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Uwe Tellkamp: Der Turm (The Tower)

Tellkamp’s monumental novel has one primary purpose: to condemn the German Democratic Republic and all its way and its supporters. It does this by following the stories of an extended family and the effect on their lives of living in the GDR. The two main families are the Hoffmanns and the Rohdes. Richard Hoffmann is a skilled surgeon, married to Anne, née Rohde, a former nurse. They have two sons. Christian is the main character and based in part on Tellkamp himself. He has a younger brother, Robert. Anne’s brother, Meno, is divorced and was married to Hanna. They had no children. He works as an editor for a publisher. During the book we will meet other members of this family, as well as their friends and associates.

We mainly follow three characters: Christian, Richard and Meno. While we learn of the various problems they have as a result of living in the GDR, Tellkamp does not paint them either as saints or downtrodden victims. Richard, For example, is not only having an affair with a colleague, he even has a daughter by her. Richard’s problems with life in the GDR stem in part from that affair as, not surprisingly, the authorities know about it and use it. Indeed, though the word Stasi (the East German secret police) is only mentioned once in the book, their influence is often felt, as various characters feel that they are being followed.

Richard is outspoken and highly critical of the system, something that is definitely dangerous in the GDR. He is warned more than once about this by his boss, as well as by friends and family. However, it is in his job, hampered by lack of resources, that we see the problems he faces. There is one wonderful example that shows the complications of living in the GDR and the corruption that was rife in that country.

The hospital where he works is very short of pain-killers. As Tellkamp points out, this is particularly ironic as Dresden is allegedly the birthplace of aspirin. The pharmacists seem unable to provide them. However, they may be able to do so if someone would come and repair their typewriters, for which they have not been able to get a repair man for eighteen months. The firm that repairs typewriters is run by Ulrich, Anne’s brother, so Richard gets in touch with his brother-in-law. In the hospital there is considerable competition between departments to have the best Christmas tree. Richard and his colleagues have sneaked into a state forest to steal one. They are caught by the guard but he is suitably bribed. However, Ulrich would like this large Christmas tree, so Ulrich gets his tree, the pharmacists get their typewriters repaired and Richard and his colleagues get painkillers (but no Christmas tree). While this sort of corruption is not unknown in the West, this episode clearly shows how corrupt the GDR was and how endemic it was.

Christian is at a mixed boarding school and is not happy there. Part of this is the discipline. He is, like his father, occasionally outspoken, though not as much as his father. He also suffers from bad acne, which makes him awkward with others, particularly the opposite sex. He spends much of his time at school on his own, playing the cello and reading. He does not fit in, as he is from a town and most of the other pupils are from the country and they mock his posh ways. The pupils are spied on, particularly by the Russian teacher. Christian also faces problems from his father, who expects consistently high grades, grades Christian does not always get.

He spends much time reading, sometimes fourteen-fifteen hours day. A novel wasn’t a real novel unless it was at least 500 pages long. At 500 pages the ocean began, anything less than that was paddling in a brook.

Christian, who wants to be a doctor, even sets out a life course for himself: 1. Learning, 2. University, 3. Nervous breakdown, 4. Great achievement. There is no room for love in this this course, he admits.

All GDR nationals have to do military service. As Christian has a reputation for not being a model GDR citizen, his headmaster tells him that if he “volunteers” to do three years, this would show he was a model citizen and he would be far more likely to get a favourable rating to get into university. Christian and some of his the others at the college feel compelled to comply. It is while on a national service that things go drastically wrong for Christian. The horrors of army life – a brutal, cruel regime – are the least of his problems.

Meno was a committed socialist but, of course, the GDR was not socialist or, rather, in name only. He had planned to be a zoologist but his political views meant that this was not a career he could pursue and he ended up in publishing. Publishing in the GDR was not easy. Everything was subject to censorship. The rules on what was and was not allowed changed frequently and Meno finds himself in continual battles to get books published, with authors, all too often not understanding why their book could not be published.

Meno faces a problem that many of the others go through during the course of the book. There is a severe shortage of housing space and people all too often find rooms suddenly taken from them for others and having to share toilets/bathrooms with many other people. The particular problem that Meno faces is that his rooms have a balcony. It is decided that his neighbours should have access to this balcony, which means that they can access his balcony at any time, day or night, by walking through his rooms. One particular neighbour does just this. He is not the only one to face this kind of problem.

There are numerous other problems the citizens of the GDR face. These include a waiting list of fifteen years to get a car to the problems of getting most goods.Products often arrive in a shop and you have to rush out and buy, even if you do not need them, as they will soon disappear, not to reappear for many months or even years. You need a permit for so many things. We see the characters trying to get a permit for repairing a communal water heater and for selling a violin. They find out that you need a separate permit for the violin and bow, which means hours of queueing for each one.

While we are following these various stories, we are also following external political events. we know full well that it is all leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, though, of course, the characters do not. As these events continue – the death of various Soviet leaders, the appointment of Gorbachev, the election and re-election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States – we also watch the GDR falling apart, as supplies dwindle and political dissent increases. But then, all at once …the clocks struck, struck 9 November (the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall) is how the book ends.

This book has been compared, perhaps not unsurprisingly, to Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks. They do have some similarities. Both, of course, are German. Both are very long – this one around 1000 pages and Buddenbrooks around 800 pages. Both follow an extended family, using this family as representatives of an era, a class and a German region. The lives of both families have dramatically changed by the end of the novel. However, Mann is a far better writer. This is not to say that Tellkamp is not a good writer. He certainly is. However, he has a political agenda, that of condemning the German Democratic Republic in every way he can and its nefarious effect on the lives of its citizens. While he uses the novel form to do this, and does it well, his political agenda takes priority over writing a great novel. Mann may well have had a political agenda but he is first and foremost a novelist rather than a polemicist, unlike Tellkamp.

I certainly enjoyed this book and would recommend it but I wonder, as the memory of the German Democratic Republic fades into the past, how many people will want to read a thousand page novel condemning it.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Buchausgabe
First English translation by Allen Lane in 2014
Translated by Mike Mitchell