It has taken 60 years for this loosely-fictionalised account of postwar life on the East German side of the Berlin Wall to find its way into English, thanks to the translation work of Lucy Jones. Though the delay does not take from the novel’s revelatory impact. Writer Brigitte Reimann, who died in 1973 aged 39, was a passionate believer in socialism and a cult figure in her native GDR.
What is most intriguing about this autobiographical work is its three-dimensionality, offering a portrait of complicated characters trying to make sense of their life in a society they idealise and resist, as they feel it begin to work against their dream of an egalitarian utopia.
Reimann sets her story in 1960 and the wider political context is that the border between East and West Germany has closed, with all of the resulting implications for the country. The narrative, for the most part, is an intense and painfully intimate affair, taking place over a few days as Elisabeth, a young artist employed painting workers in a factory, tries to persuade her adored older brother, Uli, not to defect to the West.
If he does, she frantically assures him, he will be engulfed by capitalism’s “overpowering smell of blood behind the scent of Virginia tobacco and oranges and Lux soap”, something much worse than the fact that the socialist ideals he believes in are “being talked to death by morons” in the GDR. “I can’t stay here,” he tells her, “I can’t breathe ... I feel like a prisoner trapped behind bars, just stupidity and bureaucracy everywhere.”
Elisabeth has experienced the stupidity and bureaucracy, and has her own contempt for the party, but she wants Uli to stay and fight, rather than walk away in resignation. “The first duty of every citizen is to think,” she rages at him, “the second is to have your say.”
Although Reimann is not always above placing political talking points in her characters’ mouths, the book largely steers clear of black and white conclusions, reminding us, as art should, that life, no matter where it is lived, will always operate through shades of grey.