Christoph Hein’s main job is a historian. There is hardly a contribution about him that would not classify him as a “historian of the German East”, and he himself gladly accepts this attribution in conversations. A historian is someone who watches the course of time closely and records it with a cold heart. He does not judge, but only presents – in the hope that the described violations speak for themselves.
This cautious archival approach was pervasive in the literature of the GDR, where direct social criticism fell victim to censorship. Heine’s colleague Volker Brown once said, “I don’t criticize it, I just describe it,” in order to defend himself against censorship as cunningly as in vain. So it is likely that the “East German historian” is a filler, and anyone, like Hein, who insists on fulfilling this role, counts on the critical impulse to be understood in a different audience cut out from the coarser stimuli.
The place where Hein set his history is called Guldenberg. This fictional little town of Molde, which actually plays a role in many of his novels, is modeled after Bad Doeben in North Saxony, where Heine was born in 1944. Although he declared a few years ago that he was enough with Guldenberg, he is now The title and main theme of his new novel. Because if there’s a major figure in the network of agency workers, it’s the city itself.
All city institutions are treated honestly
Author and omniscient narrator looks at the staff chapter by chapter: the decent but somewhat impotent mayor. A pastor who wishes to be transferred, but does his work afterwards. The head of the parish council is scheming. A businessman who makes small three-wheeled carts in his factory and earns so much money with them that a Roman plunders them. The right police chief and his deterrent crew. Skat paddling tour of the inn.
But above all, there are a few young men from Syria and Afghanistan and their supervisor who is concerned and concerned. In this way, the city’s institutions – city council, church, police, business and public – are treated honestly. There is no room for surprises or even just a life of their own for characters who will transcend their function, and no place for anyone who can elicit even a little sympathy.
The story is simple, and it is known only through media reports: “unaccompanied young men” from Syria and Afghanistan arouse the suspicion of many residents who do not want to tolerate strangers in the village. So everything happens and it’s scary and what is the good intention of the novel to be represented critically: bricks fly in the windows of the residence. Flat tires in a caregiver’s car.
A young girl claims that she was raped but cannot identify any of the attackers. And although it turns out that she invented the thing because she was pregnant by her boyfriend and is afraid to admit it, outsiders remain suspicious in the eyes of many Goldenbergers because suspicion feeds their resentment and is therefore indispensable.
“Guldenberg” consists mainly of dialogues that sound strangely woody
Heine is interested in how rumors arise and prejudices entrench, but his portrayal does not go beyond clichés. It shows how business is done and how politics operates locally by relying on small or large services and sometimes forgetting the past. In East Germany, this meant, above all, the renunciation of former party membership and the opportunism of the GDR. All this – and this is what this record suffers from – is well known. Hein does not contribute any new insights or perspectives, even if everything is correct, everything is meticulously constructed and events continue as expected and consistently.
“Guldenberg” consists mainly of dialogues that seem strangely woody, as if Hein had no real people in mind, but paper characters who speak without terms and are always so elaborate, as if the whole thing was not a novel, but a script for a program ZDF Evening. “Guldenberg” will be in good hands there, with Jean-Joseph Levers as mayor, Thomas Thiem an entrepreneur and Dagmar Menzel as a good refugee mother.
Then you can relax without worry because reality is bad in a manageable way, just like in every proper daily newspaper. But why should you read the novel then? Perhaps literature is little more than a reflection of reality. Even worse, the reality is little more than the sum of cliches – albeit true.
Christoph Hein: Goldenberg. a novel. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2021, 284 pages, €23