Today’s stop on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize trail takes us back in time, and behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a novel which looks at growing up in a country whose doors to the outside world are about to be closed, a decision which will leave its mark on the coming generations…
Back to Back by Julia Franck – Harvill Secker
(translated by Anthea Bell)
What’s it all about?
(East) Berlin, 1954 – an eleven-year-old girl and her ten-year-old brother are cleaning their house in preparation for the return of their mother from a journey. Ella and Thomas spend two days scrubbing the house from top to bottom, and when their mother finally arrives, the two hope that she will recognise their efforts.
Käthe, however, a sculptress obsessed with her art and politics, is not your average mother. She ignores her children’s efforts, just the first in a long line of actions which will affect their lives as they grow up in a country which won’t leave them alone. As they finally reach adulthood, the ideological line between East and West is reinforced by a more tangible division. Under the shadow of the wall, Tom and Ella will need to find ways to cope with life in a prison state…
Back to Back is not a pleasant book to read. Right from the tense homecoming described in the first section, Käthe overshadows her children, trying to form them with her will into offspring worthy of the new state she believes in. Tom and Ella actually have other siblings, twins who spend most of their time farmed out to foster families and homes, but Käthe has no time for the softer side of family life, caught up as she is in her art and her politics:
“Ihre Liebe war unbarmherzig, aber es war Liebe, daran mochte er nicht Zweifeln. Grimmig verzog sie ihr schönes Gesicht: Was weißt du schon von der Welt?”
p.144 (Fischer Verlag, 2013)
“Her love was merciless, but it was still love, of that he had no doubt. She fiercely screwed up her beautiful face: what do you know about the world?” (my translation)
Käthe’s actions are underpinned by her belief that she is right, but this belief is a heavy weight which her two eldest children are forced to carry.
Of the two children, it’s Ella who attracts most of the attention early in the book. As she grows up, she begins to rebel against her mother, stealing money from her purse and only attending school when she feels like it. Her strong exterior hides the fact that she’s actually powerless, though, and her growing sexuality is tempered by experiences in her own home which she really shouldn’t be subjected to.
As the novel progresses, the focus switches to Thomas. A gentle, intelligent boy, Thomas would seem set for a bright future, were it not for the fact that he’s trapped in prison-ship GDR. Suspicion of intelligence, coupled with disdain for Käthe’s privileged upbringing, means that a boy who should have been sent straight to university is forced to endure hard labour and outright bullying. While Käthe believes that it’s all for the best, she doesn’t realise just how damaging her plans are for her beloved son:
“In einem abgeschlossenen System ist Zukunft undenkbar. Michael holte kräftig aus, er streckte sich, um der länge nach mit dem Pinsel über die Tapete zu streichen. Die Mauer macht uns endgültig zu Tieren im Zoo.” (p.193)
“In a closed-off system, the future is unthinkable. Michael reached right out, stretching himself to paint over the wallpaper with his brush. The wall is turning us into animals in the zoo.” (my translation)
With no future in sight, at least none that he wants, Thomas’ fate is destined to be a gloomy one. If only someone can come and lift him out of his depression…
Back to Back is not a happy book for anyone, least of all the reader. It’s a depressing, claustrophobic story, with the parallel prisons of Käthe’s tough love and the newly-formed Communist state taking their toll on both reader and protagonists alike. Of course, it’s written in hindsight, and that colours the way the book has been structured. However, if this really is how life was ‘over there’, it’s little wonder that the fall of the wall (initially, at least) was met with such joy…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, not quite. I eventually had this as a top-ten book, which was a lot higher than most of my fellow Shadow Panelists viewed it! My background in German studies probably helped endear this book to me as I’m very interested in East Germany (and surprised that another book on the country, Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light, was overlooked this year).
It’s far from perfect though, and the book falls into the trap of being too black and white (the good are angelic, and the bad are demonic). Käthe is slightly too much of a caricature at times, although Franck does manage to give her some human moments. All in all, it’s a book I’m glad I read, but I can see why others might not have liked it.
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Quite simply, because there was too much competition this year, particularly from some natural competitors. In particular, Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast did a lot more in a much shorter time. Like the GDR itself, Back to Back can be a little too stiff and restrictive, meaning that it doesn’t have that spark of life which makes a book shine…
If this one was a slow, ponderous read, next week’s book is anything but. We’re off to Italy to spend some time pounding the streets of Naples. Thou shalt not miss this one, really – it’s an offer that’s too good to refuse 😉