The change in mainstream mores that led to concessions such as a royal pardon for Alan Turing has also fed the mainstream with stories. Writers are scrubbing the straightwash from historical figures to reveal the dirt. Germany has the added story-capital of changing regimes, and a whole state that ceased to exist in 1990, leaving its workings exposed. Christoph Hein’s Verwirrnis (‘A State of Confusion’) exploits the storytelling gold of a man tossed from frying pan to fire and back in the various post-war Germanys. Hein was a successful East German writer and remained successful when the wall came down. He is in a position to describe life before, during and after the GDR’s existence at first hand. Writing about the gay experience of those years required him to observe and listen to others, however. He has explained that the book is based on the experiences of friends. Hein demonstrates that it’s perfectly possible for a seventy-something heterosexual man to write a queer-themed story. It’s just research.
Friedeward, our hero, grows up screwed by the triple regimes of small-town Catholicism, state communism and a disciplinarian father. He escapes to Leipzig to study his great passion, literature, and be with the love of his life, Wolfgang. In Leipzig the lads make friends with two lesbians, kindred spirits Jacqueline and Herlinde. While homosexuality was decriminalised somewhat earlier in East Germany than in the free West, the stigma remained. To keep society and his family at bay, Friedeward marries Jacqueline. Wolfgang later proves fickle, moving to West Berlin and jeopardising his relationship with Friedeward before the wall goes up and separates them for good. Now, however, Friedeward is a respected lecturer in Leipzig, enjoying his work. Eventually the Stasi want something from him, threatening to out him unless he reports for them. Careful to incriminate no one, he writes just one bland report to keep them happy and is never asked again.
Finally, the wall comes down. Hein describes the frenzy of asset-stripping, recriminations, dashed hopes and witch hunts that accompanied reunification in all its horrid irony. Friedeward does not escape. Now he is threatened with dismissal from the university as a former informant. The new authorities will only let him stay if it goes on public record that the Stasi blackmailed him to collaborate because of his sexuality. But Friedeward is not out now. He never has been and never will be. He is imbued with guilt. Of all the ideologies, religion was beaten into him hardest, by his father. Friedeward is destroyed by a three-pronged assault from Catholicism, communism and capitalism. His father and the church still have the most power over him.
In the end, at last, there is defiance. Leipzig takes to the streets, led by Jacqueline.
Hein does not wallow or dawdle in telling this story. He leaves you to feel things for yourself, and you do. Like the people of Leipzig I was angry, and the sense of being caught in the crossfire between official narrative and lived reality is easy to identify with. Hein has a grip on history and how it affects people and weaves it into a terribly neat plot. I highly recommend this book to English-language readers.
Reviewed by Steph Morris
Written by Christoph Hein
Published by Suhrkamp (2018)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Steph Morris studied fine art and art history before turning to creative writing and translation. He runs a monthly translation workshop at the Goethe-Institut London, and divides his time between London and Berlin.