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Uwe Tellkamp: He has no "Ostalgie" for East Germany

"My novel is about how man survives in a hostile environment," says Uwe Tellkamp, author of The Tower: Tales From A Lost Country, in an interview — his brave attempt to summarise this thousand-page epic set in 1980s East Germany, then still the pompously named German Democratic Republic or GDR. Tellkamp is a former surgeon who has become a prominent writer since The Tower was awarded a leading German prize in 2008.

What was he trying to do in this book, which has drawn comparisons with Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks? Both novels begin with a celebration and close with the end of an era brought to its knees by inner decay. The mass of characters around Tellkamp's triangular set of protagonists is certainly Tolstoyan and many scenes burst with Kafkaesque madness. People queue up at shops just because everybody does so, even though no one has a clue what might be on offer inside. Bananas? Fabric? Tellkamp depicts the grotesque idiosyncrasies of the GDR's bureaucracy. He speaks with the slowness and sobriety that comes with growing up in a system where the wrong word at the wrong time can set one's existence ablaze.

If his protagonists Christian, Richard and Meno do not quite choose inner emigration, they are certainly very far removed from the hardship and humiliation most citizens of the GDR suffered from. Hence The Tower:  a social set retiring into an ivory tower, not wanting to see, not wanting to know whatever might be going on outside. The title also alludes to the Tower of Babel — man asking impossible things and stubbornly trying to achieve them against the odds. Finally the Tower, Der Turm, is a real neighbourhood of quiet, broad, leafy streets and crumbling, grand villas in Dresden. However, Tellkamp creates a fictive version of that still-beautiful city: divided by the River Elbe, his Dresden morphs into a new Eastern and Western Rome, where his characters live. Christian — the author's alter ego — is a pimply youth who writes poetry and dreams of becoming a doctor, like his father Richard. For this he has to display absolute loyalty to the Party, which he just about manages to do, until reality catches up with him in a most brutal manner during his military service. The pursuit of happiness and dreams while maintaining personal integrity was an almost insurmountable contradiction in the GDR. Richard himself, whose 50th birthday celebrations open the novel, seems to lead a fulfilled and happy life. He only discloses his dark secret and second private life when put under ultimate pressure by the Stasi, the omnipresent secret police. Last but not least, Meno, Christian's uncle on his mother's side, is an editor at a publishing house specialising in fine editions, struggling with both a lack of supplies such as good quality paper as well as with censorship and compromises. In his salon talk can get very candid — much too candid — and here Tellkamp displays masterfully the intellectual shackles and the sheer suffocation the younger generation of intellectuals must have felt in the twilight of the GDR.

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