Christa Wolf: Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven)
This was the novel that brought Wolf her first fame and made her a huge success in East Germany. It is the story of Rita Seidel, a teacher training student, and examines both the break-up or, more accurately, breakdown of her relationship with Manfred Herrfurth, a chemist, and the East/West Germany divide. We start with Rita in hospital coming round from an accident at work (she works in a railway carriage factory). As we later learn, there is good chance that this was not an accident but a suicide attempt but East Germany did not allow good Communists to commit suicide.
The story is a flashback to Rita’s life up to that point and, in particular, her work in the railway carriage factory and her relationship with Manfred. There is a lot of pressure to increase quotas, improve on norms, as East Germany is not only falling behind West Germany economically but many of its best and brightest are leaving for the West (the novel takes place just before the building of the Berlin Wall).
But, most of all, there is Rita’s sense of alienation. She is increasingly alienated from the ugly industrial city of Halle, where she lives with Manfred, from the work environment (initially she is the only woman in her unit) and the increasing collectivisation. But, most of all, she becomes alienated from Manfred. And this is the strength of this novel, as Wolf shows us the gradual breakdown of a relationship, from beginning to end. Rita moves, changes, develops. Her contacts with her colleagues at work, her learning, are contrasted with Manfred, who starts off as an educated chemist but remains the same. Indeed, he does not see what is happening to Rita. When he goes to West Berlin, he expects Rita to follow him. She does – very briefly – but then realises that it is not for her and returns home. This action is at least a contributory factor in her”accident” but, ultimately, she has made her decision and not Manfred’s and each is left to pursue their own choice.
First published 1963 by Mitteldeutscher Verlag
First published in English in 1965 by Seven Seas Publishers
Translated by Joan Becker