Is it particularly crass to write a joint review of two quite different novels, merely because their protagonists fall into the same sociocultural dynamic? Possibly, but I shall do so anyway.
Jochen Schmidt’s Schneckenmühle (emphasis on the third syllable) is narrated by fourteen-year-old Jens and set at a summer camp in the dying days of the GDR. The narrator of Torsten Schulz’s Nilowsky is another fourteen-year-old boy (to begin with) in East Berlin in 1976 ff. The characters themselves have little in common, as do the respective plots; and yet both novels slyly dose us with information on life in East Germany.
In Schneckenmühle, that underhand drip-feed is part of the novel’s concept, it seemed to me. Up until about halfway through, I’d been wondering when the plot was going to kick in before I noticed what Schmidt was up to. Off Jens goes to his last ever summer camp, his naïve voice sharing the joys and horrors of school holidays spent in a hut with his peers. Girls, bad jokes, nudity, illicit alcohol, bullying, not washing for weeks on end. On the surface, it’s all fairly standard stuff, even if you come from a country that doesn’t do summer camps. And enjoyable, of course, because Schmidt knows how to entertain his readers from his long experience as a Lesebühnen author (which I usually describe as slam prose, for want of a better analogy).
But two other things are happening in parallel. Firstly, Jens has a rather strange fixation with consumer goods. His mother writes him a letter and the most thrilling news is that she’s bought a pedal-bin for the kitchen. He can hardly wait to try it out. Or he buys a replacement glass liner for a vacuum flask as an exciting gift for his father. In fact, the highlight of every trip the kids go on is the shopping part. A jaunt across the border to Czechoslovakia starts with the lines:
Unfortunately, the shops aren’t right by the station; you have to walk a little way into the town and find them in the side streets. We storm the very first food shop, full of greed for the unknown sweeties in excitingly unfamiliar wrappers.
The main difference between the two countries in the kids’ eyes seems to be in their respective consumer goods: sherbet sweets, ketchup in tubes, rubber snakes, bendy erasers and rulers, table football sets – all the Czech excitement makes Jens ill.
And then there are the more subtle details: the people disappearing, Jens’ discomfort about openly displaying his Christianity, the kids singing Western songs at the disco, the Russian soldiers. And a rather strange night-time adventure kicks in to provide surface plot action. I don’t want to write a great deal about this aspect, because it’s one of the most interesting things about reading the book. Perhaps it’s enough to warn you to look a little deeper than Jens’s reading of events. In retrospect, I’m reminded of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, in which another young narrator narrowly misses the historical point. Very clever indeed.
And so to Nilowsky. As I mentioned, the two books have little in common in terms of structure. Schulz’s narrator Markus ages in the course of the story, going from fourteen to about twenty, with a brief epilogue some years later, and his voice is more mature than Jens’s. He’s a conscious storyteller, perhaps, rather than an accidental one. His parents have moved from Prenzlauer Berg to a dire corner of East Berlin for work. It could be the area between Adlershof and Spindlersfeld, still not exactly Berlin’s sunny side today, but in Nilowsky a reeking triangle between a chemical plant, a forest and railway line.
And here Markus meets Reiner Nilowsky, an inveterate trainspotter a couple of years older than him. Especially in contrast to Markus’s dreary life, Nilowsky reminded me rather of Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-roof – a mischief-maker extraordinaire with his own rules and theories of how the world works. In this book, though, the oddball character has a very dark side. We see him being beaten by his father very early on, followed by his despised father’s and beloved grandmother’s deaths. And we meet his love interest Carola, who has decided to remain thirteen even though she’s seventeen: anorexia.
Markus falls under the older boy’s spell but is equally drawn to Carola – again, nothing we haven’t read before. But Nilowsky is his gateway to an otherworld, a GDR populated by drunks, old ladies and guest workers from Mozambique. As in Schneckenmühle, Schulz gives us a rare insight into a particular aspect of life in East Germany, in this case racism. Fawned over by the old ladies, the Mozambicans live in barracks in the forest and are generally condemned by everyone else, including Markus’s father, who is in charge of them at the chemical works. They are expected to work hard, learn their trade and then return to the “brother country” to aid the revolution. As far as I’m aware this was standard practice in the GDR. I’ve met people who came over as students and were treated similarly, but managed to settle here after the Wall fell. In fact the SPD is now fielding its first black parliamentary candidate, Karamba Diaby, who originally came from Senegal to study in Leipzig. For our adventurous Markus, the Mozambicans are enticing as rebellious heroes, and one of the most bizarre things Nilowsky does involves some kind of voodoo ritual. I wondered at times whether the author hadn’t created rather two-dimensional stereotypes, but I decided the very fact that he portrays Africans in the GDR is pretty groundbreaking, and what he shows us is how people saw them. And that no doubt included a good pinch of racist clichés.
Torsten Schulz has a background in screenwriting, and as such his plotting is more robust than Schmidt’s. After crises in the family and his friendship, Markus moves away again and loses touch with Nilowsky for a while, marking the apex of the novel. But the rest of the book deals with his attempts to grow up and away from his strange friend. As he gets older, Carola becomes a more realistic prospect – except of course that would mean betraying Nilowsky. And Nilowsky’s life becomes darker and darker while Markus’s grows more and more conventional. The ending is melancholy with a tinge of iconoclasm. Throughout, Nilowsky's unconventional voice stands out, making for some excellent writing.
Two fascinating novels, both featuring stories well told. Go ahead and read them both.