Karo’s #CBR4 Review #6: Am Leben by Christoph Kuhn
The older I get, the more I long for the past. It’s a fact that has been observed and described in literature, and some of my favourite books deal exactly with this kind of longing. It’s this fact that again and again drives me to pick up books about displacement, growing up or family histories. For me the past, whether my own or the one behind photographs of derelict buildings, is endlessly fascinating and comforting. It can not be changed and is therefore in my control. At the same time it’s unattainable, so the joy is always mixed with regret and just enough sadness to keep it interesting. Christoph Kuhn knows this, and he has written about it. Being a friend of my family, he himself is a part of my past, and I have fond memories of his unbelievable stories that I enjoyed as a child, and discussions about writing when I was thankful for someone who took my teenage attemps seriously. It took him a long time to finish this, his first novel, and I can see how he must have felt he needed that time to come to terms with the time he is describing.
Tilman, the middle son of a Christian family in 1960s Dresden, lives in a fictional world of Indians and cowboys, set in his grandparents’ large garden. Together with his older brother, he has dreamed up a world of adventure, moral codes and the first hints of love, courtesy of his parents’ cleaning help Felizitas. A weak boy, he is unhappy in school and lives for the evenings, weekends and summer holidays. Gradually though, the real world is starting to intrude, as his parents’ faith and political views are a constant risk in a society that is becoming more and more oppressive.
This is the world of my childhood, although I was born some 30 years after the protagonist. It has been a long journey for me to come to terms with my role as a child of the latter stages of the GDR. I was 7 when the Berlin wall came down, and remember only bits of what life was like in the socialist East, so I have never felt that I had anything to say about it. Up until now I have refused to read any of the heaps of recent German books that deal with the time, because it’s become a veritable hype (As a rule, I stay away from any hype) and is in danger of turning a whole 40 years of history into fiction. Kuhn’s book is not the ambitious, heavy tome of historical treatment that wins literary awards and seems to be intentionally difficult to read. It’s one boy’s story in which many people will see their own. There are enough cultural markers to occasionally give it the impression of a mere collection of GDR subjects, but Kuhn manages not to overdo it. Even for me, the brand names, games and school lessons bring back memories. The boys’ Wild West games are based on the works of Karl May, a German author virtually unknown outside his own country, who wrote extensively about exotic places he had never visited. He was one of the most popular authors in the GDR, and is still celebrated in East Germany today. Me and my brother played Indians every summer, climbing trees, building teepees in the forest and stalking elusive deer. It’s a very GDR thing, and one of my plans for CBR4 is to re-read Karl May 20 years on (We’ll see how that goes.)
For the adults, life is about political oppression, clandestine Western radio reception, a wall being built overnight, uncles being imprisoned and the constant fear of “them” knocking on the door to take you away. This is the side of GDR life that I was spared, so I can not pretend to speak from experience. I know my family and their friends had to live with those threats, some escaping the country, some turning out to be Stasi spies. It’s something we don’t often talk about at home but maybe should. Definitely should.
Tilman slowly notices these things and is increasingly forced to take a stand. This leads to him having discussions with his brother and friends about subjects you wouldn’t expect from children, such as their stand on faith and Christianity in a society that openly opposes religion. Teachers are quoted ridiculing God, and although I’m a fierce atheist, it feels wrong. What is portrayed here is the widening chasm between state education and family values, with Tilman’s mother at one point openly mourning the loss of innocence of her boys. This must have been a big problem for a lot of parents in the GDR, and I’m glad my parents were spared most of it with me and my brother. In the end, Tilman’s childhood world falls apart with Felizitas finding a steady boyfriend, his brother outgrowing the Wild West games and the trees in the garden being cut down. This causes Tilman the most heartbreak, and reminded me of the elm trees in the Virgin Suicides. There’s something very emotional and painful about the trees being cut, and I still mourn the trees of my childhood. Again, Christoph Kuhn knows this. I should really drop him a line.
I realise that it’s impossible for most of you guys to read this book, and it wouldn’t be as emotionally charged as it is for me, but it’s a great little book. Maybe someday it will find an English-speaking publisher and translator. Maybe one of you can be that person. You never know. (The paperback version of the book is now called “Die hinteren Gründe”, published by Wartburg Verlag. Just in case anybody is interested.)