I really enjoyed this novel, renowned for being one of the best works of the East German writer Christa Wolf and for its portrayal of East Germany in the period leading up to 1961. The writer Christa Wolf has been hovering at the edges of my consciousness all my adult and German reading life, but I’ve never read her books. I started this one, wanting to read Christa Wolf as a German woman writer first and foremost and to leave her political standing to one side. I read the novel in German. There have been two translations into English, the most recent ‘They divided the sky’ by Luise von Flotow, usefully reviewed in The Economist.
The novel starts with the protagonist, Rita, recovering consciousness in a hospital bed after an accident. She is suffering from psychological trauma and depression and her recovery over several weeks provides the framework for the main narrative, told in flashback. Rita was brought up in a village in East Germany and meets Manfred at the age of 19 at a local dance. He is older than her and has just completed his PhD in Chemistry. They fall in love and begin an intense love affair. Rita is working in an insurance office, much to the chagrin of her schoolteacher, who thinks she is wasting her talents. She is offered the possibility of teacher training and takes it. This means moving to the city and the couple move in with Manfred’s parents, the Herrfurths.
Before starting her course, Rita gets a job at the railway carriage manufacturing plant where Manfred’s father works and is introduced to life on the factory floor and industrial practices in East Germany at that time. She makes friends with both workers and those in managerial roles (all men) and grows to understand the dilemmas for people working within the Communist system as well as the wide range of attitudes to work and the demands of the state. Manfred is less interested in engaging with the concerns of the workers. As a talented chemist, he wishes to work in a situation where he can carry out research free from ideological trammels and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that his project will not be funded in East Germany. Eventually he stays on in West Berlin after a conference ( this is just before August 1961 when the Wall went up, stopping movement from the East) and asks Rita to join him. She visits him in West Berlin and has to make the agonising decision, to stay with her lover or return to her hometown in the East.
The novel is richly seamed, with East Germany and the early 60s as the backdrop to the story. I enjoyed Christa Wolf’s depiction of place, the smog ridden city dominated by the factories, dwarfing the human, contrasting with the restorative nature of village life and the quiet expanses of countryside, apparently unchanging. The descriptions of rural life evoke feelings of nostalgia for a past now gone, but also, as seen by Rita, now a young adult, nostalgia for the simplicity of her own childhood.
The impact of living under Communism is explored, both within the factory and outside, from many perspectives. The question of productivity is shown to be both an opportunity to build pride and solidarity, as well as a tyranny, exemplified in the workforce’s various attitudes to the ‘norms’, the requirement for workers to produce a certain number of piecework products per shift, which was of course relentlessly increased by the bosses to increase productivity. Freedom of speech and expression are circumscribed and characters are afraid to speak their minds in public, lest they lose their jobs or are vilified. The fear created by this atmosphere is illustrated well in the story of Sigrid, whose parents flee to the West with her younger brothers and sisters, leaving her to cope not only with the loss of her family, but also with the fear the Party will take revenge on her by throwing her off her teacher training course.
The era of the early 60s with its winds of social change hovers in the background too. We see Manfred’s excitement at the potential for science aiding mankind when he talks about the automation of homes and cities. This was a universal theme at the time as was the space race, referred to her when the community learn ‘die Nachricht’ – the piece of news-that the USSR have put their first cosmonaut in space. Family relationships are also typical of that era. Manfred’s hatred towards his parents, expressed in his harsh naming of their home as ‘mein Lebenssarg’- the coffin of my life-I found shocking in its ferocity, yet his rejection of and alienation from the older generation was characteristic of young people the world over at that time. Manfred’s treatment of Rita reflects the sexism of those days: his reaction to her telling him she wants to train to be a teacher is to belittle and undermine her, saying she won’t stick it out. And it’s not just Manfred- when Rita goes for a drink with Wenland, the works’ boss, he orders for them both! Yet this was how men behaved towards women pre-feminism, patronising and infantilising them, deeming them incapable of playing an equal role in society as men.
I read this novel as a coming of age novel too. Rita is indeed pushed to despair- to the ‘accident’ in the factory and the ensuing weeks of depression-for love. But during the months of working in the factory and observing the daily lives of people around her she has pulled away from Manfred and started to develop her own ideas and frienships. At the end of the novel she has made her own choice, closing the door softly on her sick friend Meternagel, whom she was visiting but also on her girlhood and this chapter of her life.
Christa Wolf has created a moving love story, but also a compelling portrayal of East Germany in the early 60s through detailed description of people and landscapes. Her characterisation demonstrates the complexity of human behaviour within the strictures of Communist society at that time, and her talent for storytelling makes the human impact so vividly moving. For those who want to find out more about Christa Wolf, may I suggest this excellent full obituary by Kate Webb in the Guardian. As for me, my next Christa Wolf will be ‘Nachdenken über Christa T.’, ‘an assault on patriarchy’. Watch this space.