NONFICTION: After the Wallby Matthew Jakubowski
The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain, A Words Without Borders Anthology
Open Letter, 2009
This collection of 31 pieces by newly-translated writers and well-known authors, plus photos and copies of Communist-era surveillance reports, doesn’t focus on Berlin. As Keith Gessen notes in his breezy introduction, these voices come from the “entire multifarious universe” of former Soviet Bloc countries, and the complexity of that universe gets full respect from the book’s editors, Words Without Borders.
The book’s short chapters present a chorus of fascinating essays and short stories, poems and political speeches from for example Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Russian, and East German viewpoints, many of whose nationalities changed not long after November 9, 1989. While there are several wonderful Berlin stories, the goal here isn’t just to cheer the fall of the Wall.
The editors have arranged these high-caliber works to create a tension between celebratory and somber writing, and that gives the book a touch of greatness. From one chapter to the next you never know when in time or where on the map you’ll land next. Masha Gessen’s essay, “My Grandmother the Censor,” about visiting family in Russia after Communism’s end, is followed by an excerpt from German writer Peter Schneider’s book, The Wall Jumper, published in 1983, about kids who habitually sneak West to see movies, then hop back over. Tales of grim hope from Poland, Romanian political poems, a Czech artist’s manifesto recalled with victorious hindsight: these all provide eloquent proof that art and nobility of spirit won, for a little while at least. After 1989, “the hysterical era of perestroika began,” as Vladimir Sorokin describes it.
That era’s struggle and violence must also be commemorated. Former East German Annett Gröschner writes, “Opening the Wall was the ultimate revenge of those whose power had long dwindled. And it was their most effective revenge. No more discussions. They simply let go. Like a sphincter yielding and letting everything out.” It also let in, as Sorokin notes, “the atom bomb of a market economy.” New freedom introduced unlimited new trouble, “happy chaos,” Maxim Trudolubov calls it, noting that in Russia, “[The] peace that was achieved in the late 1980s proved to be more like a short-lived truce.” Before long, as Gessen reminds us, “The nasty civil wars that everyone kept claiming hadn’t happened in the post-Soviet space were, in fact, happening—in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Chechnya, and, of course, Afghanistan.”
As described by Trudolubov, the Eastern Bloc needed more time before flinging the Iron Curtain aside: “Men and women who had stewed in their own juices for 70 years, getting only censor-vetted snippets of foreign culture, had to digest quickly what their contemporaries abroad had spent years assimilating at an unhurried pace; everything from concepts of economics and the free market to modern clothes and the basics of personal hygiene.” Many Russians were also used to Communist breadlines, which Sorokin calls “a genuine trademark of developed socialism,” and “an important therapeutic ritual” in his piece “Farewell to the Queue.” In Russia, Sorokin witnessed people protesting the loss of all those long lines for foods and goods, a phenomenon he remembers with open disgust: “The ordeal of the free market turned out to be more frightening than the Gulag, and more burdensome than the bloody war years, because it forced people to part with the oneiric space of collective slumber, forced them to leave the ideally balanced Stalinist cosmos behind.”
In East Berlin, even during the big moment itself, joy didn’t hurry down. Groeschner recalls those hours with confusion, “Why I was so furious the night the Wall came down is almost beyond me today.” Several chapters later, Stefan Heym echoes that moment of soul-searching in his 1994 speech to the unified German government, saying, “I have asked myself constantly why the euphoria over German unity dissipated so quickly.” It’s as if those who survived long enough to witness the end of the Soviet era cannot shake the immense absurdity of it, the years lost, how grossly the memories continue to lack any hint of redeeming humor or grace.
It feels instructive to read these stories now, amid our own financial scandal, nasty foreign wars, massive unemployment and market terror. The state of our present union looks like it’s headed to be a chapter in a future anthology of complicated, post-Cold War lessons. On November 9, it’d be foolish to forget to raise a glass to honor the fall of the Wall. But just one glass. Then, as now, there’s work to be done.
MATTHEW JAKUBOWSKI is a fiction writer and literary critic. His short fiction can be found in 3:AM Magazine, Great Jones Street, and gorse, among others. He has served as a fiction judge for the Best Translated Book Award and interviews editor for Asymptote. He lives in West Philadelphia.