In my introduction I mentioned that before working on The German Riveter my experience of German literature was limited to Thomas Mann. Germany has undergone massive changes since Mann’s Castrop left the flatlands for Davos, and his Aschenbach holidayed in Venice. Unavoidably Germany’s writers have been concerning themselves with these transformative events. The publication of The German Riveter marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which for many people marked the end of an extended period of instability and the beginning of the country’s reunification and peace.
For those of us outside Germany, and old enough to remember, the events of 1989 were seen through a camera lens. I recall the striking images, and the reports from journalists (including from our own Riveter-in-Chief, Rosie Goldsmith, for the BBC) emphasising the historic nature of this moment; but I didn’t live it. The German writers who’ve contributed to the magazine did. Their ‘Wende memories’ remind us of how you can experience some of the most important events of your – or any – era, yet somehow still continue with your everyday life.
The sense I have, now that my perspective on literature from Germany has been considerably widened by editing this magazine, is that in the aftermath of this major shift, writers began to assume, or be given, labels such as ‘from the former East Germany’, ‘lived under the Stasi’ and ‘coming to terms with the past’ (for the German phrase, see Rosie Goldsmith’s review of the work of Julia Franck). I believe that those of us who aren’t German can also come to terms with the past – with Germany’s past and with our own; and we can learn about how to do this from German writers.
German literature is not just about its history, however; although I have learned that for German writers and publishers changing that image is an ongoing struggle. Readers around the world want to read about Germany’s history, and many German writers want to write about it, so it’s a closed loop. As a publishing insider, I know that the industry loves closed loops – and the guaranteed sales they bring. It’s no surprise, then, that in Germany, the Krimi (crime fiction – that most commercial of genres) often deals with historical crime, as I have learned from this magazine.
It’s clear that some writers, publishers and literary organisations are breaking out of this historical obsession, and it seems they are doing so by embracing Germans from elsewhere. The Eighth Life, a major publication in Germany, whose English-language publication we celebrate with the launch of this magazine, is written by a Georgian immigrant to Germany, and the book I review in these pages, Apostoloff, examines the Bulgarian immigrant experience. We also feature the Weiter Schreiben project, which works with writers newly arrived in Germany from war zones.
The irony is that in many ways in the 1960s and thereafter, these immigrant, or dual-heritage writers came to Germany for historical reasons. Germany’s twentieth-century ruptions were resolved, leading to decades of the kind of relative stability and prosperity that has made Germany one of Europe’s key immigrant destinations. And thus is Germany’s literature enriched.
This Riveter from Germany has shown me exactly what a rich literature it has: the poetry, children’s books, essays and memories I’ve read have revealed a wealth of experience, of style, of experiment and of thought. Germany’s writers, thirty years on from the moment that marked the end of a turbulent era, can look back and forwards with confidence, allowing themselves and their readers the space and tools to examine where they have been, where they are and where they are going.
By West Camel
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.