Monday, November 09, 2009

The beginning of die Wende

Twenty years ago today the Berlin Wall, the concrete symbol of the Cold War, began to come down. Günter Schabowski, a member of the politburo, announced that permission to leave East Germany would no longer be denied. “Thousands of Berliners clambered across the wall at the Brandenburg Gate,” the New York Times reported, “passing through the historic arch that for so long had been inaccessible to Berliners of either side.” President Reagan’s confident prediction of how the Cold War would end (“We win, they lose”) was gloriously fulfilled.

As far as I am aware, not a single American writer with pretensions to literary importance has touched the fall of the Wall, one of the central events in the history of political freedom. Since 1989, when American novelists have selected Berlin as a setting, theirs has been postwar occupied Berlin (Theodore Weesner, Novemberfest, 1994), the divided Cold War city (Charles McCarry, Christopher’s Ghosts, 2007), or the vibrant reunified city that only wants to forget the Communists, although it remains haunted by the Holocaust (Ward Just, The Weather in Berlin, 2002). Perhaps because I have always admired Crazy in Berlin (1958), his first novel, I expected Thomas Berger—a writer who has never shied away from his German-American background—to take Carlo Reinhart back to the city where, as a U.S. soldier after the war, he had resolved “to know the German actuality.” Like Updike, though, Berger was apparently satisfied with a tetralogy, and with leaving his four-time protagonist in middle age.

But this can’t be right. There must be some American writer I am forgetting, who has had the presumption to imagine what it must have been like in Berlin twenty years ago this week.

German writers have required no presumption to do so. The Goethe-Institut lists thirty-five works by twenty-nine German writers on the fall and die Wende, the reunification of the two Germanies. In the Guardian’s book blog, Suzanne Munshower compiles the top ten books about the Wall, including Peter Schneider’s Mauerspringer (translated as The Wall Jumper in 1983)—“what might be the best Wall fiction ever written,” she says. The best single historical and political volume is William F. Buckley’s Fall of the Berlin Wall (2004).

From twenty years ago today until September 11, 2001, Americans famously took a “holiday from history.” American writers apparently had begun their holiday some time before, and declined to interrupt it even for the collapse of the Wall that had divided the world.

19 comments:

R. T. said...

While you still wait for an American to write the post-Wall novel, I would like to point out a remarkable rendering of the Wall (and all it represented) in fiction, Le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

D. G. Myers said...

Ugh.

R. T. said...

"Ugh" must mean you disparage (or ridicule) the book, my comment, and my sensibilities as a reader. Perhaps I misunderstand.

Anonymous said...

Why not write this novel yourself, D.G.?

D. G. Myers said...

Your sensibilities I admire, Tim. You know that. It's Le Carré’s politics that I disparage and ridicule. I cannot separate the later Le Carré from the earlier. That’s a ridiculous and disparaging thing to say about myself, not about you.

D. G. Myers said...

Why not write this novel yourself, D.G.?

What? And invite upon myself the sort of criticism I mete out to others? You’ve got to be kidding.

R. T. said...

Ah, the dangers of a reader letting the author's biography and politics intrude upon the novel. I try to keep a barrier between the text and the author; perhaps that is a bit of the New Critic still in me after all these years.

D. G. Myers said...

I admire a great many writers whose politics I abhor, even now that I am a Leftist. But there is a bright red line for me: namely, the state of Israel.

jeff mauvais said...

I recommend Anna Funder's amazing collection of tales from pre- and post-1989 East Germany: STASILAND. The stories are true, but most of them read like fiction written by an author able to move seamlessly from suspense to satire. I still have difficulty believing that the Stasi (GDR secret police) accumulated a collection of bottled "personal odors" from supposed enemies of the state.

Lee said...

'What? And invite upon myself the sort of criticism I mete out to others? You’ve got to be kidding.'

heheh!

Anonymous said...

What? And invite upon myself the sort of criticism I mete out to others? You’ve got to be kidding.

But if you can't take it, what gives you the moral gumption to dish it out in the first place?

D. G. Myers said...

And if you can’t recognize self-mockery, it’s no wonder you cower behind anonymity.

Anonymous said...

To mock self is to mock God.

D. G. Myers said...

I mock God all the time. Doesn’t everyone? I assume that He can take it.

Anonymous said...

You get an F, D.G, that is not the person you want to aspire to be. Why not respond in a way that reflects who you want to be?

D. G. Myers said...

Oh, my goodness. Now I won’t graduate!

Anonymous said...

Ok, you win, D.G.

D. G. Myers said...

Where do I pick up my trophy?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I am sorry, D.G., you don't get a trophy because we all mock God and all of his ideas about truth and justice.