Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Wall in my Head

Of the flood of publications marking the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, there is one you really ought to read, and that’s the Words Without Borders anthology The Wall in My Head. In fact it’s so good it has its own website.

The book is a collection of fiction, non-fiction and images from around the former Eastern Bloc. Those images include secret police documents, photos, official and opposition posters, letters and artworks, all carefully matched to suit each piece. And they really add another dimension to the book, although you’d probably need a magnifying glass to read some of those typed reports in Hungarian.

What the anthology almost instantly brought home to me is that East Germany was very much part of the Soviet empire. The writing describing life behind the Iron Curtain shows just how much the countries had in common – the queue being the social and cultural phenomenon that united people from Vladivostok to Rostock. Vladimir Sorokin’s “Farewell to the Queue” details its history in the Soviet Union and before, ending with a porcelain soup bowl full of black caviar and teenage romance.

The secret service too coloured life in all the various countries. Péter Esterházy reports on how he found out his father was an informer to the Hungarian State Security. Esterházy’s reluctance to get to the subject at hand is touching, cleverly preceded by brief reflections from his translator Judith Sollosy for some background material. And the German journalist Christhard Läpple tells the true story of a brother who spied on his sister, and why.

Then we come to escapes, and I particularly enjoyed the fanciful versions provided by Dmitri Savitski and Peter Schneider. The fiction extract that stands out most to me is from Romanian author Dan Sociu’s Urbancholia, as yet unpublished in English – “the obligatory chapter of memories from Communism” in letter form, complete with Bessarabians playing ukuleles and an illegal still. In fact, though, these were some of the few fiction pieces I found worked well alongside the factual reports. Certainly the extract from Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is out of place here, a description of a tram ride that could have taken place almost anywhere and doesn’t offer any particular insight.

To focus on the rest of the German stuff: Annett Gröschner, a fine writer also featured in Lyn Marven’s Berlin Tales anthology, writes about experiencing the fall of the wall. Poet Durs Grünbein takes a broader look in a semi-fictional (I think) piece about an opposition activist. There’s a sprightly, silly story from Wladimir Kaminer about a fake Paris, a Soviet Potemkin village near Stavropol.

And I found Stefan Heym’s speech from the opening session of the German Bundestag in 1994 an inspired inclusion – except for the fact that the explanation of the East German writer’s complicated politics is much too brief. Heym may have been both an optimist and a realist and an “independent-minded socialist” who quoted Brecht and Abraham Lincoln in the same speech and reminded his listeners of the good sides of the GDR along with the bad, but he was pretty lonely in the German parliament as an independent candidate for the PDS, and resigned less than a year after his election. In fact, Heym was a fascinating character and a talented and intelligent writer who deserves more attention.

In general, the anthology asks a lot of its readers. There is no room for background material, few footnotes, and the biographies are very curt. But then why dumb things down? It’s not as if the book’s going to sell to people who’d otherwise be reading Dan Brown. I’m pleased to see the translators and writers given equal space together in the Contributors section, on an equal footing so to speak. Which of course should be no surprise, coming as it does from the people at Words Without Borders.

Instead of reading Western Europeans or Americans waxing lyrical on how they saw the Iron Curtain fall, then, do reach for The Wall in my Head, a fascinating collection of over 30 pieces of writing from those who really knew what was going on, generally well translated and opening the eyes, I hope, of the English-speaking world.

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