21 July 2013

Page-Turners & Anti-Politics

by Simon Urban
Random House, 551 pp., €11.99 (German Price), March 2013, 978 3 442 74442 8

Much has happened in the three months it's taken me to get sucked in & through Simon Urban's breakthrough novel. Katy Derbyshire's English translation of the book was published last month by Harvill Secker, priced £15. Around the same time, over the first weekend in June, Hessen's police force, working under orders from Hessen's CDU Minister of the Interior, brushed off a well-organised, 10,000 strong Blockupy demo in Frankfurt, against the European Central Bank. The kettling tactics used to crush a protest overwhelmingly non-violent in its motivation were upsettingly similar to tactics used by the Metropolitan Police to suppress student and anti-cuts demos in London over the last two years. The Frankfurt law-enforcement officers didn't even have to use their water cannons. Managed-democracy's most expensive hardware has its greatest effect simply by standing there, martially: its bad PR for a state to allow sufficient uncontrolled dissent to get itself into a position where it actually has to make use of it. Two weeks after no one outside of the left was saying anything about violations in Frankfurt – where does the democratic masses' disinterest in freedom of assembly & of collective action spring from? – the German government's Human Rights Spokesman, the Free Democrat's Markus Löning started feigning panic about Turkey:

“It makes me really worried when I see the water-cannons and other big machinery being deployed.” i

Simon Urban's book can be read as an appeal to return to a pre-1968 liberalism, of a kind Löning's party once supported. It can easily be argued that such a liberalism has never existed, no more than a 'true' or 'real' socialism has ever existed, and so the return Urban advocates is to a never-never land. As every bit Peter Pan as the alternative-future, 'the-Berlin-Wall-never-fell', socialist East Germany still standing in 2011, where Urban sets his stage. Here, underneath the techno-geek veneer, with almost all socialist cars running on stinking bio-fuel – and telecommunications (i.e. spying) technology being the only scientific field where the East has the edge – everything's as it never was. The East runs on, cocooned in an impenetrable smog that separates it from history. Its inhabitants chunt on, dragging their inferiority complexes regarding western trouser-wear & cars behind them, made miserable by the Stasi but cynical of any political challenge to the status quo. Many western readers – and perhaps even some who grew up or even lived as adults in the east – appear to have enjoyed the caricatures, denied real choice through a relationship with history, that the book allows us to see through the smog.

Urban puts most of his polemic directly into the mouth or mind of his protagonist, East German police detective Martin Wegener. But there's one scene where Wegener's conversation partner says a lot about the book's ideology. Wegener, investigating a politically motivated murder, meets secretly with Alexander Bürger, leader of a terrorist organisation bent on forcing change in this fantasy GDR through violence. It's clear from Urban's naming of this character that we're meant to give a lot of weight to his words. Bürger means citizen, of course, but it's a word still used today, both by itself and in adjectival phrases and compound nouns, a hundred times more than the word 'citizen' is used in British English. It has mostly positive connotations: bürgerlich (respectable, although in some contexts also meaning stuffy); Bürgertum (the respectable middle-class); Bildungsbürger (a well-educated person, particularly in the arts); gutbürgerlich (used for food; something like traditional pub lunches or mum's cooking). So when Alexander Bürger speaks, this is the man in the street telling it straight, someone capable of seeing through the shit offered to us by both intellectuals and by politicians. Wegener and Bürger have been discussing Wegener's murder victim, Albert Hoffmann, who, at the time of his murder, was planning a radical democratisation of this GDR's socialism. (Albeit by plotting to putsch together with a high-flying comrade, Gregor Gysi. Gysi exists in real life outside Urban's book: he's a leading figure today in Germany's The Left / Die Linke party. Katy Derbyshire states that Harvill Secker decided to cut Gysi out of the English language edition because of British libel laws.) Hoffmann's neologism for his new politics is Posteritism. Bürger doesn't think much of that:

'We're fighting for democracy. Not for democratic socialism. Or Posteritism.' Bürger spat out the word, as if he'd bitten into something bitter. 'Democratic socialism doesn't exist. Socialism doesn't work. Because it doesn't work, people run away from it. Because they run away, they either get locked in, or they get shot. Which is why you can't democratise socialism. Because to do that it would have to work in the first place. Which it doesn't, and never will do. A viscous circle that anyone who's not wearing blinkers can't help noticing. Sometime humanity needs to start putting its utopias back into the bookshelves, where they belong.'

'Some people do tidy them away', said Wegener weakly, 'and then their kids just go and get them out again.' ii

It is tempting to think that, because this politicising's so crude, Urban doesn't really want us to be convinced by it, that he wants us to immediately see the anti-thesis. If democratic socialism doesn't exist, 'democratic capitalism' certainly never will do; if we don't run away from that capitalism it's cause there's nowhere to run, unless we're really tough enough to relocate to Bolivia. There's more than enough argument elsewhere in the story, however, to indicate that the author really wants the reader to buy these sound bites.

The conviction that knowing that socialism didn't work is all you need to know about what happened in the GDR between 1949 and 1989, continues to dominate contemporary German perceptions of the history of that and other eastern block countries. A Hamburg acquaintance of mine, a published poet good at gimmicks for getting himself lots of press and an otherwise seemingly intelligent man, felt the need to take me aside recently to tell me that all they ever did behind the Iron Curtain was to drink and to screw, as there was nothing else to do. This is typical of the racism that still exists towards a historical population: the now extinct national-ethnic group of East Germans. Like all racism, it blinds people from seeing individual biography and knowing details of history. It's obsessed with the reproductive behaviour of the group that the racism discriminates against. Street-level British racism against black men was, for decades, hung up on the supposedly superior length of black men's cocks. Many German men today still can't get their minds past what East Germans may have done in bed, particularly when you insert the Stasi into that sexual equation, for that arousing mix of sadism and masochism, professional voyeurs, power and betrayal.

Unsurprisingly the detective protagonist spends a lot of the book either fucking, thinking about fucking, or getting fucked over by the Stasi, after himself requesting of the Stasi that they spy on his ex, Karolina, a request primarily motivated by his torment in not knowing with one hundred percent certainty who she is currently fucking. The sex isn't badly written and is deliberately pornographic: we're meant to get off on peeking through the curtains. It climaxes in a scene in Stasi headquarters, where Wegener has gone to look at the results of the surveillance he requested on his ex. When he gets there, the Stasi functionary tells him that Karolina had already been spied upon for two years prior to his request for surveillance. In these records he finds high-resolution photos of Karolina at it with his former best friend, Früchtl, who has subsequently disappeared inside the East German secret prison system. Until this point in time, Wegener had known nothing about the affair. From the perspective of Urban / Wegener, the sex on the photos looks and sounds deliberately desperate, captured in unending sentences, as if they're trying to shag all the frustration of living under totalitarianism out of their systems:

'photos … on which Karolina lies on the bed and is undressed by a white- haired man, standing with his back to the window, who's got her skirt in his hands, her tights, her bra, who disappears with his white head between her legs, causing Karolina's face to skew with lust, a moaning mouth, a dog-like glance up to the ceiling, while the old guy digs himself into her with his skull, pushing her legs apart, Karolina's feet right and left in the air, the folds in the tensed soles of her feet forming lines one below the other, that's how sharp the photos are, how good the telephoto lens is, that you see Karolina's toes stretching out in time, her mouth an angry scream spanned by a single strand of saliva, furious that she's faced with losing this duel, and then she does strike back, pushes the old guy away with her feet so that he falls off the bed, and now lies legs spread, never has a woman spread her legs wider than that, sets to work on herself, turns round and offers White Hair two fleshy cheeks, allows her middle-finger to disappear between those buttocks …' iii

Seeing his ex do all that with his ex best friend is almost enough to dampen even Detective Wegener's irrepressible libido, and we just have to hold on for a few more double-crosses and car chases through the Berlin hinterlands before we reach the end. The overall effect is rather James Bond: all impeccable surface, witty, and, indeed, well-acted, if you accept that the actor's job is to reproduce type, and not to produce individualised character. In the very final sentences it seems that Urban wants to have the last laugh on us, for being hooked for the last 550 pages on his block-buster. Wegener is lying beaten up and tied up, alone in the woods, letters from a burst time-capsule buried twenty years before by socialist school kids blowing in the breeze around him. And his bladder's more than over-full. Finally he just lets it all go:

'Wegener kept count, for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth time, as a new jet of urine streamed into his trousers, then it dribbled a little bit after, and only finally stopped when the detective was long since departed, and the pages and kid's letters and stick-figure drawings danced so cheerfully in the breeze as if nothing else had been there. As if not a single thing had happened.' iv

How many readers will buy this end, as a comforting, closure-granting metaphor? – nothing ever happened in the GDR, it was pish, you'd be a fantast to think otherwise, and we should never be sorry that's it's gone for good. It's a fault of a book that despite excellent craftsmanship inside self-imposed genre restrictions, it doesn't want to offer any more original metaphors or thoughts, either about life in the GDR, or about life inside contemporary capitalism.

ii This and all other excerpts from my novel are my own translations from Urban, Simon. Plan D. 2013. p. 448
iiiIbid, p. 498-499
ivIbid, p. 551