This apparently simple unassuming story is set almost entirely in East Berlin’s Pankow district and told from the point of view of a middle aged woman : it tells the tale of a woman who takes on a part time job as a secretary/scribe to Beerenbaum, a former East German professor. First published in 1991, it was quite a different read in its scope and range from more recent DDR books, like Tellkamp’s der Turm or Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehemenden Lichts, their plots sprawling over decades and generations. Yet on this small canvas it deals with the big issues of hierarchy, power and patriarchy and how they played out in the authoritarian state of the DDR.
Rosa or Rosalind Polkowski first meets Beerenbaum by chance in a cafe. She is in her forties and has just given up a good job at the Barabassche Research Institute because she is fed up with putting her brain to work for others in projects she doesn’t care about. She feels an immediate antipathy towards Beerenbaum, seeing him as one of a class of self important old men who patronise waitresses and belittle their wives in public and whom she can’t abide. Their encounter is described immediately within a framework of power relations: he reminds her of her father and she thinks she’ll get one up on him by ‘guessing’ his life story-a working class boy and a dedicated young Communist who rose to power and influence through the party ranks. Despite finding him repellent, she is intrigued when he tells her he is writing his memoirs and looking for a secretary/scribe two afternoons a week to write them down- he lost the use of his right hand after a stroke. She agrees to do the job, but on the condition that she will use just her hand and not engage her brain in the slightest in the content of what she is writing down: she knows after all that he was a brilliant speaker and an inflexible Stalinist- who knows what she’s letting herself in for?
A second narrative strand is interleaved with the main story- a fast forward to Beerenbaum’s funeral where the outsized wreath and pompous ceremony leave us in no doubt as to Beerenbaum’s elevated status in the East German hierarchy: right at the beginning we are told he’ll be buried in that part of the Pankow cemetery reserved for important servants of the regime and we know he lives in the Pankow Villa Viertel-the posh part of Pankow whose large houses reward the government apparatchiks. Scene by scene the funeral and mourners are described while the narrator keeps her physical distance from the other mourners, expressing her ideological distance in a gloriously mocking riff on the ponderous double chin of the chief mourner.
Back at Stille Zeile 6, Beerenbaum’s house, where she goes on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, the narrator is finding it harder than she thought to suppress any commentary on the content of what she is writing down. Beerenbaum teases her a little to begin with, asking her if this or that would be the best means of expression and she manages to remain non committal. It is when he starts spouting the cliched and to her meaningless expressions like Klasseninstinkt that she finds it hard to maintain her cool. On the one hand they bring up for her the way in which such tropes were used to justify the ideological standpoint of the communist East German state and to repress discussion or debate. On the other hand such hackneyed phrases remind her of her father, an active communist and a repressive and unloving father. As the meetings progress and the plot develops, the two patriarchal figures, Beerenbaum and her father, become conflated and we see her locked in a power struggle with both these figures.
The third locus of activity and one offering both a counterpoint and a welcome break from the reader after the intensity of the sessions with Beerenbaum, is the Kneipe, or pub. So this is the narrator’s local where she meets up with her former lover, Bruno, and their colourful and eccentric friend,known as der Graf– the count. This locus extends to the narrator’s apartment block where she befriends the piano teacher Thekla Fleischer whom she asks to give her piano lessons-because what the narrator actually wanted to do on leaving the institute was to learn the piano and Italian so that she could translate the recitative from Don Giovanni into German, a feat that had eluded the best musicians and Italian speakers. Now the narrator cannot speak Italian or play the piano and has no knowledge of opera so this is clearly a crazy and impossible scheme. I saw it as an example of a dream, an ambition, a yearning for the impossible, a mad impulse which stood as a challenge, a counterpoint to the stifling rigidity of communist thinking. This eccentricity and impulsiveness is explored further in the florid character of the count and culminates in Thekla’s wonderfully anarchic home made wedding, a contrast to Beerenbaum’s overblown yet empty funeral.
Now we know from the beginning that Beerenbaum dies and that the narrator’s anger and outrage increases to breaking point during the sessions. It would spoil to say more. Yet I have to say that I found the build up between these two characters utterly compelling and absorbing. On the one hand their relationship exemplifies the power struggle in any relationship, but more specifically the struggle between communist/non communist, employer/employee,man/woman. Yet the most important struggle in this particular context is perhaps that between the generations. The narrator comments at one point that only when the old generation, the old communists of which Beerenbaum is one, die out, will the younger generation be free to move into positions of power and shape the world in a new and different way. His death should bring freedom and offer hope. Though one last gesture at the very end of the book leaves this open.
Do read this book. It’s a chamber piece in the tight focus of its plot but its themes still echo nearly 30 years later.