Red Love by Maxim Leo: Secondarily a memoir, foremost a love story

Marina Benjamin is impressed by the storytelling and cool-headed analysis in Maxim Leo's Red Love: the Story of an East German Family.

Like Jana Hensel, whose memoir After the Wall was published in English in 2008, Maxim Leo belongs to that last significant generation of East Germans: people young enough to have been able to reinvent their lives after unification yet old enough to have been aware of current events in the German Democratic Republic when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
 
No matter how chimerical they came to believe the GDR to be, this generation is united in having once been deeply invested in its success. But where Hensel’s book had a predominantly forward thrust, weighing the gains and losses of unification, Leo’s – which won the European Book Prize in 2011 – lingers ruminatively in the past.
 
He is in no hurry to forget the GDR, confessing at one point that he was never more drawn to the place than at the moment of its liquidation. Even now, he continues to holiday at lake Liepnitz, showing his children the houses in the forest that once belonged to Politburo members and the place on the beach where Erich Honecker had his swimming spot. Red Love is only secondarily a memoir: foremost it is a love story.
 
All the principal players – Leo, his parents, his two grandfathers – conduct a prolonged love affair with the GDR, though each is infatuated with it for a different reason. For his grandfather Gerhard, a Berlin-born Jew and French Resistance hero, the GDR was the brave anti-fascist state. To preserve this dream he was willing to sacrifice strongly held scruples; to swallow the bitter pill of the GDR’s raging anti-Semitism and, as a highlevel party operative, to negotiate dirty deals with ex-Nazis living incognito in the west, exchanging information for protection.
 
For Leo’s other grandfather, Werner, who came from solid farming stock in rural Uckermark, the GDR was a country in which workers could rise to become role models, even ideologues. Werner is the character who troubled me most: “He would have worked well in more or less any system, in any role,” Leo says. Flexing in whatever direction was required, Werner flew the Nazi flag from his apartment in the 1930s; then, without perceiving the least contradiction, flew the red flag in the 1950s.
 
One generation down, the self-contortions multiply. Leo’s father, Wolf (son of Werner) loved the state because it allowed him selfdefinition; he could be a wayward artist yet not a subversive, a critic of the party without being branded counter-revolutionary. The GDR was something Wolf could kick against, even if he soon realised: “It’s all about the façade . . . the state didn’t really demand genuine belief.”
 
It is Maxim’s mother, Anne, who possesses the purest and most fragile emotional connection to the state. She really did believe – her loyalty resting on a complex kind of idealism that required every citizen not only to uphold the highest standards but to expect the same of everyone else. Anne is the most dissociated of Leo’s subjects. The night the wall came down, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the house. She huddled on the sofa drinking tea, terrified that reality would crumble. At 10.30pm she went to bed, unable to withstand any longer the trauma of her nation disappearing.
 
What makes Red Love compelling is Leo’s cool analytic head. (“Anyone who gives in once will do it over and over again, and anyone who has ever been punished will never wash that stain away.”) In addition, he refuses to pass judgement on anyone – party loyalist, Nazi sympathiser, Stasi informer. He understands that eking out a space to breathe in under totalitarianism demands compromise and he is terrific at elucidating the slow, incremental steps by which people come to lie to themselves: giving an outward performance of believing one thing, while secretly holding to another. Guile, guilt and disappointment drip from these pages and Red Love is all the more affecting for it.
 
Until now, Anna Funder’s award-winning memoir Stasiland (2003), with its creepy evocation of the paranoia and doublethink that defined the GDR’s emotional landscape, has stood unsurpassed. Red Love offers a worthy counterpoint. It’s warmer, for one thing; but more importantly, to an insider such as Leo, the ubiquitous paranoia doesn’t scream out, because it’s in him, too, part of the fabric of the universe he inhabits. Where other commentators might tilt to the negative, Leo tries to salvage, to heal, to mend.
 
Still, he is no apologist. He concludes that the GDR became “the country of old men”, one of founding fathers “whose logic no longer made sense to anybody”. Their children were obliged to dream along with them, whether they wanted to or not. But their grandchildren, people like Maxim Leo and Jana Hensel, could rail against the petty prohibitions, transparent propaganda and showy nationalism without feeling guilty about it. And tellingly, they were glad when it was all over.
Two children peer through a crack in a still-standing portion of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage