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Novel set mainly in EAST BERLIN

10th August 2020

The Standardization of Demoralization Prodecures by Jennifer Hofmann, novel set mainly in East Berlin.

Novel set mainly in EAST BERLIN

I spend a lot of time in Berlin and I really love to read novels that are set there. Books with a strong sense of the city have helped particularly during Lockdown to connect when virtual travel is the only possibility. So I was delighted to discover this new novel set in East Berlin, set on the day the Berlin Wall was about to fall. The characters naturally do not know this.

Since its instigation in the early 1960s, the regime in the East was paranoid, hierarchical and bureaucratic, aiming to induce a state of fear and terror into the populace. Its main weapon to keep the masses under control was to encourage paranoia. Bernd Zeiger is an experienced Stasi agent, who some years ago wrote the eponymous work of the title. Now filed in the bowels of the ministry, it is a dossier dedicated to the ploys of psychological terror: strategies were devised to make any given victim lose their sense of self, question their life’s beliefs, undermine their understanding of the world and their place in it. Never mind the victims, however, the reader will come to feel a sense of alienation and discombobulation as the story unfolds.

The Stasi were masters at turning the screws, both physically and psychologically on anyone who held a different belief system – people ‘went missing’ through suicide; the fortunate managed to escape across the wall, the less fortunate people were made to disappear, often to Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi headquarters (now a Memorial which you can visit and still get a sense of the bleak walls that reverberate with screams and pain of those held there). Zeiger himself is searching for Lara who has simply disappeared from the face of the earth….

Zeiger has been tasked with gaining a confession from Held (meaning hero in German. A deliberate use of the word Held, I imagine?), who went to a military base in Arizona to investigate claims of teleportation. As Zeiger interrogates him, a strange friendship evolves.

The setting of course is perfect for this surreal story, set over the period of one day, the 9th November 1989. It is at times Kafka-esque and I often wondered what on earth was going on. The author perhaps employs the Brechtian alienation device, keeping readers at arm’s length so they might critically engage with the narrative. The reading experience is, really, quite phantasmagorical.

Interestingly, the author is of both American and German heritage and the device she seems to employ here is to pen her story in the German language and literally translate, sometimes word for word, into American (be warned, it’s not English, which can lead to further confusion). Does this work? Well, no. It can make for an impenetrable and incoherent writing style that so often feels (to my mind) like a poor translation rather than a clever piece of writing. I speak German, I have translated from German, so I am familiar with both languages and therefore I could, for the most part, see the pattern emerging.

For example. One of the characters was talking in dialect. Would someone have a “Dresden twinge”? (I think twang was intended). And.  “…did they think we had tomatoes on our eyes?..” is a nice little German idiom that really does not translate literally (find out more about this in this short video link). Further. “..his face was black and illegible..” – illegible is the perfect word for word translation from German but in fact in English illegible is, I believe, only used in the sense of writing and words, not facial expressions. Inscrutable, maybe? By this point I was rather flummoxed by the style.

There is a character called simply The Punk, which in American has a wholly different to the English version, which further muddled my reading experience. The clanger and wake up call for me was, however, the description of someone swimming in the “East Sea”. That translates literally into German as “Ostsee” and if you translate it back once again into English correctly, it comes out as “The Baltic Sea”. This is the first translation issue that any student of German learns really early on. Do you see my exasperation? Sometimes the combining of words was so obscure and seemingly arbitrary, that I had no idea what was going on. Adjectives were used that somehow didn’t fit with their noun.

Either the novel felt a bit mad (the Stasi era often felt “mad”) or I myself was starting to go mad. I prefer to think the former is at issue. So, I will take my “dangerous cheekbones” and “primatial calm” (nope, I don’t know what that means either) and stoke up my coffee cooker. I suspect the author wanted to offer the reader the Stasi experience of living in East Berlin through discombobulating fiction; she thus imbues her prose with devices to alienate, obfuscate and confuse, some of the elements which prevailed in the era. You will, I think, also need to know a reasonable amount about East Germany and its politics to understand the gist at certain points and a smattering of German would also be a bonus.

The studied, conscious construct in this novel just did not work for me.

Tina for the TripFiction

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