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Ingeborg Drewitz: Eis auf der Elbe [Ice on the Elbe]

Our narrator is a fifty-five year old woman. She lives in West Berlin, though had, when younger, lived in what later became East Germany. We know the time-frame because the book is told in the form of a diary and it opens on 1 March 1981, so she was born in 1926.

She works as a lawyer. She is married to Heinrich, a teacher. She has three adult daughters (a fourth child died) and had always wanted a big family, as she was an only child and felt lonely as a child. Her daughters all have partners/husbands but not necessarily ideal ones, as we shall see.

The start of the book, perhaps surprisingly, sees her doing the washing-up. However, there is clearly a reason for this. She is a lawyer and, indeed supported Heinrich while he was studying. In post-war Germany a woman lawyer would expect to be liberated but, as we shall see, she is, in may ways, a traditional Hausfrau. We never see Heinrich doing any housework.

We get two indications of key themes in this opening segment. She looks over at her neighbour’s flat. He is an elderly man, living alone, and has, allegedly, five security locks on his door. We will follow the changes in who lives in the flat over the course of the book. West Berlin is not the paradise it might have felt for her when she first came or might still be for those still trapped in East Germany. This is a running theme in this book. The city is sick, she says on more than one occasion. There are demonstrations, there is crime, there is terrible weather, there are refugees/immigrants, the cost of living is going up, there are road works. Rudi Dutschke was shot and eventually died of his wounds, causing a huge outburst against the Right-wing Springer newspaper empire, a key event for West Berlin and for this book.

The second theme that comes out is that she is getting ready to host the monthly lunch with her family – her daughters and their families. This if the highlight of her month – both the detailed preparations as well as having her family around her.

She is not particularly happy with how her daughters are living their life. Christine, the eldest, has always been difficult – temperamental, irresponsible,always complaining, prone to irrational behaviour. She is now married to Henning and they have a son. However, her husband is an alcoholic and hits Christine. He does not come to the lunch. Achim, the son, asks, Why is Daddy so horrible to Mummy? At one time, before they were married, they disappeared to Spain, at the the time Franco was dying, so that they could see or become involved in the changes that would and did happen in Spain. However, she did not communicate with her family, which was particularly worrying as Heinrich was in hospital with cancer at the time. When they did return, Christine was pregnant with Achim.

Christine is very critical of her parents, saying they supported Hitler and her generation is different, wanting democracy and socialism.

Not surprisingly, our narrator is worried about her daughters but always had been. Heinrich did not show much interest in his children. In other words more of the traditional role of women. We will see her trying to help them throughout the book.

As mentioned, she is a lawyer. We see the issues she has to deal with. Often it is petty crime, often committed by women. But she is also defending a (male) murderer, who killed a woman and a Turkish refugee who is in the country illegally and may be deported. We see the life of this woman, Feride, who is virtually illiterate, has three children but her husband/partner has disappeared. As our narrator points out, she seems to be intelligent but of what use is an intelligent woman in an Anatolian village? Like other women our narrator defends, she stole (clothes from the laundry where she worked) to get money to feed her children.

We do delve into her past, particularly the wartime era. Her father lost his job for being defeatist and had to join the army. He was killed when he stepped on a mine. They also lost their house – it burned down. But she survived the war and was able to get to West Berlin so, in many ways, she is better off than many others. However, she wonders how the children of today can cope with the feeling of guilt for what Germany did in the war. While she herself thinks of these things, she also thinks of later wars and their horrors – Algeria, Korea, Vietnam and many other political events do get mentioned in this book, not least because she is worried about them.

Heinrich is, of course, key. She sees him, she says, as a companion, not as a lover. He is quite controlling, particularly where money is concerned. Indeed, she considers leaving him at one point, especially when she re-establishes contact with an old boyfriend.

As mentioned he gets cancer and she is very loving and caring. He is still penny-pinching, telling her, if he dies, to get the cheapest coffin and have a cheap funeral. We follow the course of his illness throughout the book. He gets better and they go off on a short trip to East Germany – apparently allowed by the East German authorities – but only visit his home town. We do not learn what happens to him till almost the end of the book.

Overall, our narrator is not happy – with her daughters, her husband, the weather, the crime, the refugee situation, world events, the legacy of Nazism, overcrowding, her job. Obviously she is better off than her mother and, of course, than many others and most of her complaints are limited to her diary, which we see. She is most concerned with her daughters and their spouses and is clearly a devoted mother. But, as the title tells us, there is ice on the Elbe and, when there isn’t, it is raining.

First published 1982 by Goldmann
No English translation
Translated into Danish and Hungarian