#RivetingReviews: Aneesa Abbas Higgins reviews DISTANT SIGNS by Anne Richter

Anne Richter was a teenager in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. She lived through the upheavals of that time and gives us in this absorbing debut novel an insightful account of the effect of those events on the lives of ordinary people living on the other side of the wall. Beginning with a public encounter between a father and daughter in 1965, she traces the lives of three generations of two interlinked East German families, taking us back to the days when Nazism was on the rise, through the Second World War and the subsequent division of Germany into two separate entities, right up to the present day.

The external events, or ‘momentous changes’ of those days are ever-present in the novel; but while the panorama is vast, history is merely the backdrop to the characters’ inner lives, on which Richter focuses, making her novel much more intimate than its ambitious canvas might suggest.

The chapters are arranged chronologically, each one focusing on one of the seven characters at a pivotal moment in their life. We begin with Margret, a student in the 1960s, at a lecture given by her father Friedrich, an intellectual wedded to his orthodox communist principles. ‘In our times, private matters must come second to societal,’ he declares. Or as Margret bitterly reflects, she could now be certain that her neglectful father ‘hadn’t simply forgotten’ her, but that his ‘lack of attention corresponded to his Weltanschauung’. In other words, he readily sacrificed the personal for what he believed to be the greater good. Margret herself has a more ambivalent relationship with such principles; as a hardworking and caring teacher some years later, she struggles to contain her pupils’ curiosity about the life on the other side of the wall, even though she herself is not at all tempted by the consumer lifestyle of West Germany. Her husband, the silent, reclusive botanist Hans, has no such difficulties. Brought up by his stoical, hard-working parents, eking out a harsh rural existence, he becomes a party member, spurning the ‘greed and consumerism’ of life after the wall has fallen, and longing for the old days of life in a society that ‘valued people not money’. Insights such as these are woven into the fabric of the novel, enabling us to experience the political realities of the time while becoming ever more engrossed in the emotional journeys of Margret, Hans, their parents and eventually their children.

All the characters are beautifully drawn, but it is the female characters who frame the action. Margret’s daughter fights to break free of the constraints that have defined her parents’ lives, while Margret herself wonders why her own parents have always seemed so distant. For the older generation, the women who lived through the privations of the Second World War, what matters is that their children should not suffer as they did. Margret’s mother Johanna wants her daughter to understand how she tried to protect her children during the terrible Siege of Breslau in 1945: ‘I struggled to get you through the winter without serious illness. Later, at the roadside we found the corpses of small children and old people. They had either frozen or starved.’ The tone of so much of this novel, in Douglas Irving’s skilful translation, is understated and quiet, but the message it conveys is powerful and revealing.

This is a richly rewarding book, an assured first novel that engages the reader both with its emotional depth and with the light it throws on a crucial period of European history. As we remember the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and see new walls being erected all around us, this novel comes as a timely reminder of how such barriers can shape lives.

Reviewed by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

DISTANT SIGNS

Written by Anne Richter

Translated by Douglas Irving

Published by Neem Tree Press (2019)

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Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a literary translator and former teacher. Born in London, she has lived in Britain, France and the USA and holds degrees from Sussex University and the University of London. She translates from French and has studied several other languages, including Russian.

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Category: November 2019 - The German RiveterReviewsThe Riveter

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