Thomas Brussig: Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us)
If you enjoyed Portnoy’s Complaint and enjoy books where the hero spends pages discussing his penis and his masturbatory fantasies, this book may well be for you. Unlike Roth’s work, however, there is more to this novel. It had a huge success in Germany as it was one of the early Wenderomans, i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Brussig manages to combine these two themes, as he tells us at the beginning that the falloff the Berlin Wall was not because of the usual reasons but because of him or, more specifically, because of his penis. Of course, he does not tell us why his penis brought down the Berlin Wall till almost the end of the book.
The hero, Klaus Uhltzscht, spends the first half of the novel telling us of his childhood in Berlin, in East Germany. He is actually telling his story to a fictitious New York Times reporter (who has no participation whatsoever, except as a listener). Klaus is the only child of Eberhart and Lucie. Eberhart nominally works for the Ministry of Foreign Trade. However, when Klaus goes to see him at work, the porter has no record of anyone of that name. Only later does Klaus learn that Eberhart in fact works for the Stasi, the East German secret police. (Klaus will later learn that his father was one of the top three hundred best paid Stasi agents out of one hundred thousand total Stasi agents). His mother is a hygiene inspector. His father is tough, demanding and critical. He is always finding fault with Klaus, never calls him by his name and shows his continual disappointment with his son. Lucie is the caring, often over-caring mother. Klaus’s initial attempt at compensation is a desire for fame. He is photographed helping at a science fair and the photo appears in a newspaper, of which he is inordinately proud. He will continue, throughout the book, imagining newspaper headlines relating to his behaviour.
However, it is sexual issues that drive him. He discovers, once he is at school, that he is very ignorant about sex and has a smaller penis than his peers. Indeed, when he sees the photo of a naked African man, his peers all tell him that their father’s penis is easily as big. Klaus is astonished. As he grows older he starts having wet dreams and lives in dread of staining the bedclothes. When his mother sees the stains, she assumes that he has been masturbating. He acquires a dishcloth to clean up and then even buys spare bedclothes at his own expense. He will later discover masturbation and fantasises about West German girls. His initial experiences with women are far from successful. From the first one, he gets a disease, which he has to embarrassingly have treated by a woman doctor. With the second one, he is unable to get an erection.
Klaus is a good socialist. When he sees a map with the socialist countries painted in red, he is proud of how much of the world is painted red and he would like to see more. So it is no surprise that he joins the Stasi. His father is, finally, proud of him. But he himself is unsure. When he arrives at the Stasi office, the sign on the door suggests that it is the Post Office newspaper subscription office. This only a disguise they tell him, though they do often get people complaining about problems with their newspaper subscription. They have to spend a Sunday afternoon on a long run. Is this what the Stasi do? Is this really the Stasi? He is then taken out in a car. They approach Checkpoint Charlie. He imagines that he is going to be sent to the West to spy but it does not happen. Instead they are taken to a square where they have to observe. Observe what? It is not clear. His colleagues are also odd. There is Gert Grabs whose children also have first names beginning with G. Martin Euler explains everything by using the phrase negation of negation. In short, the Stasi, at least the part that Klaus works for, does not seem to achieve much. His crowning moment or, rather, his penis’ crowning moment comes as the Berlin Wall is about to fall.
Making fun of the Stasi, East Germany and, indeed, the downfall of communism is a certainly worthwhile and Brussig does it well. As mentioned, the book was a huge success in Germany. However, unless you enjoy pages and pages of discussions about the penis and wet dreams, some of this book may be a bit tedious and seem rather infantile. Sex and politics can be very much linked but it is the politics bit that is more interesting here.
First published 1995 by Aufbau-Verlag
First English translation 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translated by John Brownjohn