Volker Braun: Trotzdestonichts

Braun, Volker (2000), Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, Suhrkamp
ISBN 3-518-39680-3

Volker Braun is a master. He has written plays, poems and prose, and has excelled in every medium. His voice is recognizably his but at the same he’s part of the great generation of writers like Thomas Brasch and Christoph Meckel, all of whom were (are) successful in different kinds of media. Volker Braun’s still active and still an incredible writer. Like many great GDR writers, he was influenced by Ernst Bloch and his multivolume manifesto to utopian hope; like many great GDR writers, the attractiveness of socialist hope and the problems of the everyday reality of the socialist state they lived in (I talked a bit about that stuff here) provided two important parameters of his work. In a way, they still do. Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is a good example of this and it’s a whopping great read at the same time. As for the edition I read: The book on my desk (see bibliographical info above) has been published in 2000 (after Braun won the prestigious Büchnerpreis that year, I guess, which is still the most significant prize for German language literature). Two parts of it have already been published under the title Der Wendehals in 1995. For this paperback edition, a third part, written at the same time as the other two and sharing common concerns and characters, has been added.

Now, to clear up that strange long title: “Trotzdestonichts” is not an existing German word, it’s a neologism, derived by switching around the elements of the word “nichtsdestotrotz” which, roughly, means “nonetheless” in English. You might translate it with “lessthenone”, I guess. A “Wendehals” is a “turncoat”. Thus, the title might be translated as “Lessthenone, or The Turncoat”, but, of course, a few things would be lost in that translation. Volker Braun is, first and foremost, a poet. His language, playful yet precise, is testament to that. In a light and cumpulsively readable manner, Braun, especially in the middle section, which is titled “Der Wendehals”, piles on puns, jokes and the like, with such ease and slight of hand that it made me repeatedly squeal with glee. The word “Wendehals” is made up of the words “Hals”, meaning “neck” and “Wende”, which means “turnabout”, “turn” or “reversal”. There is, however, one specific historical meaning that the word carries: it can refer to the end of the GDR and the takeover by West Germany (BRD). And so we have, in the title, a pun that contains in nuce, already, the theme of the book. How people were affected by that specific historical “turnabout”, how some became turncoats, how it overturned and switched around meanings for people living there, how even everyday life had to be read anew, how old readings of one’s own history had to be reversed etc. But I make the book sound more serious and heavy-going than it is, really.

There have been many books written about the Wende, some good, some less so. My favorite is Günter Grass’ miraculous Far Afield (Original German title: Ein Weites Feld), that was panned by many critics when it was published but remains one of my favorite Grass novels, and it’s certainly one of the best books dealing with that period. Grass’ book is, as usual, a grotesque, heavy with pathos and symbolism. Grass blends the life of German canonized literary giant Theodor Fontane with the life of a bumbling GDR man, nicknamed Fonty. This allows Grass to spread countless layers of German cultural references, literary and political, over the events in 1989 and 1990. Every action taken, every sentence uttered thus takes on a special (double) significance. There is a lot of humor, too, but it’s Grass’ variety of humor, which I always find hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t read the man. Grass is almost never witty, in his best moments he’s either funny or ponderous, in his worst, well, let’s just pass over that. The difference to Braun’s book, which is infinitely witty and light couldn’t be more striking yet Braun’s take on that period is astonishingly good, too. The three texts, written in 1992/1993 make the best possible use of hindsight, they provide an assessment that still holds up today, 14 years after the book was first published, which is no mean feat.

As I said, Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals consists of three parts, not of equal length. The first section, the aforementioned newcomer in this edition, is the shortest. It’s called “Das Nichtgelebte” (roughly “The Unlived”) and relates to us the events of that day in November 1989 as experienced by a character named Georg. We learn that he experiences the Wende as an end, in a way, of time, an end to life as he knew it. Early in his story, he tells us that he is a punctual man, who doesn’t have an appointment to go to, which is intensely alienating to him. He had, in the waning days of the GDR, an affair with a younger woman, which fails to take off; mostly, we suspect, because he isn’t able to warm up to her, he keeps a distance. In one memorable scene, he watches her sleep, slips into bed beside her, and keeps a distance from her, exactly the lenth of his erect penis’. He tells himself that it’s better that way: “He had only guarded her sleep, and this thought evoked a tenderness in him that he carried away from the cave like robbed goods.” (crap translation mine). In the final pages of “Das Nichtgelebte” we find out that this reserve of his is a national problem. As the GDR, the great hope of so many, crumbles around him, he has a few insights, among them this: “We did not want it, he mumbled. We did not want it, we did not want it. We were not serious about it. We had time enough.” (again, my translation) Time enough indeed. Now it’s all over, West Germany takes over the country and incorporates it into its own structures. The “unlived” of the title does not just refer to the chances George missed in his private life by being an anal reticent pedant. It also refers to the chances the whole country missed by not following up on Bloch’s Prinzip Hoffnung. Imagine there’s a revolution and the people bungle it, and the reaction takes up the remains. This is tragic, and the section, though replete with a quiet humor, does full justice to that feeling.

Of all the sections, “Das Nichtgelebte” is the most poetic, the one with the most arresting images and moving formulations. It also introduces Schaber, a former high ranking supervisor of some kind, who has now become a turncoat, working for a financial conglomerate in the West. He is the principal character of the second section, which is called “Der Wendehals oder Trotzdestonichts”. The second section is the longest one, at a hundred pages roughly four times as long as the other two. It’s basically a dialogue between “Ich” (I) and “Er” (He). These two characters could be Georg and Schaber, the author and Schaber etc. It doesn’t really matter, because what they really are, is Hinze and Kunze. Hinze and Kunze are the protagonists of Braun’s most famous novel (Hinze-Kunze-Roman) and most famous play. Hinze is a citizen of the GDR who manages to see through the faults and problems and structural issues of his society. He engages a bureaucrat, Kunze, in a discussion, which leads to dialogues that possess the precision of Plato’s dialogues and the concerns and humor of Brecht’s Keuner stories. The same happens here, but the parameters have changed. Kunze/Schaber now doesn’t have a bureaucracy to defend, or a country. He defends himself. After all, this is a new country, individualism is valued highly here. Schaber is a cynical opportunist who praises his own actions and the advantages of this new life. Hinze/”Ich” is a man whose hopes have been dashed, who is almost as cynical as his opponent, but his cynicism is born from disappointment.

As the two talk, the discussion picks up speed, the two opponents bouncing words, puns and phrases off each other. It’s quick, funny and makes countless excellent points about democracy, about the peculiar (West) German attitudes to work (in German, the employer “gives” you work; literally, the German word for employer means “Workgiver” and the word for employee means literally “Worktaker”. This is partly due to an ambiguity in the word “Arbeit” (Word), but it’s also telling as far as the German attitude towards employers is concerned), about emergent racism, about consumerism and about “thoughtcowardlyness” (Braun uses a neologism here as well). At the same time, the plot of this section involves an odyssey through Berlin at night, full of surreal scenes and images, most strangely, a stampede of prostitutes. In another scene, in a library, “Ich” throws volumes of Lenin at volumes of Stalin, in the middle of a discussion that touches on Marx, Engels, the two bearded Soviets and Hegel. It’s marvelously structured, very well thought and divinely well written. At the end of that section we notice a few catchphrases from the first section reappear, but turned, cold, opportunistic. The wasted life that Georg complains about, which means a committed life, reappears now as a zest for life, but in the sense of carpe diem, Just do it!, like many of these slogans completely divested of commitment. Commitment means accepting failure, not thinking in terms of success but in terms of process. In the turned version, this facet has vanished in favor of a far more sparkly: Don’t talk so much, live!. Watch out for opportunities and grab them!

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals, it turns out, provides a wide array of emotions, depending how you read the book. The last section more or less wraps things up. It consists of several very short prose pieces that focus on different aspects. It doesn’t add much more to the book in terms of idea, but it’s necessary in that it fleshes the book out a bit, broadening its message, and clarifying many hints and implications. There’s much to delight in, and the writing vacillates wildly between the poetical style of the first and the ribald style of the second function. So what about the book as a whole? It’s certainly a joy to read, but as for its ideas, for me, Braun was preaching to the choir, basically. I have no idea how the book appeals to people with different convictions. The thinking behind it is certainly lively and powerful, but as a whole the book seems a bit thin. Turns out, I could have used some more Grass here, to provide a punch. The execution of the text, as it is, is masterful. Braun’s immense gifts as a poet are in full display here, as Braun bends the language to his will, more unobtrusive than fellow magicians like Schmidt, Jelinek and Jirgl but with no less verbal energy and inventiveness. Nothing slips from his grasp, except for one thing. The whole comedy could have made the book a cold, distanced satire. It is part of Braun’s prowess, though, that he knows when to give the reins some slack. Now and then, the mask slips and we see hurt and disappointment and we are touched, moved, and saddened. And as the book ends on a note of hope, we close it smiling. Thinking, but smiling.

Trotzdestonichts oder Der Wendehals is not a masterpiece, maybe, whatever that means, but it is a delight, from the first to the last page. In 1989 and 1990, half of Germany was turned on its head, and for the second time, German citizens had to renege their beliefs and adapt to a new society. The GDR has left scars upon the German consciousness, partly, certainly, because of all the disappointed hopes and dreams that were invested into that country. Books like Braun’s provide an insight into the hurt and resentment of many former citizens of that strange country, who were told that everything they believed in was a wrong and flawed as the dictatorial bureaucracy that used to govern them and that the West German system was the only way to go. Volker Braun, evidently, doesn’t believe that, which leaves him in an intellectual state of inbetweenness and which makes this book so readable.