On November 9 it is 25 years to the day that the Berlin Wall came down. Published in English for the first time to coincide with that anniversary is The Tower, a 2008 novel by Uwe Tellkamp, who grew up in the former East Germany. It follows a Dresden family in the years before 1989, reconstructing the trials of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), portrayed without nostalgia as a hyper-bureaucratic police state, farcical and sinister.
The focus is on three men. Meno is a zoologist who was never allowed to complete his doctorate because of his involvement in student protests during the Sixties. He works as an editor at a publishing house and part of the novel follows his encounters with writers he is obliged to censor against his own instincts.
Meno’s nephew, Christian, is a shy high-school student who hopes to study medicine. At school he struggles to keep his sceptical views about the GDR to himself; his two-word essay on socialist literature (‘It lies’) doesn’t go down well. Tellkamp charts the harrowing process by which his ambitions are ground down when he’s drafted into the army, having hoped to defer.
Christian can’t do that because of his father, Richard, a philandering surgeon who sneaks away on his 50th birthday to visit the small daughter he has with another woman. It’s risky behaviour, especially when he hopes to wangle preferential treatment for his other family, and soon he finds himself blackmailed by faceless officials.
The novel’s main business is to describe a time of knicker shortages, power cuts and mounting suicides; a place where the state arbitrarily splits families or rehouses them with fewer bedrooms; where you exchange handwritten notes in a face-to-face conversation because you don’t know who might be listening in. It emerges that when Christian was younger, Richard hired an actor to train him how to lie in case of interrogation. When Christian tells his family there’s a girl at school he’d like to date, he is advised against it unless he’s sure she can be trusted (she can’t). It’s this context that lifts the commonplace stories The Tower has to tell, of sentimental education and extramarital affairs. The ending isn’t a surprise — it isn’t that sort of book — but Tellkamp can’t quite resist putting a novelistic spin on events. Christian, now a soldier, is ordered to disrupt a protest in the autumn of 1989 and instead attacks a police officer whom he sees beating up his mother. This feels too neat — the moral crisis would have been just as explicit had Christian witnessed any other fellow citizen being beaten up. Nor would our dismaying realisation — that the purpose of his training was to enable him to fight his own countrymen — have lost any force.
Tellkamp was born and brought up in Dresden and I sense that his story shares much with Christian’s. He lost a place to study medicine because of his ‘political unreliability’ and was arrested in 1989 (he later became a surgeon). In a note, he cautions us that the characters ‘live in my imagination and have as little in common with living people as a sculptor’s clay has with a sculpture’ — which is finely put, not least when it comes after a dedication to someone named Meno.
In Mike Mitchell’s English, Tellkamp’s prose is polished, vivid and observationally acute. Little wonder that he racked up a four-figure page count — a painting of a loaf of bread has Richard examining its ‘chitin-brown, acorn-brown, double-bass-brown, tree-trunk-brown, rock-brown’ crust.
But to accuse Tellkamp of prolixity would be to miss the point of a novel that marshals all its resources against the weakness of memory.
The Sunday Telegraph