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Kerstin Hensel: Tanz am Kanal (Dance by the Canal)

This book was written in 1993, three years after German reunification. Hensel tells the story of Gabriela von Haßlau who could best be described as a victim of life in East Germany. Gabriela von Haßlau – she and her father are both insistent on the von, which shows their aristocratic origins but, of course, gives them some problems in egalitarian East Germany – is the narrator. She tells alternately, the story of her life while growing up and her life now, which is 1994, four years after the reunification of Germany. We gather early on that things have not gone well, as she is homeless, staying at a charity shelter and hanging out at a pub called the Drei Rosen [Three Roses] and spending time writing her story on bits of wrapping paper she finds on her favourite bridge, overlooking the canal.

She lives with her parents in the fictitious town of Leibnitz, a somewhat dirty industrial town. Her father is a surgeon, specialising in veins, at a local clinic, while her mother does not work, which was relatively unusual for an East German married woman. We first meet young Gabriela when she gets a violin for her fourth birthday. However, she has no idea what it is and is not very happy with the present. We also soon learn that language is important to her. She soon has her favourite words – pie, Mozart and violin – while her father has his – varicose and septic. Indeed, she assumes that anyone who is ill must have varicose veins, which, for her, are a generic term for all illnesses. And, though her name is Gabriela, she soon acquires two nicknames – Ehlchen and Binka – both of which mystify her, particularly Binka which others call her (Binkel is the slang German for idiot). Her parents have given her the violin as they clearly want her to be educated and well brought up, which does not go down too well in East Germany (and, indeed, with Gabriela herself). She is not allowed to play outside, for example. However, she soon learns what the violin is and has lessons. These are a struggle but her father is determined that she learn. After she seems to have mastered a few tunes, he has her perform at his clinic. She comes onto the stage and immediately faints and, when she awakes, assumes she has varicose veins.

She is sent to school but does not do well, though she is intelligent and is even noted in the school register with an I for intelligentsia, while most of the other pupils are marked with A for Arbeiter [worker]. She does not fit in and only makes friends with Katka, who is very poor and fairly disreputable (she takes Gabriela on shop-lifting expeditions and soon they are regularly playing truant.) Her parents are, of course, horrified at her association with Katka and she is forbidden from seeing her but, of course, she does. It is Katka who introduces her to the canal and tells her that there are elves who dance there and get more beautiful the more they dance. However, back home, things are not going well. Her father wants to set up on his own but is not allowed to do so and soon turns to drink. He organises wild parties at their house and his job in his jeopardy. Eventually, Gabriela’s mother runs off with one of the party guests, an actor called Samuel. Gabriela stays with her father, who is drinking heavily. However, he still maintains his anti-Communist views, forbidding Gabriela from joining the Young Pioneers and the Free German Youth. Gabriela is growing up now and this hinders her chance of going to college.

Meanwhile, we have been following the story of how she is now (i.e. 1994). She spends much of her time on the bridge and even sleeps under the bridge during the warmer weather. She finds the wrapping paper to write on but clearly is not doing well. Not only is she not doing well, nor is Leibnitz. She looks at the abandoned factories and learns of more of them closing, with the resultant unemployment. Clearly, Hensel is making a point about the similarity between the fate of Gabriela and Leibnitz. What brought her here? Was it just the East German system which was hard on the bourgeoisie or was it something in her (and her father)? Hensel offers us her ideas but she is certainly simplistic in her approach. She also shows how Gabriela does move on, particularly when two TV presenters interview her for a programme on women in trouble. It is a troubling story but very well told by Hensel and this novel is rightly her best-known book.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Suhrkamp
First English translation by Peirene Press in 2017
Translated by Jen Calleja