“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.
Even though each of the men has their gripping story, Tellkamp devises his own system of time, which lingers on some episodes, just to speed up others and offer them relatively little space. If there is a plot it wears thin over the hundreds of anecdotes he weaves into the beautiful, rich and capricious language of his narrative. Though the heavily populated novel and its many directions threaten to lose focus, Tellkamp still offers a vast survey of life in the GDR, seeking a documentary as well as a philosophical truth. Nevertheless, he steers clear of “Ostalgie”, nostalgia for the good old days of the GDR that some of its former citizens still feel. “There is no Ostalgie. That is something for the former hippies of the GDR, who could scrape by on next to nothing. The Social Democrats themselves feel no Ostalgie. They are energised, as they keenly feel their loss. Let us never forget what really caused the demise of this country: The SED [East German Communists] and the Soviet System,” says Tellkamp. “Look at Bulgaria, look at Romania, who did not have a Federal Republic who was there to sort them out.” Still, he chose “Tales of a lost country” as the book’s subtitle. “It is a lost country. Its colours, its smells and fragrances, its sounds, brands, codes and ways of behaviour are forever gone. The period from after World War II, which ended in West Germany in the Wirtschaftswunder — the economic miracle of the ’50s — just continued in the East until the end of the ’80s.”
The end of the ’80s: a sad decade dominated by fear — how would things end? “We had no idea what would happen. Nobody expected it so soon, and nobody expected its utterly peaceful way.” Have extra supplies of blood ready: this blunt message is sent in Tellkamp’s novel from Berlin to Dresden, as the protests grow and grow. The end of Tellkamp’s tale basks in light and hope: “All their faces showed the fear of the last few days . . . but also something new: they shone . . . already full of pride that this directness was possible.” He evokes the moment when the chant of the candle-lit Montagsmärsche — the peaceful demonstrations taking place in Leipzig and Dresden every Monday night — turns from “We are the people” to “We are a people.” Here one almost wishes that the translator Michael Mitchell — and translating The Tower must have been a Herculean task which he has tackled bravely and diligently — had chosen the word “folk”. The German original statement “Wir sind ein Volk” expresses in all its simplicity everything there was and is to say about the demise of the GDR and German reunification.