The Wall Jumper by Peter Schneider
Even though we’re comfortably into December, I’m going to claim this one for German Literature Month, as I did *read* it in November – I just ran out of reviewing time! And actually, bearing in mind its length, I’ll also claim it for #novellanov!
For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, the divide between East and West, as exemplified by the Berlin Wall, has an enduring fascination. So when I stumbled across mention of Peter Schneider’s “The Wall Jumper” I was very keen to track it down, as I do have something of a fascination with the GDR (which I think I’ve mentioned on the Ramblings!)
Schneider is an author I hadn’t heard of before, and from a cursory look online it seems as if this might be his best known work in English; certainly there are only a few other titles obviously available, and he’s not a writer I’ve seen discussed much. However, on the evidence of “The Wall Jumper” I’d certainly like to read more.
The book is narrated by an unnamed writer who may or not be Schneider himself, and is set in Berlin before the fall of the Wall. It’s populated by characters who live on both sides of the divide: there is Pommerer, the friend in the East the narrator visits and who spins legends of jumpers; Robert, an escapee to the West who tells tales from his bar stool; and there is Lena, the narrator’s past love whose reactions were conditioned by the East which left her temperamentally incapable of a relationship with a Westerner. Binding them together is the narrator, attempting to find the perfect tale of a wall jumper, as he flits back and forth across the Wall. And the tales themselves are fascinating: there are the three youngsters who regularly cross the Wall in its early days to watch Hollywood films; a man who feels compelled to jump back and forth for no good reason; and people with more sinister intent who end up paying the ultimate price. It’s a chilling reminder of just how recent the Cold War was, particularly when you notice that those in the West can visit the East and leave, but those from the East can only escape illegally or if their freedom is bought by the other side.
But as he searches for the perfect story, it becomes clear that the wall jumper of the title is in fact the narrator himself; shuttling back and forth between East and West, collecting stories and legends of other jumpers and weaving them into his tale, he’s unable to resist his fascination with the city’s great divide.
Every story lacks something the next one has; but then the next story is missing something from the one before. Maybe the story I’m looking for doesn’t exist.
The story is dominated by the Wall, of course and the effect that it has had on those living around it. You would think that simply plonking an arbitrary divide through a city wouldn’t change the people on either side, but in fact it has. Those on the opposing sides of the wall have either chosen where to live according to their belief or mindset, or else have tailored their thought to where they live. Either way, their personality is set by the side of the wall which they inhabit and because of this they constantly misunderstand each other. The Wall is shown to be something that exists in the mind, perhaps more so than the physical
It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the wall we can see. Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us.
And what of the narrator? I felt that he vacillated, unable to decide exactly where his sympathies lay. Like the jumpers themselves, his narrative shifted constantly, from past to present, East to West and in many ways he seemed unsettled in both regions.
“The Wall Jumper” was an absolutely fascinating read. In this short novel, Schneider crystallises and encapsulates the ideological divide that used to exist between East and West (and probably still does); and it has a powerful message about how different beliefs and mindsets can affect the world today. Essential reading!