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Ingo Schulze: Neue Leben (New Lives)

The Wenderoman (i.e. novel about German reunification; Wende, the term used in Germany for reunification, means something like turnaround or turning point) has become a staple of the modern German novel, written mainly though certainly not exclusively by former East Germans, like Schulze. (Expect to see more of this type of novel on this site at a later date.) This one is often considered as the key or, at least, one of the key Wenderomane.

Schulze tells his story as though it is a ‘true’ story. In his preface, he tells us that he had planned to write a novel about German businessmen and that his interest had been awakened by the story of Heinrich Türmer, a (fictitious) businessman who had founded a small, local newspaper and , from there, had developed a small business empire, encompassing the Thuringia and Saxony border areas (in the former East Germany). His downfall had been as rapid, as a result of risky speculations. While investigating Türmer, Schulze finds, to his great surprise, that Türmer is, in fact, Enrico Türmer (he germanised his name in late 1990), brother of Vera Türmer, a friend from Schulze’s youth, with whom he had lost contact when she moved to the West. He had known Enrico Türmer, as they were at the same school. Further research reveal some short prose published by Türmer, quite possibly subsidised by the author. He tried to contact Türmer through the publisher. This did not work but he did manage to get in touch with Vera, who had married a Lebanese man, and who was happy for Schulze to write a novel based on the life of her brother. She provided him with a mass of documentation – diaries, letters, notes and fragmentary writings, as well as a variety of official and business documents. However, only when he found Türmer’s letters (he had kept copies of letters he wrote) did he really become interested in writing his story. The letters, which form the core of the novel, were written to three people. These were his sister, Vera; his childhood friend, Johann Ziehlke, and Nicoletta Hansen. All the letters were written between January and July 1990, a key period in the reunification of Germany. Hansen, who was from West Germany, had come to interview him briefly about a newspaper he had founded in his home town of Altenburg. It seemed that they did not meet again (though we later learn his may not have been the case) but Türmer thought himself in love with her (though some of the attraction was undoubtedly because she was from the West) and wrote frequently. She was, to a great extent, a literary device, as it was in these letters that he could describe his early life and his ambitions in a way that he could not or would not to Vera and Johann Ziehlke. Interestingly enough, many of these letters are incredibly detailed (they account for some 650 pages of the German edition of the book. Would people write such detailed letters? Türmer was a busy man, though we are told that he generally wrote his letters in the early morning) and most seem not to elicit a reply. For example, it seems that the letters he wrote to Vera in Beirut, where she was living with her husband, did not even reach her. Some of these letters had been copied on the back of paper containing stories and poems he had written and these stories and poems end the novel.

Türmer, we learn, had been a writer. He had had an epiphany as a child when he fell off his bike and broke his radio, so that, instead of listening to the radio, he started to read and started to write. He became a writer and then worked in a state-supported theatre in Altenburg. While there, he met an actress, Michaela, and they married. After reunification, he and a couple of friends, the similarly named Jörg and Georg, found a weekly newspaper, which had some success. (We are given a detailed account of the first day of publication, when he and his stepson, Robert, sell the paper on the streets.) But he soon meets Clemens von Barrista, nicknamed the Baron, a Mephistophelean figure. The newspaper had been set up to promote democratic principles but, under the baleful influence of von Barrista, Türmer soon sells his soul and the paper is converted into a free, advertising broadsheet, whose sole aim is to make money. Türmer’s story is, of course, Schulze’s parable of how East Germany at first looked as though it might be become a democratic ideal but very quickly morphed into pure, unfettered capitalism.

Schulze’s idea is interesting but this book is way too long. He goes into considerable detail on many minor events, which, frankly, soon become tiring. Türmer’s literary work, though taking up around 100 pages in the German text, is unremittingly boring. 650 pages of letters covering only six months is just too much. This is not to damn this book as a waste of time. On the contrary, a Faustian tale of the fall of democratic ideals is certainly interesting and maybe more for non-Germans than Germans. Also interesting is the fact that Türmer is, at least in part, modelled on Schulze, in that Schulze worked in a theatre in Altenburg and founded a paper based on democratic principles, which became a free advertising paper. What is sad is that it could have been a much better work with a good editor but now remains as a seriously flawed masterpiece.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Berlin Verlag
First published in English in 2008 by Knopf