceptable accommodations with their fates. Either way, as post-war Berlin rises from the ashes, a marriage lies in ruins, and I’ve discovered an author to investigate further.
Founded in 2010, Daunt Books Publishing, is an independent publisher based in London. It grew out of Daunt Books, an independent chain of bookshops in London and the South-East. It aims to publish the finest and most exciting new writing in English and in translation, whether that’s literary fiction – novels and short stories – or narrative non-fiction including essays and memoir. It also publishes modern classics, reviving authors who have been overlooked.