December 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Return to Germany

In the first column of Small But Perfectly Formed's second year, we're returning again to Germany. There is a simple reason why books first written in German keep cropping up here. German-language writers (like the French) have long punched well above their weight when it comes to writing great novellas and short novels. Look at Buchner's Lenz or Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Look at Joseph Roth (to be covered in a future column) or Arthur Schnitzler (ditto). When you combine that with the undeniably intriguing and murky nature of German history over the last century or so, you have the potential for some seriously great books.

The two books we're looking at here both have the Berlin Wall as a central concern. This construction of cement and wire, backed up with machine gun posts and landmines, was the line that divided the democratic West from the communist East. Many assumed that an inevitable Third World War, which would escalate into nuclear Armageddon, would begin with the troops of one side or the other straying across the border. The West officially refused to recognise that the East even existed. The East removed all details of the West from their maps. It was, quite frankly, mad.

Peter Schneider: The Wall Jumper (1982): This is one of those books that seem to push at the boundaries of fiction. It feels so authentic, and the style and relative plotlessness give it a journalistic, non-fictional feel that hides the genuine artistry at work. The unnamed narrator, an analogue of Schneider himself, is a West German who has become obsessed with the Wall. He uses his relative freedom to travel back and forth, visiting friends on both sides. Talking to them, he collects stories about other Germans who have, for various reasons, dedicated their lives to crossing the Wall by less legal means. One man jumps over and over again from West to East, escaping institutionalisation and resettlement to return again and again to his obsession. Three boys creep over from East to West to watch Hollywood movies, returning each time to their homes. Their behaviour seems quite sane compared to that of the governments on either side.

What is often forgotten, particularly now that the Wall is 16 years gone, is that the entire city of Berlin was deep inside East Germany, linked to the rest of Western Europe only by a very narrow corridor of land. This bit of foolishness meant that a great many Westerners were reluctant to live there, and had to be encouraged with the sort of financial breaks and assistance schemes that tended to appeal to the young. West Berlin, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was a city of transient, unsettled, relatively well-off twenty- and thirty-somethings, mixed in with those who had escaped from the East but didn't want to travel far from those in their families who remained behind the iron curtain. Schneider captures this hedonistic, rootless world with economy and wit.

Given that the Berlin Wall stood as an obvious, unavoidable symbol of the battle between ideologies that was the Cold War, it's also interesting to see the hints of what was to come seeded in Schneider's novel. In the background, on the news, play stories about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Western TV trumpets the brave resistance of the Muslims. The Eastern media focuses on the aid given the Afghans by America. What Schneider could not have predicted was that these same Afghans, and their allies, would one day come to be the new ideological enemy when the Wall was long gone and European communism just a memory.

Ian McEwan: Black Dogs (1992): McEwan's fiction has visited Berlin before, in the masterful and dark The Innocent, which was set very soon after World War II. The plot of Black Dogs involves travels to various modern remnants of the same conflict, like the Nazi concentration camps, and of course the Berlin Wall. A vital part of the story is a journey to Berlin to see the Wall finally come down in 1989, and the wild euphoria and hope that this peaceful revolution brought.

The story is told through the eyes of a man less interested in his wife than his wife's parents. Deprived of his own parents at the age of eight by a car accident, the narrator is drawn to his parents-in-law, and fascinated by their politics. This leads to an exploration of the shaping of the Cold War world, from its beginning to the beginning of its end, with the Wall's collapse. It also manages the trick of taking a life-threatening event from deep in two of the characters' pasts and making it thoroughly suspenseful and gripping, even though we know that they survive to live at least another four decades.

Interestingly enough, the just-published UK edition of The Wall Jumper also features an excellent introduction by Ian McEwan. It's a fine discussion of a wonderful book, a heartfelt appreciation of one great writer by another.