Where does the state end and the self begin? Through the pages of Peter Schneider’s short Cold War novel The Wall Jumper walk characters from the old East and West Germany who aim to answer that very question. This is a book primarily about identity, and although the issue is explored primarily at the level of the individual, there is enough about what it might mean to be ‘Germany’ to be a timely read at a time when the United Kingdom is having its own crisis of identity.
The characters of The Wall Jumper are products of their own regime, unable even to watch a game of hockey together without the strength of their convictions and the weight of their recent histories clouding their ability to agree on facts. Fake news had nothing on these dudes! The experiences of the last days of the second world war, the treatment of the conquered Germans by the US and Soviet Union (especially in the issue of the Marshall Plan vs. reparations), the failings of each regime: your assignment to a particular modern tradition is random. Therefore it is unrealistic to search for ‘truth’ as truth is a function of too many competing concepts. In making this argument, The Wall Jumper reminds me of Jihadi, but it is also very much a novel of its time and place and perhaps inevitably I think of Milan Kundera. It’s also a very interesting contrast to Stasi Wolf – not least because the latter seems to seek to provide accuracy which is a subset of truth.
The Berlin Wall is itself almost a character: its presence overshadows proceedings, and some of the stories told to or by our narrator have the Wall and attitudes towards it as a central point. But it is identity rather than politics that is the characters’ driving force. Amid all this, flaky pinball machines and films distract the masses, while the plutocrats on both sides of the border find that they can associate with each other as much as they like. They must, on the other hand, make constant compromises. On the east side, systems of censorship and self-censorship collide. The citizen makes their own journey with the set of trade-offs that this implies. There is a lack of solidarity among the dissidents.
And by the way. No one reading this book will fail to pick up precisely why it is that the German government take so seriously the issue of freedom of movement.
By the way number 2. The Penguin Modern Classics edition has an excellent cover which is a work of art in itself: a stock photo in which the East Berlin Fernsehturm is framed within the columns of the Brandenburg Gate; the gate itself is like a giant press ready to bear down on the proud tower of the DDR.
A brilliant book, beautifully written and of key interest on this day when the UK makes its Article 50 moves.