The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain, Open Letter. 300 pp, $15.95.
My German mother had the misfortune to be an adolescent in a village south of Frankfurt during World War II. When the boundary between East and West Germany was drawn, her village lost its train station and she lost half of her extended family; they had become East German by virtue of geography, not personal politics. My father would chime in about how the Berlin Wall separated East and West Berlin and how after World War II the city and country had been divided up like a pie—with the United States and the Soviets getting the biggest slices. In my child’s mind, I took that wall in Berlin and extended it down through the whole country, even going so far as to picture the farmhouse where my mother lived as a child as backing up against a cement wall. As I grew older, I extended that wall in my mind to join up with an Iron Curtain that locked out the even larger landmass of Eastern Europe and Russia. Perhaps these are the reasons why I leapt at the chance to read The Wall in My Head, a new anthology of writing and images from the Eastern Bloc.
|Commemorative Poster from István Orosz. Credit: István Orosz
All it takes is a split-second YouTube search to vicariously experience the fall of the Berlin Wall. What this wide assortment of videos does not capture, however, are the stories behind the journeys that brought Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, and all the others who crossed the borders between East and West. For many Americans it is especially difficult to understand why the fall of the Berlin Wall would be anything other than sweet. Raised in fear of the Evil Empire, we see the fall of communism as simply a matter of citizens and their leaders finally seeing the light. But reading the stories, poems, memoirs, and novel excerpts and gazing at the photos and documents reproduced in The Wall in My Head makes the toppling of that wall as bitter as it was sweet—bitter over all that had been lost during those years of separation, bitter over the moral compromises that were made to carve out lives. This anthology shows the world beyond the wall in its true complexity.
Long before the wall came down, Milan Kundera, a Czech who made France his home, gave us a glimpse beyond it with such works as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. An excerpt from his nonfiction work The Art of the Novel opens the anthology and defines the Kafkan story as follows:
In the world of the Kafkan, the comic is not a counterpoint to the tragic (the tragic-comic) as in Shakespeare; it’s not there to make the tragic more bearable by lightening the tone; it doesn’t accompany the tragic, not at all, it destroys it in the egg and thus deprives the victims of the only consolation they could hope for: the consolation to be found in the (real or supposed) grandeur of tragedy.
Kundera’s distinction between the comic and tragic is the lens through which all the works that follow should be viewed. Moreover, his distinction helps maintain order as the boundary between fiction and nonfiction becomes lost; the most confounding pieces in this collection are frequently the ones based on reminiscences.
|Ebertstraße, 1989. Credit: Brian Rose
“Paris Lost,” written by Russian-born German short story writer Wladimir Kaminer, is one of the two stories that were previously published in translation by Words Without Borders and is a delightful modern day Potemkin village story. Instead of nineteenth-century Russian villagers building a false-fronted town to impress their Empress, the Soviets build a Paris (that transforms to a London during wet winters) where they can send the “best proletarians” as a reward, without having to worry about those proletarians being subjected to “the evil imperialists” lying in wait with traps and provocations to spread falsehoods about the Soviet Union. When word of this sham reaches the Western press during the Andropov era, Paris is torn down, the Russians using the leftover “French” windows for their pigsties. While this story reads like a personal essay (and in a thorough search that included using my very rusty German, I could find no facts that contradicted it), it is so fantastic, so Kafkan-esque, that it could easily be read as fiction.
The excerpt from Polish writer Pawel Huelle’s novel Moving House pits a husband and wife against each other. The purchase of a table from Mr. Polaske as he took the last train west to Germany in 1946 has evolved into an eternal battle between a couple over which was the worse of the two evils, the Germans or the Russians.
My mother had a great fear of Germans, and nothing could possibly cure her of that fear, whereas my father reserved his greatest grudge for the compatriots of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. An invisible border now ran across Mr. Polaske’s table, splitting my parents apart, just as in 1939, when the land of their childhood, scented with apples, halva, and a wooden pencil-case with crayons rattling in it, was ripped in half like a piece of canvas, with the silver thread of the river Bug glittering down the middle.
While the wife insists the table represents all that is German and must be destroyed, the husband tries to keep it. The son, our narrator, straddles the conflict and postulates that if the problem had been a chair, he could have coped, but the table was too massive for him “to destroy without anyone’s help.” By the end of the story it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect metaphor for the East-West conflict than this massive dining table that contains decades of conflict in its scarred surface and broken legs.
Russian journalist Masha Gessen’s “My Grandmother the Censor” and Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy’s preface to his novel Revised Edition tell similar tales of what happens when one learns that a family member has been a cog in the totalitarian regime. In Gessen’s case she learns her grandmother was a censor for Glavlit. Here is her reaction:
There are two things I ought to make clear. First, almost as soon as she starts telling me about her career (as we wade through the sleet from the bus stop to the market), my grandmother declares that the head of the department, Alexei Lukich Zorin, was a good, decent man. Second, as I listen to the story, I am surprised but not horrified, even though my Baba Ruzya has told me that for eleven key post-war years she censored what the rest of the world could know about the Soviet Union.
Like a good reporter Gessen delivers just the facts. Kafka and Kundera would have loved the tragicomic implications of a journalist, whose job is to spread stories, facing off against her grandmother the censor, whose job is just the opposite. Likewise with Peter Esterhazy, who, on finishing a novel described by translator Judith Sollosy as “an elaborate prose tribute to his father,” learns that his father was an informant for the Hungarian State Security organization for twenty-two years:
There was no believing what I saw. I quickly placed my hand on the desk, because it started to shake. What am I to do now? It seemed like a dream. I think I’ll faint, that should take care of the problem. Or jump out the closed window and make my escape.
Because he is a novelist, Esterhazy’s revelation comes wrapped in a stronger emotional package than Gessen’s, but with equal impact. In both cases being servants of their states were jobs that put food on the family table. The harrowing moral implications for them and their loved ones cannot be underestimated and make these stories standouts in this fine collection.
For a glimpse into the world of the Soviet black market and its post-communist stepchild, the Russian mafia, there is no better story than the longest in the anthology, “The Life and Times of a Soviet Capitalist” by Moscow Times editor Irakli Iosebashvili. Having visited the “Wild West” of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in 1984, I was not surprised to learn of the wealth that Iosebashvili’s father-in-law was able to reap from that economy. While the shelves of Leningrad’s stores were bare, Tbilisi’s markets were full. In this excerpt, Iosebashvili writes of his father-in-law’s wealth.
At weddings, my father-in-law and his friends—who, in a Soviet court, would be reviled as smugglers, speculators and currency traders, and in the West would simply have been called capitalists—would show up with their suit pockets stuffed with rubles. They danced with the bride and sent showers of bills cascading over her head.
With the fall of communism, the black market collapsed and the ethnic conflicts in nearby Abkhazia and South Ossetia devastated what was left of the economy. Iosebashvili’s father-in-law moved his family to Moscow, where he started to make a small fortune selling shoes made in China. Just as he begins to regain the lifestyle to which his family had become accustomed in Tbilisi, his father-in-law starts having nasty run-ins with the mafia. This modern day gangster tale has a happy ending, but it leaves the reader with a sense of relief that, though our own economy has been by no means a pleasure ride lately, at least most of us have been spared kidnappings and shootings as we head off to our jobs. Iosebashvili’s story adds a vital piece to the Kafkan puzzle assembled in this anthology—a piece that speaks to life lived on the edge of two economies. The birth of a capitalist child from communist parents clearly came with more than its fair share of pain.
The country that suffered more than its fair share of violence after the collapse of communism was the former Yugoslavia. From Bosnian writer Muharem Bazdulj comes the story “The Noble School.” In the spring of 1992, as Bazdulj was getting ready to take his high school entrance exam and was immersing himself in Le Carre novels, the war began and his future high school was turned into a refugee center.
Only part of the building, perhaps a fifth, remained for its original purpose, and the new school year started in 1993 instead of 1992. Although overflowing with refugees and exposed to almost daily shelling, only a few of the flames of war reached Travnik, especially when you compare it to certain other Bosnian cities. And so we were able, albeit with a year’s delay, to start high school.
While most of the stories in this collection are bittersweet, they do convey a sense that, ultimately, life after the fall of communism has been a better one. Sadly, this story reminds us that this was not the case for Yugoslavia. According to Bazdulj,
The West perceived that decade [the '90's] as a period of triumph; the East experienced it as a time of connection with the more fortunate part of the world. Left holding the bag were those who did not feel like Easterners or Westerners; the ones who paid were those who swung back and forth between perceiving themselves to be at times Easterners and at other times Westerners. It was Yugoslavia that paid the bill, and above all it was precisely the most Yugoslav part of Yugoslavia that did so: Bosnia.
Fittingly, the anthology ends on this somber note. While the West’s image of the fall of communism might persist in the jubilant smashing of the Berlin Wall, our perspective on the impact of those events on Europe and Russia is skewed if we fail to acknowledge the tragedies that befell the former Yugoslavia.
|Shot While Jumping the Berlin Wall. Credit: Walter Gaudnek
While immersing myself in YouTube videos about the fall of the Berlin Wall, I came upon one entitled “The Opening of the Wall at Bornholm Strasse 1989.” “The Road to Bornholm” covers this same event from the perspective of an ex-student/freelancer named Rufus. As I watched the throngs on this video clip at this, the first East German checkpoint to open on November 9, 1989, I couldn’t help but think of Rufus. Where was he in the crowd? Rufus who had never known life without a wall. Rufus who sat watching his small television that night and heard the words, “The DDR is opening its borders.” Rufus who walked out on his balcony and watched the streams of people heading north, out of town. Rufus who decided to join them, though he didn’t believe the news was true. Rufus who decided he would cross the border, even if, as threatened, he would not be allowed to return. Rufus who once through the checkpoint took the first subway to the center of town to stand on the Kurfurstendamm: “Brightly lit, the West was dancing around him.” Rufus, who felt “as though he’d returned from a deep, mind-numbing absence, as though healed from a severe illness.” This is a case where pictures are not enough. Each word of his story, as is the case with each word in this anthology, gives voice to the intimate details of those who were lost to us. No longer subject to censorship, these writers are now free to tell us their stories. Their words remind us that walls are made to be breached and eventually crumble into insignificance. After all, what edifice built from fear can survive the onslaught of courage?
Karen Vanuska is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a regular contributor to Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review. Her fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline and her creative non-fiction in a recent issue of The Battered Suitcase.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick I. Cynthia Ozick’s latest book of essays, The Din in the Head, contains a surprising splinter of biography. In “James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel,” Ozick reveals that she once taught freshman composition to engineering students. The mind reels—not just from the essay, which is one of the collection’s best...
- Words Are Living Tissue: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector Often compared to Kafka, and just as often declared unclassifiable, Clarice Lispector was one of the 20th century's major authors. Leora Skolkin-Smith reads her career through one of her greatest novels....
- Fall 2005 Contributors Dan Wickett reads vast quantities of literary fiction and runs the Emerging Writers Network, and EWN Blog. Andrée Kirk is a fiction writer and reviewer. She has an MA in English and American Literature and is currently working on a collection of short stories. Bonnie Rubrecht’s poetry has been published...
- How Can We Read in an Age of Images? How to reconcile the Internet's love of the image with literature's blocks and blocks of words? Finn Harvor has a few answers....
- Fall 2007 Contributors Richard Crary blogs about books, politics, and music at The Existence Machine. He lives in Baltimore. Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, Rain Taxi, and Web Conjunctions. He is a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons and...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Karen Vanuska
Read more articles about books from Open Letter