English-speaking readers may well be aware of Germany’s history of home-grown terrorism in the form of the Baader-Meinhof Group (RAF), especially with the Oscar nomination for Uli Edel’s film on the subject. The movie is based on Stefan Aust’s 1985 book on the RAF, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, which has just been published for the first time in English (trans. Anthea Bell). Don’t worry, it’s been revised a few times since its first publication.
A phenomenon fewer people are familiar with is the political legacy of the RAF in West Germany. Michael Wildenhain’s latest novel Träumer des Absoluten looks at the generation on the radical left that came after Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and co. – and much more besides.
The title, Dreamers of the Absolute, is taken from Enzensberger, who took it from Marx, describing anarchists in Tsarist Russia. And Wildenhain portrays his love triangle of characters as radical dreamers – until two of them perhaps wake up, and one of them takes a very different path.
The novel is set in West Berlin, where Jochen, Tariq and Judith go to primary school together. They are outsiders to a point, the only children who don’t take part in Christian Religious Education: Jochen’s parents are trade unionists, Tariq’s left-wing mother is the widow of a Lebanese man, and Judith’s mother is a Jehovah’s Witness converted from Judaism. But at the same time, Tariq is a figure of admiration, an excellent gymnast and a daring rebel – everything the narrator Jochen longs to be.
With interruptions, we follow the threesome through school, Judith developing her musical talent, Tariq being made the democratically elected German equivalent of head boy, Jochen developing a passion for mathematics, which he shares with his friend. Tariq is always the more radical, finding ways to triumph over authoritarian teachers and becoming more and more popular, while Jochen watches from the sidelines with envy. And of course, it’s Tariq who gets the girl – for the time being.
After school, things change. It’s 1981, and West Berlin is caught up in a wave of squattings. Wildenhain is often hailed as a kind of literary voice of the squatters’ generation, and this section of the novel probably works the best, clearly based on his own experiences. Opening with a magnificent three-quarter-page sentence describing the people and setting of the movement, it is a melancholy look back at a time that the narrator, and probably the author, experienced as a thrilling period, when anything was possible in a microcosm outside of society, and hopes were high. Freed for a while from Tariq’s overbearing presence, Jochen finally finds his own ideas, living in the first squats, attending meetings, shoplifting for food, fixing up basic plumbing and electricity, smashing shop windows, dealing with the eccentric and the downright disturbed and ending up in street fights. Tellingly, the section is entitled “Hope”.
But while there are people who still romanticise the squatters’ movement, Wildenhain isn’t one of them. The narrator takes a scathing and very adult look back at certain aspects – especially the fetish for violence among the activists and its consequences. And while we get the impression that Jochen isn’t afraid to hit back when necessary, Tariq and Judith go very much further along the path of militant politics. Eventually, an emotionally exhausted Jochen moves out of his squat, concentrating on his maths degree – as a former teacher reminds him, a revolution simply isn’t on the cards.
After 1989, he runs into Tariq and Judith again – and Judith eventually moves in with him, obviously scarred by something she can’t talk about. They have two children, get married, lead a bourgeois life – still in loose contact with Tariq, who sets up his own karate schools, ever a success at whatever he does. Until Jochen finds out by chance that Tariq and Judith are still sleeping together. This section is about a two-fold betrayal though – because the police arrest Tariq for involvement in a terrorist organisation. And Tariq turns supergrass.
In the preface and the final section, we find out that Tariq has converted to Islam, and is at least linked to jihadist attacks in Europe. Wildenhain describes this as the novel’s “vanishing point”. And in fact he makes no more than a cursory attempt to explain the character’s motivations. Scattered at odd, rather disturbing points in the novel are three key scenes, jolting us out of the past into the present day. The narrator describes experiences in cities with a significant Islamic population – London and Istanbul – in which he feels threatened by young, presumably Muslim men. And while he is ashamed of his feelings – and the perceived threat is relativised – that fear is very real.
The novel is inspired by two genuine cases. In 1997, a two-man organisation of “weekend terrorists” by the name of AIZ (anti-imperialist cell) was arrested. Both defendants, ethnic Germans, converted to Islam while under trial, with the explanation that they had discovered the “keenness and beauty” of Islam as a “revolutionary weapon”. And in 2000, Tarek Mousli testified for the prosecution in a case against the RZ (revolutionary cells), in return for a new identity. Mousli really is described as a person who was good at everything, a compelling man and role model for many. What he didn’t do was convert to Islam.
To my mind, Wildenhain has done something rather unsettling by rolling these two cases into one. His young Tariq, on the verge of noble savage status, is a disturbed but highly intelligent child. He has a tick and kills small animals (also later on). The narrator compares his physical beauty to Jean Genet’s description of children who survived the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, placing him in a victim context that doesn’t actually apply. And while the only ascriptions of Arab ethnicity come from others, he tells Jochen that his father was killed “by the Jews”. As he grows up and becomes politicised, Wildenhain has him stay on a kibbutz and identify with Judith’s Jewish background. But when Jochen runs into Tariq at the AIZ trial, it is the latter who recalls Sabra and Shatila and points out for the first time that he’s not German, and not a Christian. The author doesn’t provide easy explanations.
Why does Wildenhain make his character turn to jihad? Is it because of the real Tarek’s fourth dan black belt? The author describes how the young man, otherwise the archetypal rebel, submits to the demeaning authority of his karate master, almost like submitting to a divine force. Is it because of the implicitly assumed risk that left-wing terrorists entered into when planting explosives? Any attack could have meant their own death, implying a fanaticism similar to that of Islamist suicide bombers. Wildenhain explores this idea very briefly when a demonstrator is killed, referring to sacrifices made for a common goal – somewhere Jochen is not prepared to go. Or is it simply because the character is Lebanese – surely a pretty crass attribution based solely on ethnic criteria?
What the novel does extremely well is conjure up the atmosphere of West Berlin over the years. The phlegmatic narrator’s wry self-examination extends to his contemporaries; he is a man looking back at more naïve days that he doesn’t regret. The descriptions of school politics in the 1970s and squatting and radicalisation in the 1980s are a joy to read. There are dozens of well fleshed-out minor characters whose development we also follow, their paths ending in prison or established politics, early graves or warmer climes. The story of the relationship between Jochen, Tariq and Judith works well too and makes for compelling reading with an erotic kick, driving the plot to a certain extent.
What the book doesn’t do well – and possibly doesn’t intend to do in the first place – is explain why someone would turn from left-wing terrorism to religiously motivated violence. I also found it sets up a scenario of threat that lumps Islam and jihadism together in a rather crude way – which surprised and disappointed me.