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Sceptically, lyrically, buoyantly now

German contemporary literature has emerged from the post-ideological vacuum to deliver punch-packing and exacting minatures that go straight to the heart of the unknown society in which we live. By Ina Hartwig

How often has contemporary German-language literature been accused of lacking urgency? The accusation has not always been undeserved, but it has seldom been further off the mark than today, a good two decades after the fall of the Wall. The post-ideological vacuum which, at the end of the old world order, seemed to have resulted in a certain paralysis, has now given way to powerful and fascinating diagnoses of our times. Contemporary literature has long been fulfilling its very real seismographic duties. It is delivering earnest, sarcastic, sceptical, lyrical, buoyant and enduring images, more bold that the most incisive editorials, which go straight to the heart of the unknown society in which we live.

The cover story of Lutz Seiler's much praised 2009 collection of short stories "Die Zeitwaage" (time scales) delivers an exceptionally bold example of this form of contemporary diagnosis. The story has been evacuated to that peculiar transition period in East Germany between the opening of the border and the final reunification of Germany's two halves. The narrator, who is also embroiled in a rite of passage – from bricklayer to writer – is working in a bar, and it is here that he makes the acquaintance of a worker. This is not just any old worker; this is The Worker. The man is part of a team that is repairing a stretch of the tram line near the bar. He comes in everyday for breakfast with a brandy and while eating he removes his beautiful watch which shimmers golden in the ashtray, a melancholic still life of a lost era.

Later we discover that the breakfast guest never pays, but then, the narrator never complains. He sees The Worker with the powerful handshake as a Jesus figure and himself as a disciple of sorts. The Worker crosses the public house "as if walking on water". "His every move bore the signs of a gravitas which, I readily admit, I had never been able to muster. I had never found an inroad into the inner circles of the working class, their holy sphere." Then there's the uncanny phrase about the "unlimited stream of mercy" which flows out of an "old electric cable". You sense that The Worker had to die, that the terrible accident was unavoidable. The ideologically abused icon, The Worker, is symbolically if not literally, crucified. This is a deeply tragic, coded, overcharged form of bidding farewell to real socialism. It will be impossible to walk through Hackescher Markt again (an area at the centre of former East Berlin) without thinking about Seiler's mysterious historical parable.

Contemporary literature is not timorous in tackling the time-honoured question of how past and present interrelate. The relationship between fate and character, system and subject, remains complex beyond the era of the divided state. It is evident that younger writers no longer have to bridge the ideological trenches of their parents' and grandparents' generations; they have long been living in "one" country and their everyday experiences largely overlap. But this does not mean that the ghosts of the past are not walking wide.

The Saxon Clemens Meyer (more here), born 1977, is fourteen years younger than the Thuringian Lutz Seiler. In Meyer's writing, the past also casts its shadows and shimmerings over the present, but the shimmer is lacklustre. In his debut novel "Als wir träumten" (while we were dreaming) Meyer showed how little the sunken state meant to him. His recently published diary "Gewalten" (violences) includes a key passage, traditionally titled "Draussen vor der Tür" (lit. outside the front door) which takes us back to a warm night in East German Leipzig. Man takes dog outside, the dog is old and sick. When they return the door has slammed shut, the key is inside, the dog can barely stand, the narrator has no other option but to break in. This sets the scene for a detailed portrait of the house, its triste inhabitant, the city district and the narrator's family, all told in sweeping associative arcs.

No one is holy in Meyer's writing, no workers and no pummelled-into-the-ground Utopias. And yet at the end there is mourning, for man's best friend, the dog that has to be put down: "He perked up briefly, opened his mouth, I put my hand inside, wanting him to smell me in his final seconds. And then he went quiet, I could feel the moment his teeth touched my skin. He was gone."

A writer like Uwe Tellkamp ("The Tower") summoned up all the furore of rejection in the GDR; his images of the time are carried by the revolutionary pathos of an historical force which radiates into the present. Clemens Meyer takes another path. All that remains of the reflexes of the "Eastern zone" as he calls it, are empty words, grotesques, and sad jokes. Meyer has shuffled off the collective with its false tones; his empathy goes out to individuals, the lonely fighters.An "American" narrative stance applied to new German conditions.

When the Romanian-German Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for literature it suddenly became very clear how far German contemporary literature reaches Eastwards; mentally, geographically, historically. Herta Müller's German conserves the melodies of the old Austro-Hungarian empire and introduces metaphors like "breath-swing" ('Atemschaukel' being the German title of her book 'Everything I Own I Carry With Me') and "hunger-angel" into the German literary landscape; metaphors which, as images of their time, function like protective capsules against the experiences of communist persecution and threats. At the same time, however, the old Bundesrepublik ceased to exist, and there is much to suggest that the interpretations of what the German West was - or could have been – are only now beginning to gather pace.

One can still remember the post-1989 grumbling by some fresh federal citizens who felt "overwhelmed" by the sudden "excess" of commercial products; and a decade later a handful of upper-class upstarts from the West self-righteously took it upon themselves to sell luxury brand fetischism as the aesthetic avantgarde. Anyone who made literary inroads into the world of commodities was treading a minefield. There is a deep rift between clinging to vulgarised Marxist ideologies and brandishing pop-cultural recklessness. When David Wagner, an author born at the beginning of the liberal Seventies and raised in Rhineland, writes a novel today in which nothing else "happens" besides the narrator entering a supermarket in Berlin, doing some shopping and leaving again, this is a statement in itself: an understatement.

David Wagner outs himself as a Proustian in the very first line of his most recent novel "Vier Äpfel" (four apples): "I have not entered a supermarket in a long while," only to switch tone abruptly: "Today, however, I step through the silently gliding sliding doors and immediately set eyes on the back of my favourite cashier girl at the till on the left, I recognise her by her long, blonde, wavy hair." This author – in another passage he gives a moving description of his life-threatening liver transplant – is no yuppie casting an evil eye on the juste milieu. There is no conservative coquetry here, no aesthetic arrogance, only a radically relaxed, ironically tinted melancholia.

Observing the plastic wrapped food, the narrator of "Vier Äpfel" can't help thinking about the "rusty scales" of the traders in the markets of his childhood which were replaced by electronic ones; or the fruit fields, "which lay in view of our nuclear power station" that was as secure "as the inner-German border". Not that this anti-anticapitalism is uncritical. Yet Wagner deliberately avoids anything that smacks of weltanschauung. He succeeds in rehabilitating the commodity – not to be confused with the "brand" – for literature. The commodity is neither good nor bad, but telling. So telling that in the anti-idyll of the supermarket, there is a successful reconciliation between time lost and time regained.

One author who does take on the remnants of his generation's weltanschauung, the post-postmodern ideological tenets of Berlin academia with its critique of "the current situation" through to its perversion by terrorism, is Ulrich Peltzer. Born in 1956 in Krefeld, Peltzer currently occupies an exceptional position because he dares what few others dare to do: literally construct theory and practice on the ruins of the German past.

An allegory of public video surveillance opens Pelzer's novel, "Teil der Lösung" (part of the solution). We find ourselves at the tourist hub of Potsdamer Platz, in the Sony Center, or more precisely, in a windowless room full of monitors being watched by security company employees. The men are squatting in the dark as if in a camera obscura, except that the light is not coming though an aperture in the wall but from a flood of security camera images: "Not entirely real, also because the images are flat, with no depth of field, as if they were concerned only with the foreground. Rectangular foregrounds, stacked, overlapping, complementing one another to avoid blind spots, room for speculation."

Omnipresent surveillance technology was saddled to the back of tourism as economic factor, tourism as security issue. It brings a lot of money to very few individuals, and has long since hollowed out civil liberties. Suddenly the security man – whose job no one could possibly envy – notices a clown on one of the monitors, surrounded by a cluster of people and rosy-cheeked ballerinas who are all holding up cardboard signs to the cameras: "It's all just a game!" or "Isn't the world wonderful!" This is a protest against spiralling surveillance madness. It works: the security man sounds the "alarm signal". The police turn up and put on a perfect show of Berliner brashness and it's mission accomplished for the protesters: the apparatus is exposed.

The Austrian virtuoso pessimist Marlene Streeruwitz paints perhaps the boldest image of our times in her novel "Kreuzungen" (crossings). Hers is an evil glare complemented by an analytical depth of field and a baroque imagination: Max – more anti-hero than hero – is no mere mortal heading for some ordinary mid-life crisis in his manly prime, he is a high-ranking representative of the speculative finance caste in pursuit of his own metamorphosis. This money man is monad, psychological tank, libido warrior, and he is used to subordinating the world to his will; whether in the brothel, where he gives precise instructions for the fulfilment of his fetischistic lust, or in his marriage which he coldly dissolves, or in the luxury clinic where he gets his teeth redone. The only person who has Max under control is an "excrement artist" by the name of Gianni.

The symbolic links between money and excretion kept psychoanalysis occupied for years and it is fascinating to see how Streeruwitz develops the idea. In a Venetian Renaissance palace where Max is recovering from his dental operation, a peculiar scenario takes place: "Having been commissioned by Max to attempt a rhombus pattern, Gianni became the leader." Because Gianni shits every possible pattern for Max. "The man followed the agreed objective with a singlemindedness which he had never encountered in another person. And so he was able to observe himself in Gianni. This places the incredibly wealthy man in "a philosophical mood" and for this reason he is able to tolerate the artist.

Here are all our lives compacted into exacting miniatures: sex, money and fetishism amalgamate in an almost old-fashioned criticism of capitalism; the ruins of our monitored democracy flicker ambiguously in a camera obscura; an ordinary supermarket becomes a temple of time regained; a lonely man mourns the death of an animal; a monument is erected to an icon so abused by socialist reality. Contemporary German literature is at the height of its powers.


This article was originally pubished in Die Zeit on 14 October, 2010.

Ina Hartwig is a freelance literary critic.

Translation: lp - let's talk european