Friday, 15 November 2013

Maxim Leo: Red Love

There are books that work better outside of their own territories, and Maxim Leo's Red Love seems to be one of them. It is a piece of long-form journalism investigating the author's family history, in the GDR but also under the Nazis and more recently. In Germany, it went fairly unnoticed by the press, perhaps because East German politics aren't considered all that sexy here, or perhaps because it all seemed too familiar. Then in 2011 the book won the European Book Prize. Either it's just me not speaking good enough French, or this is possibly the world's least transparent book award. It seems to be run out of Brussels and it seems to award prizes to essays and to "novels and narratives", with Red Love fitting into the narrative rather than novel category. Whatever the case, in 2011 Julian Barnes chaired the judging panel, and provides the cover quote for Pushkin Press's English version: "A wry and unheroic witness... an unofficial history of a country that no longer exists." I have no idea how he could have judged the German book.

Having made all those provisos, I am in fact glad that Pushkin Press picked up the book and got my friend Shaun Whiteside to translate it – in a solid and capable style, which I'd have liked better if he'd adjusted the tenses more liberally to knock off a few jagged edges. I hope he'll still be my friend after reading this.

Maxim Leo is a journalist from Berlin and approaches his subject with intelligence and tact. His family provides plenty of material, which he distributes evenly across the book. His maternal grandfather was the son of a Jewish lawyer, who left Germany for France early on under the Nazis, having won a case against Goebbels before 1933. Gerhard Leo grew up in France and joined the resistance as a teenager, becoming a communist and a journalist in West Germany and then moving to East Berlin. He's probably the character Maxim Leo is most interested in, especially after viewing his Stasi file. Then there are the author's own mother and father, Anne and Wolf, whose relationships to the East German state are shaped by those to their parents as much as by the circumstances. On the other side there is Werner, Wolf's estranged Stalinist father who has repressed his memories of being a Nazi. Later we catch a glimpse of Anne's maternal grandfather, a member of a communist splinter group murdered in a concentration camp. And finally Maxim himself, who seems to feel dwarfed by all these relatives with their passion for politics, and rejects the GDR mainly for material reasons.

I've been in (East) Berlin for seventeen years now and have heard plenty of family stories. I know that some people have a tendency to whitewash their own histories, to put themselves at the centre of historical moments and to make their roles look more heroic than they really were, and indeed their politics more straight-forward. Leo cuts through this tendency by means of thorough research, reading notes, diaries and files and going through photo albums, always questioning. He makes that discovery process part of the narrative, which is perhaps why I found the book so compelling. And in fact he finds out a number of things that upset his original simplistic view of his family, giving the story a little added tension. It's well-written journalism with a personal touch.

What disappointed me was Leo's almost exclusive focus on the men in the family, with the exception of his mother. I found myself rather drawn to Werner's abandoned first wife, to his second wife and his younger daughter, Maxim's half-aunt. Likewise, I'd be interested to know more about Anne's mother, who somehow survived after her Jewish father was killed by the Nazis but who is strangely invisible beside her larger-than-life husband Gerhard. Certainly I don't remember reading how she and Gerhard met. I realise, though, that one of the achievements of the twentieth century was that women came to lead more interesting lives, in East and West, and perhaps that is embodied in Anne - who is portrayed in the most sympathetic light, with Leo explaining her many political doubts and her inner conflict with the state over the years.

Despite this minor niggle, Red Love provides a nuanced view of political and personal life in East Germany, and is well worth reading for those unfamiliar with the subject. I particularly enjoyed young Maxim's trip to France, where his grandfather introduced him to the kind of communists who live in Mediterranean villas, and his teenage game of pretending to be from the West. When he and his friends make girls cry when "leaving the country", they decide to give it up. The investigative journalism extends even to the author himself.


Unknown said...

Well, anything that touches on the war is bound to have an edge in the UK market. I'm also wondering if books dealing with life in the DDR might be the next pigeon hole for German literature in translation...

kjd said...

That sounds plausible to me - thinking of Eugen Ruge, for example, and Simon Urban to some extent. But I think there's generally a greater fascination among UK readers for historical material, as the Booker Prize keeps showing us. Fiction is good, the equation goes, if it also serves a useful purpose by teaching us things.

I wouldn't disagree entirely but I would say that there's plenty of good fiction that doesn't teach us anything in factual terms. I was trying to think of criteria for judging "good" but it's too complex for a Sunday morning.