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Jenny Erpenbeck on Marx, shattered hopes and growing up in the DDR

The prize-winning German author Jenny Erpenbeck talks about Marx, growing up in the DDR, and shattered hopes.

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Photo: Katharina Behling

Showing us around her house in Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the books on her large bookshelf were not organised alphabetically, but instead by the author’s birthdate. “There are three sections, German, Russian and English, then some others like antiquity. Art books are on the bottom.” Within each section, she has a special shelf for books by her friends, as well as one area (behind the lamp) for books that she hopes to have time to read one day. Asked about her favourite English language writers, she mentioned works that might be little known, even to readers of English: Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology “It’s like my bible” and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Your new novel Kairos is set in the DDR. You grew up in the East. What was it like to recreate that city for the new book?

There were quite a few things I remembered well, then for others I would need to ask my friends. For example, I could remember where all the cafes were, but I wouldn’t remember the names, or which was which. It was strange, but only as strange as it always is for me when I walk through Berlin. There will always be two layers of the city. I see what was once there and what’s there now.

In your essay Homesick for Sadness you point out that, for you, Berlin wasn’t divided in two. You’d never known the city as anything other than what it was. Was there any sense, back then, that you were living in a strange situation?

As a child, you take things as given. There are places you won’t see, or you’ll only see later. When I got a bit older, I heard the sound of a construction site in West Berlin while I was in East Berlin. That was strange because it was so close. It was like we shared the sound but not the present. But we were used to hearing the [West Berlin] subway going underneath. Perhaps we got used to the strangeness, which is a good basis for becoming a writer.

Another essay At the Ends of the Earth describes playing among the ruins of the Museumsinsel as a child. There seemed to be a sense of freedom in these abandoned places.  

There were many undefined places, which was nice. It’s where something can grow. If everything is set and finished, there’s nothing left to do, not for fantasy or for playing. These were places which could be used in an unforeseen way. 

Was there an immediate sense with reunification that the time of experimentation was over?

You could see it in every aspect. We just had to learn how the Bundesrepublik was organised, to understand how to make a living, how to keep a job, how to pay the rent, which all of a sudden started exploding. It was very clear that we had to fit into a system we hadn’t invented. For the first eight weeks after the fall of the wall we felt that we had the power, but then when we saw the direction it was going, we realised we were going to be the stupid ones again.

In November it was like “we are making a revolution”. By February, it was clear the whole state would collapse and would soon be gone.

And with the elections: the native inhabitants of the east didn’t know what they meant. The first free elections were actually supposed to be in June, then they put the date earlier, in March, so the newly founded opposition parties wouldn’t have a chance to reach anyone. They didn’t have devices like photocopiers or posters. Before we could even think about it, the CDU dropped in and took over. They knew how to do it: what an election means, what the consequences are. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the people thought ok, now we’ll choose the Christian Democratic Union in order to quickly become Westerners.

You wrote about how integration with the West made people in the East see themselves with new eyes. Suddenly you noticed that the East German actresses often had crooked teeth. No one had thought about it before.

Another detail we noticed in the years after reunification: if some East German actress was on a talk show, she would speak in a Berlin accent. They were able to speak Hochdeutsch, but in normal life, as a private person invited on a show, they would all speak with a Berlin accent.

Even my father. He’s a philosopher, he’s very well educated. It wasn’t not a question of education; it was a choice based on respect for the working class. As if to say: “we are equal”. This wasn’t ordered from above. It was like it was hip to be normal.

Do you feel that you’re more successful internationally, especially in the English-speaking world, than in Germany.

My feeling is there’s a real, serious interest from the English-speaking world to understand. How did it feel, the reunification? The questions are not formally put, but they’re real questions. I couldn’t believe how much interest there was for the essays. My publishing house told me they sent the essays to 80 journalists in Germany and there was only one review. One. And that was written by a journalist I know. She’s a friend. Maybe, Germans don’t like to read essays. Okay. But perhaps they’re also a bit tired of listening to East German stories.

I can see it also within myself. It’s much easier for me to invite a foreign journalist to my house than a German journalist. The distance is bigger and it makes it easier to be intimate.  

Sometimes the term Ostalgie is used in a way which seems to want to cut down the subject. Do you think, here in Germany, that some people don’t want to engage? That they’re holding something within themselves they don’t want to look at?

The interesting thing about this kind of melancholy or disappointment is that it has different sides. As Easterners, we are people that experienced a fundamental collapse of a system. This meant being afraid of losing a job, not being able to pay rent, being forced to leave home. For many people, it was too many new things, too suddenly. They didn’t expect that; they had expected to be able go to Mallorca. And they were able to do that, but it was only one half of the truth.

The collapse of a system is an interesting experience because it gives you a deep distrust in structures of any system. When you see that in five minutes everything can stop working, it’s a basic experience that reaches far beyond than just the loss of socialism. In this sense, you even miss the bad things. You’ve lost the software of how to deal with things, what to do, and what it’s better to leave alone. Even in the West you have these blind spots: you’re free, but you won’t really use your freedom in every moment. You can say what you like, but you might not be honest.

You know the rules of the system you grew up in. From one moment to the next, all our accumulated knowledge was no longer of use.

People who wanted to build a better socialism opened the door, but what entered was something entirely different. Our present moment became history, as did the possible futures we had envisioned. 

You write about the status of the future under the two systems. Today, the prevailing idea seems to be that we’re living in the future – the best possible system – while the actual future threatens disaster, system breakdown, ecological collapse. Did you immediately feel this change in the status of the future?

I think it was clear when there was so much happiness about being reunified. It seemed like the end of the story. No other end was needed anymore.

Many friends of mine in the west told me the balance between east and west was also good for the west. From the moment the east was gone, there was no need to make conditions better, it was like, “Okay, now we’re alone and we can do what we like”.

Another thing that was abandoned was the connection to an idea of progress. In the 20s of the last century, poets and painters like Picasso were left-wing. It was a big movement which thought: “we are creating a new world”. In the East, we maintained this vision. I’m not talking about reality, but the vision of a society based on solidarity, equal rights for everyone, whatever gender, whatever country.

When you call all that Ostalgie it becomes clear you have contempt for it all. And that is hard to take.  

In the Marx-Engels-Forum between the Schloss and Alexanderplatz, there is a quote from Engels which reads “everything depends on the working class acting as a class”. Do you think this is possible today? 

Acting as a class is getting more and more difficult. With computers, everyone can work on their own. It would be interesting to know who the working class is today, because our work is changing so much. Marx said that ideas create real change when they are able to grip the masses. A friend of mine took part in some activities with the Occupy movement and she said there was so much military to stop it. The better the weapons become, the higher the fences, the more difficult it becomes to have a revolution.

Do you want a revolution?

I want to have a peaceful change, of course. But, I think tactically it’s possible to answer the big questions by taking private action. Before writing Go Went Gone, there was a discussion between me and my father about helping refugees. I said I know it’s by far not enough to help five or ten people, but still, I heard so many stories about Jewish people who survived just because one would help them.. It’s comfortable to say “the world needs a change”, so not to put any effort into helping one, two, or three people. But still: the world needs a change, both political and legal.

Marx is also known for his literary style. What do you think of him as a writer?

He’s great. For example Die Verhältnisse zum tanzen bringen, to make the petrified relations dance by singing their own tune back to them. I love that. To change the system by making it dance. And then of course, there is the world-famous opening line: Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa. A specter is haunting Europe. You couldn’t put it better. And it’s still like that: the forces of anti-communism are strong. I think someone like Allende in Chile would have been one of the very few who could have made a socialist system work. 

Would you call yourself a Marxist?

Probably, yes. I don’t know enough to call myself a Marxist. I have a bad memory. I’m not reading Capital all the time. I don’t keep in mind all the aspects of Marx’s work. But what I like is that Marx understood how the worker is used like material. He’s not a human anymore. This is a strong idea. Why are some people just used as material for others who can just sit at home and take the profit?

In the essay collection there is one text I wrote about a bag hung by some workers on a tree. It contains breakfast. They work in a park and, when it’s time for their break, they’ll eat the breakfast. So, the breakfast is the future, it’s already hanging in the tree. They’re working, but the future is already there. I think our future is growing somewhere. Perhaps not in our countries, perhaps somewhere else, we don’t know yet, but you cannot keep the future out.

Bio

The New Yorker described Jenny Erpenbeck as the “most prominent and serious German novelist of her generation”. Born in 1967 in East Berlin in the former DDR, she has consistently examined German history and politics in works such as Visitation, The End of Days and Go, Went, Gone. Her latest novel Kairos is her first set in the DDR. The difficulties that accompanied Germany’s reunification is a subject she has previously only touched on in essays, writing about her former compatriots’ initial enthusiasm for a united Germany that: “They ran with open arms to greet this new era, not knowing that its arrival would mark them forever as second-class citizens.”