European Literature Days 2016: Review of Birgit Weyhe by Christian Gasser

Foreign ‘guest workers’ also lived in the GDR. They came from socialist sister countries in the Third World. Between 1979 and 1989 20,000 workers from Mozambique lived in the GDR; they endured some strange living conditions. In her prizewinning graphic novel, Madgermanes, Birgit Weyhe relates their story.

They were promised training and education and they only received temporary jobs. After 5 pm, they had to stay in their hostels; women and men were accommodated separately. Contact with East Germans was considered undesirable. Pregnant women had to have abortions or were sent back, and half their wages were transferred to Mozambique to guarantee their return later to their native country. During the 1980s, this is how about 20,000 “Madgermanes” aka contract workers from Mozambique lived in the socialist sister country of the GDR.

“They all left home with the promise of arrival in paradise and of learning something; and strangely they all arrived in the winter-time”, says Birgit Weyhe (b. 1969), a comic book author, who grew up in Africa, and only returned to Germany aged 19. So she can certainly appreciate the first impressions of those arriving from Mozambique: “Everything was grey, cold and colourless, and the Germans were introvert. They wanted to return again instantly, but they had signed up for four years and were allocated jobs that they weren’t interested in at all.”

This is a bizarre chapter from the history of the collapsing GDR, which Birgit Weyhe exposes in Madgermanes, (the term is probably a corrupted version of ‘Made in Germany’). As with many GDR stories, tragedy and absurdity are not far apart.

José, Basilio and Anabella
Birgit Weyhe interviewed many of those affected in Mozambique and in Germany. She condensed their life stories to three exemplary biographies: José is a Communist and Romantic who believes in a better future as a teacher; the playboy, Basilio, is more interested in German women than advancing his career and Anabella’s intelligence and stamina help her to study medicine. Today, she is a doctor and still lives in Germany. These portraits of three different figures are, in turn, connected with each other: José and Basilio lived in the same hostel, while Anabella was José’s girlfriend, until she became pregnant and had an abortion in secret to be able to stay in the GDR.

In Madgermanes, which was awarded the top German comic prize, the Max and Moritz Prize for the best German-speaking comic book, Birgit Weyhe narrates the identical story from three viewpoints. She concentrates on subjects such as alienation, homelessness and no prospects, integration and exclusion. “What is home? What shapes us, and how do we process experiences when we attempt to integrate and assimilate to different cultural circles?” This is how Birgit Weyhe summarizes her heightened awareness of this subject due to her own biography and experiences of Africa and Germany. In her previous books Reigen (2011) and Im Himmel ist Jahrmarkt (2013) she also focused on questions of identity, family and social history, emigration and repatriation.

Allegorical motifs
Birgit Weyhe narrates these dramatic stories very seriously and with great intensity, yet also with optimism, humour and an exquisite sense for trifling and profound absurdities that prevailed in everyday life in East Germany. She therefore offers an insight into the decline of the GDR from an unusual perspective.

Weyhe’s visual language contributes to the vivid impressions: her black-and-white illustrations tinged with a warm gold tone suggest a superficial naivety, and she repeatedly integrates visual elements that are unfamiliar for the comic and convey plenty of insight into the time and local scenarios: copied text panels, bus tickets, advertisements, propaganda posters. It is particularly impressive how Weyhe exaggerates reality through blending allegorical and ornamental motifs from both cultures. Hence, Madgermanes also emerges graphically as a reflection on the subject of home and belonging.

The bitter thing about this story, which Birgit Weyhe teased out in most of her interviews was, “that those from Mozambique were never told the truth; there were only lies.” That reached a climax when they returned. After the end of the GDR most of the contract workers were sent back to their home country which was ravaged by civil war. They discovered that the money, which was earmarked to start their new lives, had disappeared. Until today, ‘Madgermanes’ like Basilio are bitter and feel like strangers in their own country.

By Christian Gasser
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Birgit Weyhe
Madgermanes
Avant Verlag, Berlin

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 1 September 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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