Taiyo Matsumoto: Tekkonkinkreet

Matsumoto, Taiyo (2007), Tekkonkinkreet, Viz Media
[translated into English by Lillian Olsen]
ISBN 978-1-4215-1867-1

Taiyo Matsumoto’s graphic novel Tekkonkinkreet, originally published in 1994 as 鉄コン筋クリート in three volumes (after having been published in small increments from 1993 to 1994), is a deeply impressive, powerful hunk of a comic book, the translated version of which (translated by Lillian Olsen) deservedly won the prestigious Eisner award. It’s a 614 page story about two brothers and a modern Japanese city in the process of changing, a book that is as moving as it’s ingeniously constructed and brilliantly drawn. Tekkonkinkreet describes a world that is about to dissolve, about to disappear beneath the inevitable onslaught of change, and we feel this loss like the tragedy that it is, because within the pages of this book, the world is completely, fully, palpably realized. You enter Matsumoto’s world on his own terms and while you’re always conscious of this being the case, you are always sorry to leave. This book contains multitudes; depending on your sensibilities it could make you laugh, it could make you cry, in short, Tekkonkinkreet is a book that could break your heart if you let it. At the same time, there is no actual sentimentality in this book because it is so tightly wound, and so efficiently narrated and illustrated. It is without a doubt the best graphic novel I’ve read in at least two years, if only for the fact that it contains several different kinds of books within one cover, all of which are completely successful (although some writers may have done a better job in individual registers). In case this feels repetitive, it’s certainly worth pointing out how completely this book manages to master very different registers and genres without ever showing us the seams between the transitions. It contains low humor and witty, sophisticated jokes. Its plot is captivating whether we look at it from a sociocultural, spiritual or plain entertaining angle. And, finally, its art can be painstakingly, brutally exact and vividly vague at the same time. Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the best artists of his genre, and this extraordinary book provides ample proof of that.

One cannot, however, unreservedly recommend this book to all kinds of readers, mostly because it’s pretty violent. My copy even bears a Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker, so as not to run the danger of seducing parents into unwittingly buying this book with its color- and cheerful cover for their innocent kids. I am not convinced that this is necessary. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably true that especially the first half of Tekkonkinkreet contains quite a bit of graphic violence as a child uses an iron rod to break skulls, knees and sundry wayward bones in the bodies of various gangsters. Infrequently, people are shot, as well. As far as contemporary comics go, it’s not particularly horrendous and if not for the neat sticker on the front I might not have mentioned it at all, but there you go. Perhaps this is not for kids, but adults, unless they are unreasonably squeamish, have nothing to worry about, especially since the shootings, beatings and other displays of violence never feel gratuitous. Violence, generally speaking, is important to the overall build of the novel because its most central obsession is with bodies, and the way that they connect to the world without, and to other bodies. In every panel of his book, Matsumoto ties the bodies of his characters into a stiff corset of signs and signification, and the whole book keeps providing examples of how its characters and their bodies are all connected to the world and other people’s bodies through language and other means of signification. Its focus on our bodies and their capricious behavior (and misbehavior) is further pronounced, paradoxically, by the unnatural details of some of its characters’ bodily prowess. There are people who can fly (or jump very highly), other people’s injuries heal unnaturally fast or do not incapacitate the injured person in the least, and one person’s visions can impact what happens to people in real life. All this may sound mad, but ultimately, it reinforces the basic parameters of the human body, projecting this story within the limits of these parameters.

While principally, the body takes center stage, another important element of Tekkonkinkreet (and one which will eventually be subsumed by the focus on the bodily aspect of its characters) is the city the book is set in. The sleeve of my copy tells us that the book’s title “is a play on Japanese words meaning ‘a concrete structure with an iron frame’” and the city presented to us is indeed a contemporary city, with elaborate structures constructed from steel reinforced concrete, its forms both highly recognizable for any modern-day city dweller, and pleasurably strange. This strangeness stems from the fact that the city reacts to Matsumoto’s characters frolicking around in it, it bends and strains under their impact, often curving around them, an effect which is partly due to Matsumoto’s drawing technique, which prefers ellipses and circles to straight lines and boxes. Everything seems to be a bit out of bent, more off, even malleable. Sometimes the effect is that of a children’s book, not in the sense of a book for children, but a book by children, conveying a certain levity and looseness. Bodily proportions correspond less to anatomical exactness and more to the action taking place in the panels in question. In fight sequences feet and hands are often somewhat enlarged, both because they are the focus of the action in these panels and because they are ‘in focus’, being closer to the reader. In this way, the book, more than many other well drawn graphic novels I’ve recently read, works a lot like a movie, in each of its panels. This is a distinction that I think is worth making: between artists who have mastered graphic, movie-like action sequences by stacking several panels with small bits of motion, letting the reader follow the movement as they turn the pages. Long-time Millar collaborator Steve McNiven (cf. my review of Old Man Logan (and my other Millar reviews)) is one of those artists, and the effect is tremendous, as it is in the dumbfoundingly fantastic Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware.

Matsumoto’s game is different: in his book, actions are rarely prolonged beyond individual panels. Indeed, it seems to me something that would be fairly unusual for a mangaka to do. Unlike other artists of his genre, however, Matsumoto doesn’t rely overmuch on visual stresses like exclamation marks and the like to show actions and their result within the borders of only one or two panels. Instead, he works with perspective, as I outlined before, with an exaggerated enlargement of objects or parts of the body that are closer to the viewer. In a sense, I think what Matsumoto’s art does is the equivalent of what in a film would be a narrow depth of field. And when Matsumoto does spread an action sequence over several panels, the effect is tremendous, allowing him to zoom in on as many as three actions at the same time without losing momentum or focus. I’m dwelling on this so much because the novel might seem less sophisticated than books drawn, say, by J.G. Jones, Chris Ware or David Mazzucchelli, but Matsumoto’s deceptively simple art hides a complex graphic vision; that vision is the reason why each page, each panel seems to be highly essential, highly labored over and the reason why the whole book appears to be as dense as it does. And it’s not just a narrowed depth of field in action sequences that draws our eyes to hands, feet and iron rods. Its paucity of detail is not unlike that of other manga books (in other words, that aspect is quite typical), but the intense sense of emotion and movement that seems to be quivering in each drawn line of Tekkonkinkreet is something you don’t find that easily. Fear, joy and anger each seem to leave their imprint on the panels in question, especially if one of the two protagonists is somewhere in that panel (they don’t need to be front and center of a specific panel to bend its art around them). This is because when objects that dole out violence are not in focus, the book centers its attention on faces.

Faces, eyes and mouths seem to be several times as large as they need to be because clearly Matsumoto’s interest is in people rather than events. Whether we have mouths that are shouting, laughing, gritting teeth or grinning, the art tends to focus on that. Eyes, as well, but not to the same extent as mouths. The reason for that is the web of signification I mentioned earlier. The city exists because the people in it exist, and things happen because people make them happen. Everything in Tekkonkinkreet is part of a relationship (a very Foucauldian view of things, by the way), power and violence are not accorded presence outside of active human relationships. Nothing just is, except for individual human beings. Everything else is created, shaped and changed by people, for better or worse. This is why it’s perfectly true to say that the whole book is about the invented city Treasure Town and about Black and White, Matsumoto’s protagonists. These are not two different thematic elements: one is contained within the other. Without Black and White gallivanting all over town, the town itself, we feel, would not exist. But it’s not just these two. The story of Tekkonkinkreet is about a new gangster conglomerate moving into Treasure Town to take over, starting a gang war that ends in many gangsters dying or leaving town, and the identity of the ‘old’ Treasure Town is shown to be linked to the people living in it, and their departure (and the arrival of others) signaling changes in the architecture of the city. These new gangsters are opposed by Black and White, two boys who grew up in the seamy back alleys of Treasure Town, and who have earned themselves the respect of the gangster community through a curious mixture of ruthlessness and friendliness. It is in Matsumoto’s depiction of these two boys that the absolute importance of relationships (rather than individual persons or objects) contains some worthwhile ambiguities.

These two boys are antitheses. White is a free spirit, by no means innocent, yet naïve, happy and bursting with creative life. Black on the other hand, with a scar around his left eye, anything but naïve. Of the two, it’s usually him who doles out punishment and violence, it’s him who makes plans, and it’s him who decides to defend Treasure Town against the intruding (and interfering) Yakuza. As the book’s events unfold, Black moves more and more into the foreground, and the events become as much a fight for Black’s soul as they are a fight for the soul of Treasure Town. At the same time, White slips into the background, in several ways. Early on, we are told that Black is “the soul of this city”, and that White is “completely untouched by this sewer of a city”. More and more, as Black fights his adversaries tooth and nail, White steps away from these events, re-creating them with crayons from afar. White is the metaphysical element, independent not just of the city, but also of the maze of relationships that constitute the city and force events and actions on its residents. He does as he pleases, whatever happens to the city and its residents. He would be able to leave altogether, if not for Black. This is the book’s central ambiguity: White, who in almost every way negates the basic givens of the city, whose mouth is the most expressive the most open, who seems to represent the creator of the book itself in his aloof independence, this White is firmly tied to Black who is the city. Thus, on a metaphysical level, through the unbreaking and unbreakable relationship of Black and White, the smaller interdependency on the more gritty level of the city streets and the brutal events unfolding there is reflected and (in a way) confirmed. But this reading is one that is likely to change with further re-readings, since Tekkonkinkreet is a very rich stew of a book, the taste of which is highly addictive and which keeps surprising its readers when they stir around in its steamy depths. There is so much more to this book than I could ever tell, even in a review that had twice the length of this one. Read Tekkonkinkreet, goddamn.

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“It’s like you had two lives”. R.I.P. Arnošt Lustig

The great Czech writer Arnošt Lustig passed away, aged 84. I cherish what I read of his work, but I read too little. Below, a piece from an interview he gave to Central Europe Review (CER)

CER: It must be difficult to forget your experiences from Holocaust.

AL: No, not at all. I’m not thinking about it. I’m writing about it. It’s very different. It’s like you had two lives; one “literature…life as a writer” and one real, existential.

CER: So when you write about the Holocaust, it isn’t a process of coming to terms with your experiences?

AL: I’m not writing about it. I write about a lot of other things. It’s only set at that time. Look, every writer can write only about what he is familiar with, what’s under his skin. So I write about what I really know. I could write about anything. But why would I write about everything when I can write about something in-depth? Literature tries to discover something that is invisible in a man, something mysterious: his impulses, his incentives, the causes of his actions. Why he is acting the way he’s acting. Unexplained things. In that case it doesn’t matter if you write about a concentration camp.

A writer cannot cover the whole world; a writer is a small stone in a big mosaic that tries to reflect a panorama of life that is unusually broad. And so I have my small stone. For instance, Joseph Conrad writes only about a sea about people on the sea—you could also take it against him. There was a writer named Anderson and he wrote beautiful fairy tales and his friends told him stop writing fairy tales and write a novel. So he wrote six novels. Nobody knows about his novels but his fairy tales are still being read. So each writer needs to ask himself: “what is my best ‘track’ where do I run the fastest”…so this is my track.

Help Nathan Buy Firefly

I’ve just come across this sizzling piece of news:

Just last week, Nathan Fillion made a casual comment to Entertainment Weekly about reprising the role of Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Fillion was quoted as saying, “If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to Firefly, make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet.” This passing remark whipped Browncoats into a frenzy and so the ‘Help Nathan Buy Firefly’ movement was born. Spurred by Firefly’s return to cable, the plan is to rally fans together and eventually get Fillion himself on board. (…) In response to the article Jose Molina and Jane Espenson, both writers of Firefly episodes, tweeted that their time and support would be available.

This is the official website. Quite something. Mind you, not likely to succeed or lead to good new Firefly material (which would depend on Joss Whedon being on board as well), but the thought counts, right? It helps that I’m an irrational Nathan Fillion fan. And they have nice banners! See below:

Write like a motherfucker

From The Rumpus’ advice column, “Dear Sugar”:

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. (…) So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

The experience of repetition as death

Adrienne Rich: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

My swirling wants. Your frozen lips.
The grammar turned and attacked me.
Themes, written under duress.
Emptiness of the notations.

They gave me a drug that slowed the healing of wounds.

I want you to see this before I leave:
the experience of repetition as death
the failure of criticism to locate the pain
the poster in the bus that said:
my bleeding is under control

A red plant in a cemetary of plastic wreaths.

A last attempt: the language is a dialect called metaphor.
These images go unglossed: hair, glacier, flashlight.
When I think of a landscape I am thinking of a time.
When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

I read this poem in the delicious volume of selected poems The Fact of a Doorframe. The poem was originally published in The Will to Change (1971). Both books are highly recommended.

Werner Bräunig: Rummelplatz

Bräunig, Werner (2007), Rummelplatz, Aufbau Verlag
ISBN 978-3-7466-2460-0

Generally, I’m fond of complaining about fine German books that have not been translated into English yet, especially those that have been out and available for a while. It’s somewhat different with Rummelplatz, Werner Bräunig’s famous novel, written 1965. True enough, Rummelplatz is a fine piece of work, one of the best books to come out of the tumultuous environment that was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the 1960s; although Bräunig himself can scarcely be called one of the best writers of the period. Written in different voices, with varying degrees of success, this 600 page novel seems to be carved from a wealth of raw material, barely ordered and refined. To the unsuspecting reader, Rummelplatz can seem like a heavy freight train, full of impressions and ideas, full of precise observations and broad essayistic reflections, its characters flawed archetypes, ripped roughly from the thread of German literary tradition rather than sympathetically drawn and vivid literary creations. The whole of Rummelplatz seems to cohere only because of the immense will of its author. It is Bräunig’s vision that holds it all together, the whole vibrant, violent, passionate, amazing mess that is Rummelplatz, Bräunig’s first and only novel. Its achievement is all the more stunning, given how small, quiet, unimpressive Bräunig’s short stories are. Although their flaws are present in the novel as well, it succeeds on account of the energy and power that pulses through it. So why has it not been translated yet? Largely, one would have to say, because it has not been published until 2007. Excerpts circulated, rumors abounded, and in discussions of early GDR literature, Bräunig’s work always had pride of place because of the central role he played in the development of the so-called Bitterfelder Weg. Due to politically nocent developments, Bräunig’s manuscript for Rummelplatz had been suppressed in 1965, and subsequently swept under the rug, a lost, unpublished masterpiece. Until, that is, Angela Drescher and the East German publisher Aufbau Verlag decided to resurrect the book, edit and publish it prominently. The author never found out about the renaissance of his critical and popular reputation: he died in 1976 of a disease related to his alcoholism.

In the end, Bräunig fell victim to policies that he himself helped create, an aesthetic that is clearly instrumental in the way Rummelplatz was written. These policies are, as I just mentioned, commonly referred to as the Bitterfelder Weg, i.e. the ‘Bitterfelder way’, so named after a writer’s conference in Bitterfeld, a drab and dreary industrial town in Saxony-Anhalt (an eerily fitting place). The Bitterfelder Weg, a set of official directives, was a complex of ideas that sought to bridge the apparent gap between writers and workers. This was coupled with an appeal, which Bräunig was instrumental in writing, called “Greif zur Feder, Kumpel”, which could be translated as “Miners, take up the pens!”. In accordance with the tenets of the Bitterfelder Weg, dozens of writers went to work (or were made to work) in factories and in mines, in order to better understand the workers’ reality. The basic idea was that too many writers writing ‘what they know’ (to echo the old writing advice) led to a literature concerned with upper-class concerns, drawing-room intrigues, and elite discussions, in short, a body of work that workers could not relate to. The best way to amend this, officials thought, was for writers to get to know real workers, to understand how hands-on work was done (Ayn Rand’s odd phantasmagorias are a gruesome example of not understanding what modern day industrial work looks like on the factory floor). This generally sound idea was undermined by two things. First, the fact that it was often implemented by force, and second, the fact that instead of merely enlarging the ‘what they know” part of the formula (and thus encouraging writers to include everyday work experience in a meaningful and correct way in their prose), officials soon rather emphasized the ‘what’ part. The Bitterfelder Weg turned into the GDR version what has been known as socialist realism since the 1930s, an aesthetic that demanded of writers to only (or at least predominantly) write realistically (although that term isn’t defined as you’d think it’d be) and about everyday life. It was buttressed by the directives that were encouraging workers to write (which is the “Miners, take up the pens!” part of the whole construction). Within a few years, every sizable company had a writing collective and writing workshops.

These workshops were often held by some of the leading writers of the time, and could, sometimes, produce intriguing results. Traces of that interaction can be found in all kinds of works, but perhaps most noticeably in Brigitte Reimann’s brilliant novels (also, sadly, inexcusably, untranslated, including her masterpiece Franziska Linkerhand). The Bräunig-penned appeal was published in 1959, and on the plus side it led to a plethora of art from unexpected places. Details and descriptions connected to the everyday reality of workers came up in novels, stories and plays of the period. Quickly, however, the negative aspects of the doctrine were felt, especially two of them. One was the rising amount of indoctrinated literature. Workers in their writing workshops were gently guided in how to properly write, how to talk about workers, power and the bourgeoisie, how to talk about the party, and which theories to use, implement and cite. That was because those workshops that were not held by genuine writers, were held by people loyal to the socialist party, and they had a very definite idea of what kind of literature was worth writing (and reading) and which wasn’t. As a result of these indoctrinated workshops, professional writers were suddenly asked to also do as the workers did. After all, in the GDR, workers and peasants were, in theory, on moral high ground. They did the right thing because they were workers. Of course, this theory had little to do with actual workers, but party officials were often blissfully unaware of contradictions like that. In time, these contradictions and the ideological pressure on what kind of content was considered appropriate for literary production led to a very difficult situation. While officials said that they wanted writers to pursue a brand of realism, this realism did not in fact include intransigently negative depictions of everyday life on the factory floor. Literature, it was officially maintained, needed to teach people something, and help them understand their life, their country and most of all the revolutionary process better, but most of all, it was educational, supposed to make everyone involved into a better, more useful citizen. Being a communist was a good thing only if it meant you were uncritically useful. Books like Rummelplatz, with its searing (but fundamentally communist) criticism of the status quo, were deemed corruptive.

In the West, we like to read opposition against socialist regimes along anti-communist lines, which explains in part the perennial popularity of a royalist like Solzhenitsyn. But the sad truth was that the GDR government targeted passionate communists as well as the anti-communist opposition. Passionate communists like Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf or Werner Bräunig decried what they saw as perversions of a noble and magnificent ideal, and they were punished accordingly. One of the best examples of the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ communism is the difference between the novel Spur der Steine (~ Traces of Stones) and its film version. The novel, written by Erik Neutsch is a long, and ultimately dull affair. It starts off well, telling the story of an outsider and his adventures, but ends in a long coda of basically educational remarks. In the end, Neutsch’s protagonist sees the error of his ways and becomes a useful cog in the GDR machine. This doesn’t happen in Frank Beyer’s fantastic film version, also entitled Spur der Steine. The film is a stronger work of art because it’s more coherent and more loyal towards its protagonist. It was however this realism unsupported by an educational finish that earned the movie the ire of GDR officials, so that it was eventually banned, a ban that in the end included Neutsch’s novel. Both Neutsch and Beyer were passionate and outspoken communists and supporters of the German Democratic Republic, yet they failed what GDR officials saw as the main function of literature. If you look at the process that eventually led to such bans, you are likely to be surprised by the almost random nature of it. Sometimes writers appeared to be equally surprised or even blindsided by the sudden onslaught of official criticism and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways of repression that ensued. Writers like Bräunig did not write oppositional literature against a dictatorial regime. In 1965, before the erection of the Berlin Wall, many writers believed the party line which proclaimed that debate was integral to the young socialist republic. What they forgot was that the other party line was “the Party’s always right” (there’s actually an official hymn, the refrain of which is “the Party, the Party, the Party’s always right.” click here to listen and cringe) and highlighting mistakes impudently suggested that the Party may not, in fact, always be right.

This is a rather long introduction that leads us to Werner Bräunig’s excellent book, large portions of which take place among miners and in a paper factory. in the years leading up to 1953 Bräunig was not himself a miner or a paper factory worker by profession, but he did work as a miner for a year, and in a paper factory for two more years. Although he had embarked on a career in literature and academia when the Bitterfelder Weg directives were given out, Rummelplatz closely reflects the ideals that were behind the cultural policies decided in Bitterfeld. It is a story about the everyday reality of miners in the Wismut AG in Saxony and of paper factory workers in Chemnitz, and it’s painstakingly accurate about all kinds of details. My own grandfather had worked in mines for most of his adult life, two years of which were spent with the Wismut AG. I talked to him after reading the book and he corroborates all the details, down to even the smallest observations, of life in the Wismut mines. The Wismut mines were uranium mines, and thus of central strategic importance not just to the GDR officials, but also to the Soviet occupying forces. Daily life in Wismut meant having a Russian military officer as a boss, and seeing Soviet soldiers everywhere. Every miner leaving the mines at the end of the day was closely controlled and information about the mines operated by the Wismut AG, was slow in coming. On the other hand, of all the mining work in the GDR, the Wismut mines offered the best wages by far, and thus attracted workers from all over the Republic. A 1958 movie by Konrad Wolf, Sonnensucher (unreleased until 1972) is enlightening if you want to understand the heated atmosphere in the uranium mines where all kinds of people came to work. Bräunig’s potent mixture of characters is less a feat of imaginative invention than a reflection of the torrid reality of the uranium mine work. In his book, he assembles, among many other colorful characters, a brawler and misfit, a Party official, an alcoholic Soviet engineer, and a young man who works in the mines in order to ‘make up’ for his non-working-class background and be allowed to study at a university later on.

The central image of the Rummelplatz (~ fairground) is the place where the miners meet with the community around them; it is also the place where rules carry less weight, and people behave differently. The fairground acts as the outlet for all the trouble and annoyance and pain that accumulates during work. People drink, fight, fuck and socialize on the fairground. In essence, within the novel, the role of the Rummelplatz is similar to the role that Bakhtin attributed to the carnivalesque. The sobriety, accuracy and somber nature of the main narrative dissolves into a sensual, desperate frenzy on the fairground. This is also true for Bräunig’s writing. Mostly, Bräunig’s style is indebted to the Neue Sachlichkeit, a style current in 1920s Germany. Unlike the great new writers of his age, i.e. Uwe Johnson, Irmtraud Morgner, Günter Grass, Wolfgang Koeppen or Christa Wolf, Bräunig cannot escape the shackles of the style that dominated German literature up until the end of WWII. The moments of madness, of the carnivalesque, are the only instances of Bräunig giving his language freer rein, touching on something bigger; but even this loose, jacked-up language lacks originality: at his best, Bräunig (infrequently) manages to sound a bit like the Döblin of Berlin Alexanderplatz (which is of course high praise). On the other hand, since the whole novel is a mix of registers and voices, the style, which vacillates between Johannes Pinneberg, Hans Fallada’s hapless hero, and Franz Biberkopf, Döblin’s, does fit the overall structure of the novel very well. It is split up into smaller bits of story, each of which follows one particular character in his odyssey through post-war socialism. Some characters have two pages of text, others turn up all the time. This makes for a very fragmented, lively and exiting read. As the editor, disingenuously, explains in the afterword, the manuscript was actually even more fragmented, because it wasn’t arranged chronologically. Assuming this to be a mistake the editor re-arranged the chapters (only one of many questionable editorial decisions). But it’s not just the characters that alternate, it’s also the places. The three main places of action are the Wismut mines near Chemnitz, the paper factory in Chemnitz, and a paper factory in West Germany.

The part of the narrative that takes place in the Wismut mines especially follows the fates of three particular characters. There is Peter Loose, a disaffected, confused, but capable miner who likes girls, alcohol and bar fights. Eventually, his carefree ways will get him into conflict with the law, until his imprisonment for politically motivated reasons in the last third of the novel. There’s, Christian, the aforementioned young man who wants to study. He comes to mining wholly innocently, and his first weeks in the mine almost break his back, but through hard and conscientious work he eventually becomes a fine miner, earning more money than most older or established miners. The third is Fischer, an old Party official, who’d been imprisoned by the National Socialists during WWII, and who’s a thoroughly likable character, a ‘good’ communist, who believes that Marxism is supposed to serve the people rather than the other way around. His tragedy is that his reading of Marxism is on the way out, while mindless bureaucracy is in. His daughter is the main character in those sections that focus on the nearby paper factory. This factory lacks workers, because every able-bodied man on the factory floor is trying to get a job in the mines, and early in the book, she suggests that they could let women operate the machines as well. Eventually, she’s allowed on the factory floor and despite several struggles, she prevails, and earns the respect of her fellow workers. There are two noteworthy aspects about these stories. One is the absolutely soapy quality of these story lines. If the background had been drawn less urgently, and if the overall vision and coherence had been even just a tad less powerful, these stories would have sunken like stones into the muck of literary irrelevance. The other aspect is that all of these story lines can be used to extrapolate harsh criticism of the GDR. There are repressive bureaucrats, there is rampant sexism, and discrimination against white collar children. But it would be a mistake to jump from this criticism to an indictment of communism. As one character says:

[J]a freilich, das ist bei Marx nicht vorgesehen. Es ist vom Kommunismus das genaue Gegenteil. Aber leider sehen wir ja immer mal wieder, was einer in Marx’ Namen aus Marx machen kann, sofern er nur rechthaberisch und unfähig genug ist.

(~ Of course, this has not been intended by Marx. This is the exact opposite of Communism. But regrettably we keep seeing what people can turn Marx into in Marx’ name if they are dogmatic and inept enough)

It’s quite important to remember that socialist writers in the 1960 were faced with a disintegrating dream, as communism was slowly subverted, dismantled and destroyed by brutal, dull and single-minded officials. As I said, there is an easy narrative in the West that dissident literature in East Germany was engaged in a struggle against Communism – not so. Many of the people treated harshest by the system were ardent communist, struggling in a system that perverted an ideology these writers considered to be liberating. And Bräunig highlights this predicament with a sharp eye.

Although Christa Wolf’s spectacular literary work (see my review) is probably the best literary indictment of this change in German literature, Rummelplatz shows us what Bräunig might have achieved, as well, had he finished his work. Rummelplatz is the first book of a two-part work, and the most cogent remarks about communism crop up in the later sections of the book; one assumes the second volume would have explored that direction further, especially given Bräunig’s remarks about West Germany and its role in the predicament of the GDR after the Soviet occupation. Throughout much of the book, Bräunig’s imprecise with his criticism, preferring to explore individual stories and what they have to say about the relationship of individuals vs. society. The only exception, except for the portions about communism near the end, is his treatment of West Germany. Both in the way he describes events in West Germany as well as in the way he mentions it, we are witnessing a no-holds-barred approach to the topic. Big corporations, we hear, left the GDR and tried to entice capable talents of moving into the West, as well. He makes clear that people with Nazi pasts saw West Germany as a safe haven and tried to pool their funds into that country where they could continue to cohabitate with fellow Nazis. We might want to remember that, however problematic, negligent and complex the Nazi purges were in the GDR after the 1950s, West Germany had Nazi governors, chancellors and judges. In fact, as we learned late last year, the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie, hiding in Bolivia, had been on the payroll of the German government in the 1960s. Also, as if he’s been prescient, Bräunig has a reply to all those who today claim that socialist economics are bound to fail, using the GDR economy as an example (and comparing it with the West German one):

Nun, nach fünfundvierzig habe es in Westdeutschland 120 Hochöfen gegeben, auf dem Gebiet der DDR aber […] nur fünf. Und mit anderen Dingen sei es ähnlich. […] “Wissen Sie, sagte Bauerfeld, “bis fünfundvierzig war dieses Ostdeutschland nichts weiter als ein großes Kartoffelfeld.”

(~ Well, after forty-five, West Germany had 120 blast furnaces, but the GDR only five. With other issues, it was similarly. “You know”, Bauerfeld said, “until forty-five East Germany had been nothing but one big potato field.”)

That said, Bräunig cannot be read as an apologist for the status quo. He’s well aware of the problems. The bureaucracy, inherited from the Third Reich, and a country full of Germans, who clung to old stereotypes, old prejudices, old kinds of hate and resentment. At one point he has a character say: this country is bound to fail unless we pull together, unless we change, unless we move forward.

It would not be surprising if it had been this kind of criticism that caused the book to be banned. Alas, that was not the case. Bräunig found himself at the center of a large campaign against ‘wrong’ kinds of books, after an excerpt from his novel-in-progress was published that contained fairly little such criticism. It was one of his carnivalesque scenes. In it, he wrote about the hunger and despair of these early years, he wrote about sexual appetites, about small fry violence and large scale binge drinking. These scenes are among those that ring most true in the whole book, but despite asking for realism in the Bitterfelder Weg doctrines, this is not the kind of realism that was demanded. These workers were not brilliant noble creatures, they were flawed, sweaty, horny men and women. Ultimately, this was unacceptable; what made it worse was the fact that Bräunig wrote about the hallowed uranium mines, which were quite generally a thorny subject. The above-mentioned Sonnensucher had also been banned immediately. It was released later in the brief period of artistic liberalization between 1972 and 1976, but by then Bräunig had fallen apart as writer and man. He published an ok collection of stories in 1969 and worked on another novel, but according to his editor, there wasn’t much to be excited about in these drafts. The tragedy of Bräunig’s squandered talent is brutal. My grandfather, who worked in various mines in the area that Rummelplatz is set in remembers a time of excitement, of hopes, of possibilities. Workers often felt empowered, and skill was often more respected than seniority or clout. This is the time that Bräunig portrays and this is the energy that suffuses this incredible book. There are countless flaws, inconsistencies etc. in it, but it’s only a draft, after all, never readied for publication. Bräunig’s not one of the great writers of his time. But he could have been. Translate this book! I provided but a very poor summary of the book that crawls with ideas and teems with life. Rummelplatz has similarities to books by writers like Anna Seghers and is historically fascinating, but above all, it’s a feast of a book. Read it, translate it, buy it. Translation rights are listed here.

Update (Feb 25, 2011): Apparently, the book’s rights have been sold and it’s being translated as we speak. How’s that for great news?

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