The twentieth century was one of turmoil and repeated upheaval for the German people. In just over eighty years there were six discreet iterations of ‘Germany’, from the Kaiserreich to today’s Federal Republic, via the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and then East and West Germany, each one geographically and politically distinct.
The last of the great convulsions of the German twentieth century was the fall of the Berlin Wall, the thirtieth anniversary of which is commemorated this autumn. This momentous event and its aftermath have been reflected in four contemporary German novels that I have translated. In summer 1989, anti-government demonstrations in the GDR grew ever larger and more serious. Watching these on television inspired Birgit Vanderbeke to write her celebrated The Mussel Feast (reviewed in this magazine). The novella is about a domineering father and the tyrannical control he wields over his family, but there is an increasing sense that this is about to change. Although the book is too nuanced to be read as a mere allegory, echoes of an authoritarian state on the verge of collapse are clearly present.
The initial euphoria accompanying the fall of the wall soon gave way to uncertainty and doubt among East Germans, as evinced in Daniela Krien’s Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything. This tale of a secret, heady love affair between a farmer in his early forties and a sixteen-year-old girl is set in summer 1990 against the backdrop of the run-up to reunification. While some of the younger characters feel the future may bring new opportunities, local farmers worry about the impact the dissolution of the GDR will have on their lives and livelihoods.
In reality, the ‘reunification’ of Germany was less a coming-together of two sovereign countries as equal partners, and more the wholesale absorption of the six states of East Germany by the Federal Republic. Despite great political efforts and massive financial transfers, a significant proportion of those from the former GDR became disillusioned with their new lives, which bore scant resemblance to Chancellor Kohl’s promise of ‘blooming landscapes’. This is one of the issues explored in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. The novel is set at a time of great social and economic change in Berlin, as the once-divided city is pieced back together. Redevelopment has consequences for long-term residents: one local shop is forced out of business, and an elderly couple refuse to leave their old apartment even as the pneumatic drills pound above their heads. The novel also features a left-behind community in rural Brandenburg, where several villagers seek solace in drink and two teenagers flee to the capital to escape their dead-end existence.
Timur Vermes’ new satire, The Hungry and the Fat, will be published in English next year (I also translated his novel Look Who’s Back, also reviewed in this magazine). Set in the near future, it examines the link between the influx of refugees and right-wing extremism in Germany. Although Vermes paints a fantasy scenario, it remains just within the bounds of possibility. Moreover, the electoral successes of the far-right AfD party, especially in the east of Germany, suggest that the problems associated with German reunification are still far from being resolved, so much so that we can expect to see many more German writers engage with these problems further in the coming years.
By Jamie Bulloch
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Jamie Bulloch is an historian who began working as a professional translator from German in 2001. One of the most prolific literary translators working in the UK today, he was awarded the 2014 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Best German Translation for Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast.