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Motherland by Jo McMillan

When I was growing up in my teens, suddenly out of the blue a letter arrived for me from the German Democratic Republic. I was intrigued (owing to my growing love of things Russian) and also vaguely alarmed – who was this person writing to me out of nowhere, how had they got my address and what did they want? It turned out to be (apparently!) from a girl called Astrid who wanted a penfriend; I never could quite work out where she got my address from (maybe one of those teen magazines where you put your name into a penfriend finding section had crept through the Iron Curtain) but we did exchange letters. Astrid also send parcels, of East German sweets and postcards, which always arrived quite battered, as if they’d been examined on the way…

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The sweets and letters are long gone, but I still have the postcards she sent of her home town Gera, together with many of the GDR and its landmarks; and so with this memory in mind, I was obviously going to be attracted to Jo McMillan’s new novel, “Motherland”. Set in 1970s Tamworth, it tells the story of a small outpost of the GDR which exists there; teenage Jess and her mother Eleanor, committed Socialists from a long line, sellers of The Morning Star and The Only Communists in The Town!

Jess and Eleanor are firm in their beliefs, never questioning the party line, hawking their newspaper to indifferent (at best) or downright hostile locals, and trying to bring about a world revolution in a small Midlands town – so you get the ideal that things are doomed from the start…. Into their lives comes Actually Existing Socialism; Eleanor is a teacher, and the two are sent off to the real GDR to take a summer school their, the first time they’ve come into contact with the real Socialist world. Here they meet a varied number of characters, including most importantly Peter and his daughter Martina. The two one-parent families (both missing parents are dead) bond straight away – Peter and Eleanor are obviously very mutually attracted, and Jess and Martina seem to be finding a missing sibling.

However, this being the GDR, with all the Cold War complexities, things are never going to be straightforward. Despite repeated visits to the GDR, it beings to seem as if Peter and Eleanor will never manage to become the perfect Socialist couple; things deteriorate in Tamworth as the natives get hostile when world events provoke them; Jess’s school life goes downhill, and she joins a very odd Young Socialist group; and the many contacts from the GDR remain nebulous. It’s often hard to tell friend from foe, and as Jess starts to mature we start to wonder if her views will continue to coincide with her mother’s, or will her experiences of Actually Existing Socialism change them?

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As you might have guessed, I really loved “Motherland”. McMillan’s writing is excellent; she captures brilliantly the voice of Jess, naive and committed at the start of the book, knowing and more questioning by the end. Although there’s perhaps a certain irony in places in her portrayal of the various members of the counter-culture groups, she never belittles their belief and their faith in their cause, even if there’s a certain Tooting Popular Front quality to some of their actions (anyone else remember “Citizen Smith” with fondness?) McMillan is also very strong on the mother-daughter relationship; this can be a slippery one, particularly when a girl reaches her teens, and she cleverly portrays the way the roles of mother and daughter often switch between the two protagonists. These are real women, dealing with domesticity, intolerant schools, moustaches and coping on their own.

I glanced over my shoulder, and my mum had turned into somebody else: a middle-aged woman in an Oxfam anorak, her zigzag parting grey, her face puffed with tiredness. A woman who, every week regardless, found energy she hadn’t got to shout big slogans at a very small town.

What’s also clever, and also rather chilling, is what’s often *not* said. Negotiating the political landscape of the GDR is not easy, with its unspoken rules, hidden alliances and codes of conduct. The shadowy world of spies and agents seems very far away from the women’s simple belief in equality and peace. Politics very often gets in the way of life, to an extent that Eleanor may be able to accept but that Jess most likely will not. Jess cannot always instantly read the adult code, but by the end of the book she is very clear-eyed about things and has subtly moved on to make her own life away from her mother. The ending is sad, somehow inevitable and perhaps a little ambiguous.

“Motherland” works on a number of levels: as a portrait of left-wing life in the last part of the 20th century; as a snapshot of life behind the Iron Curtain; as a hint that perhaps we shouldn’t force our views on our children, but should allow them to make their own way in the world; and as moving portrait of female familial relationships. The book had a particularly personal resonance with me because of my own experiences as standing out as one of the few people in *my* small town with leftward leanings (though I was never as brave and committed as Jess and Eleanor!) “Motherland” is McMillan’s debut, and it’s an excellent one – highly recommended!

(Many thanks to publishers John Murray and Bookbridgr for the review copy – much appreciated!)

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German Literature Month: A Multi-Layered Tale

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The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Alas, I haven’t managed to read as many books as I wished for German Reading Month, thanks to coming down with the dreaded lurgy (i.e. the worst head cold I’ve had in years followed by sinusitis and a chest infection).  It goes without saying, also, that the book I ended up reading wasn’t the one I planned…. 🙂 But I *have* wanted to read Christa Wolf for a long time, and so this seemed the perfect time to pull “The Quest for Christa T.” out from my Virago shelves.

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Wolf was an East German writer about whom Wikipedia says: “Christa Wolf (née Ihlenfeld; 18 March 1929, Landsberg an der Warthe – 1 December 2011, Berlin) was a German literary critic, novelist, and essayist. She was one of the best-known writers to emerge from the former East Germany. Wolf received the Heinrich Mann Prize in 1963, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1980, and the Schiller Memorial Prize in 1983, the Geschwister-Scholl-Preis in 1987, as well as other national and international awards. After the German reunification, Wolf received further awards: in 1999 she was awarded the Elisabeth Langgässer Prize and the Nelly Sachs Literature Prize, and Wolf became the first recipient of the Deutscher Bücherpreis (German Book Prize) in 2002 for her lifetime achievement. In 2010, Wolf was awarded the Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste.”

That’s an awful lot of awards; but Wolf was also the subject of controversy, for her left-wing views after German reunification, and also during the Cold War for her criticism of the GDR ruling regime. I’ve tried to start her books before, and struggled – maybe a case of the right book at the wrong time, because this time reading Christa Wolf was a joy.

On the surface, and from the blurb, the tale is a simple one: Christa T.’s friend tells the story of their friendship, her life and her death. They met in school at the tail-end of the Second World War, both ended up in the portion of Germany which ended up under Soviet control, met again, went to University, worked, married, had families, and then Christa died young. That in itself is movingly told, but is a complete simplification, because there is layer upon layer of meaning in “The Quest for Christa T.” and it’s wonderfully constructed.

Firstly, there is the way of telling. The narrator, Christa T.’s friend, is elliptical and elusive, much as is Christa herself. She tells the tale at her own pace, often slipping backwards and forwards in time; and there are encounters with other friends and colleagues which you’re never quite sure have actually taken place. She has access to her friend’s papers, handed over by her widower, Justus, and these reveal much about Christa as well as throwing up more questions. This leads the narrator to constantly question what is reality and what is the real Christa, so much so that by the end we seem to be slipping from reality to imagination without even noticing it.

The paths we really took are overlaid with paths we did not take. I can now hear words that we never spoke.

What is pertinent here is the era in which the girls grew up to become women. They experienced the end of the War, fleeing the oncoming Russian soldiers, and we never really find out how they survived. But they grow up in an increasingly totalitarian regime and reading between the lines, studying the sometimes a little obscure narrative, you realise that they have to be careful what they say or do as every action can be misinterpreted. And even the narrator has to be careful telling her tale here – the book was first published in 1968, behind the Iron Curtain and during the Cold War – and so her criticisms of the regime have to be carefully made.

For the new world that we were making and making unassailable – even if it meant building ourselves into the foundations of it – that world really did exist. It exists, and not only in our heads; and that period was for us the beginning of it. But whatever happened or will happen to that new world is and remains our affair. Among the alternatives offered there isn’t a single one that’s worth a nod in its direction…

Initially, the girls are committed and enthusiastic about the new way of life; even rejecting the values of the West on a rare visit to Justus’s cousin on the Other Side, despite the obvious differences in their material standards. And even late on in the book, when it has become obvious that the girls’ Utopian dreams have failed, they are uncomfortable with the concept of actually owning a house of their own – “all property is theft?” You could almost dig deeper and say that Christa T. herself represents the new regime and that it’s the failure of this world that causes her death – I wouldn’t be surprised if a writer as complex as Wolf intended that level of meaning.

Sometimes they travel far, sometimes ‘druben’ – over there. The trip there is unusual enough to make your heart beat faster: over there is where the opposite ideas for living are produced, where everything is the reverse – people, things, and thoughts; that’s the real reason why you feel uneasy when you turn the next corner, full of weird expectations, to find always only the same smiling traffic policeman. But one might just as easily catch oneself napping: this is a twofold country and, what’s more, everyone in it is twofold, one part possibility and the other its refutal. One gets rid of the feeling of confusion at times by doing something violent. She spits on the memorial to ‘the stolen territories in the East.’ Memory’s colour is greenish-gold, it mustn’t go black, mustn’t go dry: black is the colour of guilt. She spits on this black stone.

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All the way through the book, as you look for the meanings, it is the things unsaid or implied that come across powerfully. The language is beautifully poetic and evocative, bringing alive vividly the lives of Christa T. and her friend, so that even if the narrator is unsure if she has really caught and portrayed her friend’s character, the reader can see them both quite clearly – and it is a tale of two people, not just the one named in the title.

The translator, Christopher Middleton, is a poet himself and his wonderful work here shines.

At night she has dreams. She glides into sleep as if descending in a cage to the sea floor, only the water becomes brighter, not darker, and finally bright as day, like liquid air. One gives a kick and is floating. It’s too beautiful to be sleep. She decides, while still asleep: I’m not sleeping. To float like this isn’t surprising if one has wanted it for so long.

The quest for Christa T. is in the end a quest for truth, full of phrases and sentences that pull you up with their brilliance. The narrator questions her memories, reminding us what fragile things they are, easily confused and falsified. Whilst trying to pin down the life of her friend, fix her for future generations to understand, in many ways she tells the story of the life of any woman living through those times. Wolf’s compelling book is a beautiful, lyrical exploration of existence which in many ways defies description; it would simply be better if you went and read it yourself! Christa Wolf was a remarkable and individual writer and I really can’t wait to explore more of her work.

Recent Reads – The Architects by Stefan Heym

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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.”

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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.

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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!

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