Still smarting from my failure with “Black Sun”, I fairly rushed into this book and luckily it proved easy to read and very absorbing! I wish I could remember where I stumbled across it – that’s the trouble with all the wonderful blogs and sources of inspiration online. Anyway,this *was* an ideal book for me and first a little about Stefan Heym:
“Helmut Flieg (April 10, 1913 – December 16, 2001) was a German writer, known by his pseudonym Stefan Heym. He lived in the United States (or served in its army abroad) between 1935 and 1952, before moving back to the part of his native Germany which was, from 1949–1990, German Democratic Republic (GDR, “East Germany”). He published works in English and German at home and abroad, and despite longstanding criticism of the GDR remained a committed socialist.”
It’s worth mentioning up front that the historical context is very important to this novel as this was a generation who trained themselves into a mode of controlled behaviour that radiated from the top downwards. There’s an excellent afterword which explains this and can be read without fear of spoilers, so I’d suggest looking at this first if you’re not familiar with Soviet/Communist history. Anyway, the novel takes place mainly in 1956, an important year in Soviet history; three years after Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev makes his ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin and admitting that many people tried and convicted under his regime were innocent. Our protagonists are East German architect Arnold Sundstrom and his younger wife Julia. On the surface the perfect couple, there is much locked away in their past which is never referred to – for Julia’s parents were Arnold’s friends, all three had fled to Moscow during the War to escape persecution from Hitler, and Julia’s parents were tried and executed as traitors. Arnold had promised to take care of their daughter and he did, in what might seem quite an odd way: raising her and then falling in love with her and marrying her! All this is kept hidden under the surface, gradually being revealed, as the novel progresses , and the couple initially live a regular life, governed by a socialist ideology in which Julia has total faith, with their son Julian, work colleagues and friends.
Life in 1950s GDR is not easy, however – there are the constant uncertainties of toeing the party line; ensuring your building plans are socialist and not Western-influenced; and trying to read the subtle nuances required in your relations with other communists, where every word could be a potential mistake and you can never really say what you feel. Into this mix comes a returning comrade, Daniel Wollin – also an architect and friend of Julia’s parents, but one who has been in camps for years and has now been freed under the change of regime.
Even the fact that he’s been pardoned is enough to shake the status quo for the Sundstroms, particularly Arnold; because if Daniel is innocent and wrongly tried, so are many others and the repercussions could be immense. Arnold struggles to keep pace with the sudden shifts in power and favour, while trying to design an extension to his triumph, World Peace Road, along with Julia (who is now also an architect) and the rest of his team. But things begin to unravel – Julia’s total faith in the socialist way is seriously undermined by these changes, and she falls into an affair with John Hiller, another one of the team. There are hints of dreadful deeds and betrayals in the past; Arnold cannot cope; and the secrets start to come out. As the structure of the communist world starts to shift, so do the relationships within it…
“Again, his words remained hanging in midair. Why, why, why, he kept thinking. Why had they done this? Why not let the dead stay buried? He would never be through telling; there was no end to it once you started unravelling that tangle, and every inch of the thread was dipped in blood.”
I think this is a deceptively deep novel, and the more I think about it, the cleverer it seems and the more it’s trying to say. This is a book of ideas and ideals, full of symbolism. The architects of the title are not simply designers of buildings; we talk about architects of revolution, and the buildings are symbolic of the brave new world itself and the regime. Although impressive and imposing on the outside, they crumble and crack under the veneer and it’s obvious that Heym is using this imagery as an analogy for communism under Soviet control. The novel brilliantly captures life under communist rule in East Germany with its petty party politics and flexible loyalties, and some of the scenes where Sundstrom is conversing with his superior, almost in coded speech, are quite chilling.
“Read that speech and look at our part of the world … at the houses we build and the goods we make,. the lectures we hear and the novels we write, shoddy, false, unsatisfactory. It’s like a blight that has come over us. It’s a way of running things that has nothing to do with socialism or democracy or even dictatorship of the proletariat. It produces people whose spine is crooked from constantly looking back over their shoulders and whose mind is split from saying one thing and thinking another.”
However, this perhaps make it sounds as if this book is a dry, socialist-realist novel, and it certainly isn’t. Although it’s shot through with the issues it discusses, it’s also a gripping read. The characters are mostly real and fallible, the relationships between them well-drawn and the East German society vividly portrayed. The dovetailing of architecture, ideology, morals and real life is fascinating and perhaps unusual in fiction. However, there was one point where felt that the characterisation suffered a little bit, and this was when it came to the women…
To be more specific, the female characters did come across a little clichéd; maybe if I’m generous this was intentional, and under this kind of regime they’re reduced to stereotypes. However, they did fit into the moulds – the naive beauty (Julia), the ugly but sexually potent woman (Waltraut), the unapproachable, sparkling society girl (Kathchen), the plain party wife (Elise Tolkening); and were often defined very much by their sexuality. Julia’s story is in some places more interesting than her character itself, although she does develop as the book goes on, and her complex relationship with her demanding and irritating son is perhaps meant to mirror the troubled relationship with her father-figure husband. Is her lack of memory of her childhood credible? I thought not at first but then under the communist regime it was often vital to forget in order to survive. But I did find myself questioning the denouement a little as well (SPOILER ALERT!) , as it felt as if Julia was destined to spend her life swapping father figures, as if the loss of her real one had made it impossible for her to have a relationship with someone her own age.
Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles. In the end this was a powerful, gripping novel which really absorbed me and has left me still pondering on its contents days after finishing it. I definitely want to explore more East German fiction if it’s as rich and rewarding as “The Architects” was!