Anyone with a commitment to socialism needs to take an interest in the history and fate of the German Democratic Republic (ddr), up to now the object of systematic neglect by West-of-the-Rhine liberal and radical intellectuals alike, who have scant knowledge of its achievements in painting and film, and assume its economic and political lessons to be exclusively negative. This is yet another instance in which Cold War dismissals in the name of Stalinism and totalitarianism—essentially political judgements—continue to be tacitly accepted by today’s lefts in embarrassed silence. To be sure, the Soviet Union is another matter, and its rise and fall is as respectable a historical topic as the life and death of the Roman Empire; but at the same time it is widely assumed that the evolution of its ‘satellites’ is necessarily a secondary matter.
Yet Germany was the very heartland of Marxism, with the largest party in Europe, its leaders and intellectuals the most enlightened and committed of such formations anywhere; comparable to the prestige of the Italian Communist Party after World War Two. It is not to be assumed that the German survivors who returned from Moscow after the war to found a new socialist state were mere puppets of the Russians (however unattractive we may find Ulbricht’s character). On the contrary, there were probably proportionately fewer opportunists among these believers than in the minority parties of the other Eastern states. Meanwhile, as the only socialist country besides Korea to share a border and a language with a capitalist counterpart, and as the object of the most intensive Western strategy of obstruction and sabotage outside Cuba, East Germany—virtually levelled to the ground and its own diminished population drowned in German-speaking refugees from further east—faced problems unparalleled in other socialist experiments since the early years of the Soviet Union itself.
Meanwhile, the disgrace of the wholesale privatization of collective assets after ‘the fall’ was matched only by the crimes of the oligarchs in the soon-to-be ex-Soviet Union. As for culture, after Brecht, only literature in which ‘dissidence’ (a late 70s term) could be detected was of any interest abroad, the daily life of the ddr constituting for the West little more than one long life sentence or waste of time. The absorption of this aberrant entity back into the Bundesrepublik was thereby seen as a simple return to normality, with the exception, to be sure, of economic normality—production, employment and the like.
This is the situation in which we may well wish to take note of the appearance of what has seemed to some the most considerable work of East German literature, Uwe Tellkamp’s massive novel Der Turm (The Tower). The book appeared three years ago in what I am still tempted to call West Germany to enormous acclaim, winning all the literary prizes and catapulting its author at once to the summit of the current German pantheon. The scandalous unfamiliarity of this author’s name is only partly due to the absence of an English translation (as far as I know, it has only been translated into Dutch and Italian); probably the lack of interest in the ddr is just as significant, and—despite Susan Sontag’s naive questioning of the very existence of a ‘second-world literature’—publishers have understood that, after the end of the Cold War, there is little enough public demand here for accounts of everyday socialism. Still, I call this work by a forty-year-old writer who grew up in the ddr an ‘East German novel’ because it is saturated by that daily life, so different from our own, and has an authenticity unavailable even in the finest imaginative descriptions by outsiders, such as Günther Grass’s remarkable Ein weites Feld; let alone the punk literature of younger Eastern writers who have never lived in the system that formed their elders. Meanwhile, to be sure, Tellkamp’s is an extraordinary and demanding art with a sentence-density comparable only to Thomas Mann or Grass himself (in German; in other languages Proust or Faulkner might be distant reference points); while his narrative experimentation, although by no means as complex as that of earlier East German writers such as Uwe Johnson or Heiner Müller, has all the maturity of traditional modernist virtuosity.
Even German readers, however, have complained of the length (a thousand pages), of which, as one critic put it, only the last one-fifth—the disintegration of the East German state—has any genuine, if muffled, narrative excitement. And it is certain that the temporal focus of this work, which begins with Marx’s centenary (and Brezhnev’s death) in 1983 and ends in November 1989, demands a painstaking and detailed laying in place of the daily life of its protagonists in order all the more accurately to show its dissolution.
So the first part of the book is necessarily iterative, in Genette’s sense of specifically situated scenes which are, nevertheless, designed to show how it always was, what they always did (Combray on a Saturday or Sunday morning). This makes for an episodic series of sketches of apartment life, school, publishers’ meetings and official encounters with the ideological ‘central committee’ of the region; of parties and of vacations at Party establishments on the Baltic Coast; glimpses of Haushaltungstag (when bachelors are given time off to do the cleaning), hospital routines, the brief East–West contact of the Leipziger Buchmesse, and so forth. ‘Only the exhaustive is truly interesting’, said Thomas Mann; and it will be a central question for us whether such loving detail constitutes what is today identified as Ostalgie—nostalgia for an ‘actually existing socialism’ that has vanished.
But we must be careful not to grasp Genette’s technical concept in any oversimplified way; to be sure, on the one hand, the iterative constitutes a solution to the older way of summarizing past events and their ‘uneventful’ continuities. But it is not necessarily—or at least, not in this novel—the opposite number to the Event, the vivid representation of things finally happening; or to the real time of change and history as we might be tempted to imagine it emerging from the breakdown of a seemingly rather static system. ‘There is no misfortune other than that of not being alive,’ cries Christa Wolf at the conclusion of her Stasi-novella Was bleibt. ‘And in the end, no desperation other than that of not having lived.’ But that is not my impression of living in Der Turm; and we will have to wait for its sequel to know what ‘real life’ lies beyond it.