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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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder