Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Gewöhnliche Leute

Back when I was peniless, I had a bit of a thing about junkshop books. You can root out some wonderful things in those boxes of books that once belonged to unpopular relatives and haven't yet been snapped up by antiquarian booksellers. And there are still certain parts of East (and West) Berlin where junkshops thrive. I used to pass one on the way to work, and brought many a hardback home with me at the end of a long day. I have a beautiful collection of Anna Seghers' works, for example, all in different bindings and editions. I bet that surprised you.

Much of what you find is books once cherished, and then almost literally thrown away when their owner dies. And of course in East Berlin, that means revolutionary adventures, socialist realism and real-life espionage. Kim Philby, Ruth Werner, John Reed, Bruno Apitz, Dieter Noll... So I like to think I'm slightly acquainted with East German literature.

Now I earn a bit more than a pittance I can afford to buy new books, and being cooped up all day translating with not a junkshop in sight has put a stop to my mania (or that particular one at least). And then along came Werner Bräunig's Rummelplatz. This is an amazing book, a force to be reckoned with, and the sample text you can find under that link is the translation I am most proud of. Ever. Bräunig's voice is by turns angry and conciliatory, comparing the Baltic Sea with a paper manufacturing plant, describing drunken nights and hardworking days, an ambitious proto-feminist and a frustrated working-class hero. He veers between stream of consciousness and almost documentary descriptions of working processes, scattering in liberal doses of literary and cultural references. And it's all so gripping. Of course, it presses all the requisite buttons - the Bildungsroman with the bourgeois professor's son turning to Communism, the Youth Brigade's hard work for the young republic, etc. etc. But what's exciting about it is that Bräunig had the guts to express criticism of the system, albeit in some of his characters' ideas. Of course that, and the ostensibly negative portrayal of the working class, got the book banned before publication in 1965. It came out for the first time in 2007.

And now the publishers have brought out a volume of his short stories, Gewöhnliche Leute. It includes seven previously published stories (from 1969 and 1971) and five unpublished texts, plus a long and informative article on Bräunig's life and work after Rummelplatz was rejected. And it's not just interesting from a historical point of view, although that is one fascinating side to it. It's one of those books I had to read with a sharp pencil at hand to underline all the wonderful bits that made me laugh with joy, all the covert criticism and all the stuff that made me want to go back to university and write about "The Role of Women in..."

It starts with an absolutely beautiful, affectionate portrait of locals in a pub. This is the only piece where the author is "audibly" present, but relates to several of the other stories. Set in a suburb of Leipzig, the narrator muses on how important our own street is to us. I say "us" and I mean that, but on the other hand the whole of the book is at pains to address East Germans directly, which I found quite touching really. Ironically, this song of praise to a cobbled street and its close-knit residents is followed by stories about men and women building high-rise housing estates. Or moving to them, or both. The ordinary people of the title. Still well written, these struck me as slightly disappointing for their tone of contented resignment. Gone is the anger, gone the frustration, gone the ambition. The last published piece tells the story of a man grown old, a good Communist who decides to move out of the street from the opening and into the estate from the second story. Bräunig picks up the final question from his unpublished Rummelplatz -

What remains when a worker dies? His work, all that he created. And the children he brought up and cared for - not just his own. And also this land and the state he leaves it in.

One of the stories stands out - it takes place on the road, not on a building site or in a town. A traveller picks up a young woman standing by the road, and she tells her story. She is an idealist - after all, this is 1968 or thereabouts. She has left her lover and is making her own way around the republic in the pouring rain. The traveller sees parallels with his own life, but she remains an exotic flash of colour in his damp grey world. If you are of a very patient nature, you can read some of it in English here.

Of course the "value-added" is the unpublished material. You can compare various bits of writing that came before and after Rummelplatz and contain much of its material, and have a dark laugh with the author at political jargon. No doubt of much interest to Proper Germanists. But I have to admit I preferred the stories at the front of the book, which I might well have been able to buy at my old junkshop. Bräunig descended into alcoholism and personal crisis and died in 1976, aged 42. I can thoroughly recommend you read his writing, especially if, like me, you never experienced the GDR at first hand.


HJ said...

i really enjoy reading your blog and getting your perspective on all the literary happenings in Germany! keep it up! it's especially nice to read your reviews of german books.

kjd said...

What a lovely thing to say, especially as I could say the same to you - only re: happenings in NY. Thanks a lot HJ!

Anonymous said...

This is a truly extraordinary book and while I don't share your enthusiasm for "Gewöhnliche Leute", I do have the same enthusiasm for "Rummelplatz" which is an amazing book. My grandfather worked in the same mines at the same time, which I found out while I was writing a review and talked at my grandparents' table about some odd details (when Loose smuggles alcohol to Soviet soldiers, for example), and my grandfather corroborated all this. It's really something how exact and precise all of Bräunig's descriptions and assessments are. And the book itself is a wild, wild ride. I wish it had been finished.

Have you seen Konrad Wolf's movie Sonnensucher? It is set in Wismut mines, but not in those in Chemnitz.

Anonymous said...

(I meant it's an extraordinary writer. Damn my lightheaded ways.)