Having managed to navigate a way out of the void we found ourselves in a few days back, the German Literature Month bus is back on European terra firma, but we’re not quite back to reality yet. While today’s trip takes us to Germany once more, we’ve somehow ended up in a country that no longer exists, and at a time when relations with the neighbours were about to become a lot more distant. This seems to be the end of the line – mainly because there’s something in the way…
Der geteilte Himmel (They Divided the Sky) was East German writer Christa Wolf’s first major work, a slightly autobiographical Bildungsroman. The story follows Rita, a young country girl who moves to the city, both for her teaching course and to be with her older boyfriend, Manfred. On the surface, the book is a romantic novel charting the progress of the couple’s relationship; however, their struggles are merely a vehicle to examine more far-reaching events occurring in both of the German states.
The story is told in two strands, the first beginning in August 1961 with Rita recovering in a sanatorium outside the city from an accident in the factory she works in during the holidays (she fainted and was almost crushed by two train carriages). However, the bulk of the novel is spent in the times she looks back on during these months of convalescence, as she reflects on her relationship with Manfred and its steady progress towards an inevitable end. In fact, there’s a suspicion that her collapse is due to her emotional issues, particularly given that there’s way back for the couple – August 1961 was a very special month in German history…
It’s fair to say that Der geteilte Himmel is a rather political novel. Wolf was a major figure in East German literary circles, and Rita’s experience in the factory actually mirrors her own. She made the decision to follow the “Bitterfelder Way”, a plea for workers and intellectuals to become closer in the nascent socialist state, and did her best to live up to these ideals. Like many East German intellectuals, she went into factories to encourage the workers’ writing and even worked in one herself, the prototype for the company Rita ends up at in the novel.
Much of the focus here is on Rita’s growth and development. Having left school to take care of her mother financially, she’s bored in her dead-end office job, so the opportunity to pursue a career in teaching comes as a godsend, particularly as it’ll take her closer to Manfred. The move to the city and her new experiences as a factory worker allow her to expand her horizons, and Manfred can see the changes:
Oft brachte er sie nur zum Sprechen, um sie in Ruhe ansehen zu können. Ihr Gesicht war ihm nie langweilig. Er sah wohl, daß es sich verändert hatte, seit sie sich kannten, obwohl es glatt und makellos blieb, matt schimmernd, bräunlich. Aber hinter den mädchenhaften Zügen kündigte sich eine neue Festigkeit an, eine neue Reife, die ihm sehr gefiel und die ihn zugleich beunruhigte.
p.101 (Suhrkamp, 2014)
Often, he got her speaking merely for an excuse to look at her. He never found her face uninteresting. He could see that it had changed since they first met, although it remained smooth and flawless, glowing, with a slightly brownish complexion. But beneath the girlish lines, a new firmness had emerged, a new maturity, which he approved of and which, at the same time, made him uneasy. *** (my translation)
Life is far from easy given the constant struggle for parts in the factory (and the crushing dogma of her course), but Rita learns from each experience and is never bowed by the hardships she encounters.
Of course, she’s far from the only one who is tested by the realities of life in the GDR, and Wolf surrounds her heroine with a number of people, mostly men, who have suffered unfairly at the hands of more politically-savvy comrades. Many good people are criticised and demoted, victims of ideology, and the end effect is that people are driven westwards across the border:
Sie hatte geglaubt wie ein Kind, wie sollte sie sich das verzeihen! Sie war auf dieses ganze Gerede – Gerede, das, war es! – hereingefallen: Der Mensch ist gut, man muß ihm nur die Möglichkeit dazu geben. Welch ein Unsinn! Wie dumm die Hoffnung, dieser nackte Eigennutz in den meisten Gesichtern könnte sich eines Tages in Einsicht und Güte verwandeln. (pp.159/60)
She had believed it all like a child, how could she ever forgive herself! She had fallen for all this talk – talk, yes, that was it! People are good, you just have to give them a chance. What rubbish! How stupid was the hope that the naked self-interest evident in the majority of faces would one day transform into understanding and goodness. ***
Yet she, like many others, endures, and it’s here that we see the contrast between Manfred, a child of the war era, and Rita, a decade younger. The birth of a new country requires sacrifices, but Manfred, thwarted at work and in his studies, is unable to carry on making them in return for an uncertain future. Rita, by contrast, is prepared to give her all for her homeland, and the climax of the novel provides her with the opportunity to prove it.
While Der geteilte Himmel is an interesting story, it’s far from my favourite of the five Wolf books I’ve read. The romance lends the novel a rather old-fashioned air, reminding me a little of the sentimental work of Erich-Maria Remarque (e.g. Drei Kameraden, or Three Comrades). The major issue, though, is that it’s an obviously propagandist work, with the writer setting the reader up to be on Rita’s side, demanding that we judge Manfred severely:
“Waren Sie schon einmal dort?” fragt Rita Erwin Schwarzenbach. “Ja”, sagt der. “Vor Jahren.”
“Dann wissen Sie ja, wie das ist. Vieles gefällt einem, aber man hat keine Freude daran. Man hat dauernd das Gefühl, sich selbst zu schaden. Man ist schlimmer als im Ausland, weil man die eigene Sprache hört. Man ist auf schreckliche Weise in der Fremde.” (p.222)
“Have you ever been there?” Rita asks Erwin Schwarzenbach. “Yes,” he says. “A while back.”
“Then you know what it’s like. There’s a lot to enjoy, but there’s no joy to be had from it. You constantly feel as if you’re damaging yourself. It’s worse there than abroad because you hear your own language. You feel terribly foreign.” ***
Manfred’s flight to the west (which is clear from the first few pages) is seen as a sign of a weak character, a betrayal to a country which needs its people. There’s a general consensus that if he’d only waited and endured a little, everything would have worked itself out. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s slightly more difficult to share that point of view…
For me, the main interest in the novel is historical and cultural. My edition is actually an annotated version (clearly meant for schoolkids), and the excellent Anhang (extras) contains a diary extract discussing the genesis of the work, an interview about the book, critical analysis, a short piece discussing the gradual development of the novel and an extensive discussion of the historical background. It’s all fascinating stuff (almost making up for the ridiculously small print used to allow for the notes in the margin), and having worked my way through it, I understood the context of the novel far better. East German history is fascinating, and in literary terms, this isn’t a bad place to start.
The expression ‘Der geteilte Himmel’ is almost a cliché now, a symbol of the hurt felt when the division of the German people took place. Unlike the memorable title, I wouldn’t say this is a novel that has stood the test of time. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read and an excellent trip down memory lane, taking us back to a time when the human race was taking its first small steps into space and dreaming of a society where all would be equal and the rich would no longer have the power to oppress the poor. Sadly, we’re still as far off that today as we were when Rita woke up each morning to go to her factory…