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Ulrike Almut Sandig: Monster wie wir (Monsters Like Us)
In this book we follow two characters – Ruth and Viktor. Both were born in what was the German Democratic Republic. The story is recounted by Ruth who is now a successful violinist. She is telling the story to her Finnish boyfriend, Voitto, who plays a remarkably limited role in this book except as the recipient of Ruth’s story.
Ruth has a four year older brother called Fly. It is not clear if this is a nickname or his real name. Brother and sister are very close. Ruth and Fly’s father was a clergyman, not something easy to be in the German Democratic Republic. However we do go back a bit and learn how the family coped in the war and, in particular, the arrival of the Russians. However, when the German Democratic Republic came into being, the father was sixteen and, as a Christian Socialist, was sympathetic both to the church and the new socialist country. However, being religious was not acceptable and he soon has problems, not least because he criticises some aspects of the German Democratic Republic. To make matters worse, the marriage is not a happy one.
Ruth is at school and a new boy arrives. He is Viktor. His father was a non-commissioned officer in the barracks of the People’s Army of the Republic (NVA), which stood next to the Soviet barracks. He was in charge of the joint manoeuvres with the troops of the Soviet Occupying Forces, as Pap liked to call them. His mother is Ukrainian and they speak Ukrainian.
While growing up in East Germany is one thing they have in common, there is one other thing that they share. Both are victims of sexual abuse. Ruth is abused by her grandfather while Viktor is abused by his half-sister’s husband. (Viktor’s mother is his father’s second wife.) Ruth and Viktor do talk about it – briefly. If you don’t talk about it, then it hasn’t really happened. That’s right isn’t it? That’s how we learned it. Viktor never talked about it again, and I never asked.
So how does this affect them later in life? Sandig does not make a big issue out of it but undoubtedly it does have an effect. Their paths very much diverge but Ruth never forgets Viktor, even as she follows a successful musical career. Viktor, after the fall of Communism, somewhat surprisingly becomes first a right-wing thug and then an au pair to a French family! It is there that he is able to recognise that the stepson of the man of the family is also a victim of abuse by his stepfather and he takes appropriate action. It is only the old man with dementia, who lives next door, who had spotted what was going on but he, of course, was ignored.
The sexual abuse of children is clearly key to this novel and the the book shows that it can and does very much occur in capitalist and communist societies and, in all cases, a veil is passed over it, as other family members turn a blind eye to what is going on. One interesting key issue is that the sister of an abused boy is jealous of her brother getting all the attention and wanting her father to do the same to her, whatever it.may be.
However, this novel is also about life in East Germany, from its beginning immediately after the war and up to the period when the country fell apart, what happened as a result and what happened in the country later as capitalist development took over.
Of course, while reading this book, I was wondering how much was autobiographical. Sandig was born in East Germany and her father was a parson, like Ruth’s. Whether it is autobiographical or not, it is nevertheless a very striking novel about the abuse of power.
First published in 2020 by Schöffling
First English translation in 2022 bySeagull
Translated by Karen Leeder