Citizens of a Happy Moment
Love and idealism in the last days of the GDR By Anna Katharina Schaffner
European literature | Book Review | TLS
I was eleven when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. For a while afterwards, I played “Ossi spotting” with a friend at school in Darmstadt, trying to guess which of the new pupils had arrived from the recently collapsed socialist republic, looking for clues in their haircuts, clothing and pallid complexions. Eight years later, while studying in Berlin, I was the only “Wessi” in a seminar on the theme of Ostalgia (nostalgia for the vanished state). Now I was the outsider. The others talked about the GDR’s glorious anti-fascist, humanist principles, their disgust at “our” mindless consumerism, and the strong sense of community that had bound Easterners together.
The weight of history, the particular experiences of East and West, and the ways in which cultural and subjective memory shape individual identity, have always been present in Jenny Erpenbeck’s work. Aller Tage Abend (2012; The End of Days, 2014) was perhaps most potent in its overlapping retellings of one life, and Erpenbeck’s recent collection of essays and talks, Kein Roman (2018; Not A Novel, 2020), touched on these ideas in a more autobiographical manner. Kairos – her new novel – puts these topics centre-stage. It chronicles the love story between Hans, a writer in his fifties, and Katharina, who is nineteen when they meet. Set in Berlin, in the final years of the GDR, their difficult, often toxic affair ends when the Volksrepublik collapses and Germany is reunited. Married with a teenage son, Hans is to Katharina as intellectually inspiring as he is sexually exciting. He has a penchant for using his belt and is also a relentless emotional bully. The lovers meet where the socialist intelligentsia still congregate; they listen to music, discuss literature and plot their future.
When Katharina betrays Hans with a younger man, he never lets her forget it. Regularly marking the anniversary of her “Fehltritt” (misstep), he forces her to listen to tapes that analyse her moral crimes and various ethical failings. Even in the abusive tapes, Hans is capable of poetry: “Tierchenhaft warst du in meinen Träumen damals, ein kleines Aas, so zwischen September und Weihnachten, und ein Raunen war um dich, wie um eine bemooste Sache. In meinen Träumen wusste ich mehr von dir als im Wachsein.” [“You were creaturesque in my dreams back then, a little devil, around the time between September and Christmas, and a murmur surrounded you, like a moss-covered thing. I knew more about you in my dreams than when awake.”] On another occasion, he cites Rimbaud: “Mein Herz am Heck muss sich erbrechen.” [“My poor heart heaves at the stern.”] Deeply in love with Hans, Katharina tolerates his sadism for too long, and becomes first depressed and then rebellious.
The parallel between Hans and the socialist state, and between the devoted Katharina and the socialist republic’s increasingly disillusioned young citizens, is not hard to spot. But Hans, too, is a disenchanted idealist. A former Hitler Junge, he left the West in the late 1950s to atone for his sins, and for a while supplied information to the Stasi. But now this former informer has himself become suspect. Lying awake at night, he thinks: “Eine erbarmungslose Welt abschaffen durch Erbarmungslosigkeit. Aber wann beginnt das Danach? Wann darf man wieder aufhören mit dem Morden?” [“To eliminate a pitiless world through pitilessness. But when does the hereafter begin? When can the killing cease?”]
There is considerable Ostalgia in Kairos, but it is of a grown-up kind, neither naively glorifying nor vilifying what was. Its characters having progressed from idealism through the horrors of disenchantment, and arrived at a synthesis in which the previous stages have been properly worked through, the novel is perhaps best described as post-tragic in spirit. Hans is interested in dialectics, and reads passages from Hegel to Katharina: “‘aufgehoben’ erstens im Sinne von ‘beendet’, zweitens so etwas wie ‘in Verwandlung aufbewahrt’ und drittens ‘auf eine andere, höhere Stufe gehoben’.” [“‘sublated’ first in the sense of ‘finished’, secondly something along the lines of ‘preserved in transformation’ and thirdly ‘lifted towards a different, higher stage’.”] Revelling in complexity and ambiguity, Erpenbeck knows that no one is all bad, no state all rotten, and she masterfully captures the existential bewilderment of that period between states and ideologies.
“Alles zerfällt jetzt. Einiges ist kollabiert, einiges zerschlagen, anderes im Aufbruch. Hans erinnert sich an einen Blick durch Ingrids Mikroskop: erhitzte Moleküle in einer Versuchsanordnung, manche rasen, manche schweben, manche taumeln. Die Frage ist nur, sagt Ingrid, welche Form das Ganze annehmen wird, wenn es sich wieder zurückverwandelt in Feststoff.” [“Everything is falling apart. Some things have collapsed, some have been shattered, some are emergent. Hans remembers a glimpse through Ingrid’s microscope: heated molecules in an experimental setting, some of which were racing, some floating, some tumbling. The real question, Ingrid says, is which form the whole will take when it changes back into solid matter.”]
Erpenbeck’s portrayal of both Hans and the dying GDR emphasizes the troubling coexistence of a grander social vision and totalitarianism. As the relationship between the lovers darkens, Hans becomes more deplorable but also elicits our pity. In his own twisted way, he cares for Katharina. And gradually, everything he cares about, and everything he ever believed in, turns to dust. The radio station for which he works is closed down, like so many of the GDR’s flagship institutions. The man who saw his intellectual life’s work as a contribution to the socialist cause is nonchalantly handed his redundancy papers.
The book’s title pays homage to the god of the happy moment. “Kairos” is Greek for the proper or opportune time for action – such as those moments in a society’s history when its social and political imaginaries undergo dramatic shifts. The big changes are crucial, of course, but Erpenbeck is equally interested in smaller, preparatory tremors. While the socialist edifice crumbled for complex reasons, some economic and some political, its demise was accelerated by timely citizen action in the form of marches, protests in churches, mass border crossings and other acts of courageous civil disobedience. Katharina, too, asserts herself in her ever more oppressive relationship through various acts of resistance, takes a female lover, and eventually rejects Hans’s oppressive ways.
Today, I can better understand the anger-tinged nostalgia of my fellow students in late 1990s Berlin for the world they lost, and the cognitive dissonance that must have resulted from the collapse of their collective worldview. Katharina notes that Westerners who visited East Berlin in the early post-wall period always simply described the parts of town “in which no billboards have been erected” as “grey”. Greyness was all they could see. Erpenbeck invites us to appreciate the chiaroscuro, to look more discerningly at the many nuanced shades of good and bad that were at work in the German Democratic Republic.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project. Her most recent book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten timeless truths, 2021