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Jurij Koch: Der Kirschbaum (The Cherry Tree)

We first meet Sieghart as he is driving his jeep in the pouring rain on a very poor road. He skids and gets stuck. He fears that he may have to spend the night in the jeep but then sees a light in the distance. He sets out towards it and find a lone farmhouse. He is invited in by Ena and even offered a bed. He has just gone to bed when he hears a scream. He comes out and sees her with a man – Mathias – who has his arm around her. They seem to br staring into the corner but he cannot see what they are looking at. They hear him and turn round quickly closing the cabinet but not before he sees a strange face, human or a representation of a human. She reassures him that everything is all right.

The next morning Mathias is gone but he meets Ena’s mother and Ena’s grandfather. The grandfather (never named) is key to this book as he clearly represents the link between the present and the traditional, folkloric past. Despite his advanced years, he is very active on the farm. He is very sad – very sad indeed – that the traditional stork who used to nest on the roof has not come this year. An injured one will turn up later but will not stay, clearly a symbol of the changing times. The other obvious symbol at this point is the eponymous cherry tree. Sieghart notices that it seems to be dying, again symbolic. Ena is shocked when the grandfather decides to chop it down but he points out that someone seems to have hammered two large copper nails into the tree which has killed it. Grandfather will leave the base of the tree (it will later be used to hang a washing line) and cuts off the crown which he throws into the dam, where it will continues play a key role in this book.

Sieghart goes to rescue his jeep but cannot get it out of the mud till Mathias turns up with his horse and pulls him out, again a symbol of the old versus the new. Sieghart drives back to the farm and parks next to the horse in a typically petulant move which he later regrets as the horse proves its superiority by kicking out his headlight. Sieghart leaves in a huff.

Sieghart forgets his binoculars and Ena tracks him down and returns them. From this point Sieghart behaves boorishly, pestering Ena, to her annoyance. He also tells her, also to her annoyance, that the work they are doing may lead to a reservoir being built. We also meet, as do Ena, Sieghart and the grandfather, the local braška, a traditional wedding arranger, who drives around on a moped in a strange outfit. He also seems to be some mysterious water creature, covered in water plants and it is the grandfather who inevitably has a relationship with him.

Ena is planning to marry Mathias and Sieghart and his colleagues are invited to the pre-wedding banquet, where we again see some local colour with a strange dance and blind musicians. Things go wrong when Ena and Sieghart misbehave and Mathias is decidedly upset. He nearly kills Sieghart and Ena but we are not sure if he is killed or just disappears.

Ena and Sieghart grow closer together and then they marry, with Sieghart announcing out of the blue, that he has been transferred to Paris. Ena is naturally apprehensive but accepts. Initially she struggles somewhat, particularity when she thinks she sees Mathias but settles in. But then, surprisingly, she sees other things that remind her of home . She finds it difficult to share with Mathias. You won’t understand me. You have too much intellect, she says to him.

Koch superbly mixes in what could be seen as a reasonably straightforward love triangle, with some decidedly folkloric/ghost story/magic realism elements, which change the pattern of the story so that we never know if things are real or otherworldly. The book was written in 1984 when Sorbia,, where this book takes place, when Sorbia was part of East Germany, though you would never know from this book. Ena herself and, of course Mathias are very much part of the old Sorbia, with its definitely non-Communist culture. On the face of it they seem ordinary German people but we soon find out that there is a lot more going on that is far from ordinary German and this is particularly represented by the grandfather but also to a considerable extent by Ena and Mathias. Sieghart is very much not part of this world and never will be, and, indeed never wants to be. He is the practical feet-on-the-ground East German engineer and anything ghostly, folkloric, otherworldly is at best amusing but, on the whole, nonsense for him. It is inevitable when the two try to come together love might briefly triumph but it is going to face a losing battle.

This is really a very fine novel as Koch superbly integrates the Sorbian elements into a more conventional story so that we never know exactly what is real and what is nit quite real. Is the braška a conventional person or is he otherworldly? What is the strange statue Ena and her family have hidden in the cabinet? Did Mathias die or not? What is the symbolic significance of the cherry tree and the storks ? Who put the copper nails into the cherry tree and why? And why do Sorbian elements turn up in Paris? As in any good novel not everything is as it seems.

Publishing history

First published in 1984 by Mittledeutscher Verlag
First published in English in 2022 by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota
Translated by John. K. Cox