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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Enescu’s Oedipe at the Royal Opera House: a neglected work worth revisiting

A new production of this little-heard Romanian piece shows that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. 

In the opening visual sequence of Oedipe, the Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus has pulled off a startling coup de theatre. What first appears to be a projected image – an intricate terracotta frieze, busy with human life in all its forms, filling the full height and breadth of the Royal Opera House stage – is suddenly revealed as a tableau of living human figures. It’s a gorgeous piece of visual trickery, heightened by the audacity of its scale, but also something more. In this retelling of the Oedipus myth, the divide between history, sealed beneath layers of mud, and the lives lived above it, between Classical statues and their contemporary human counterparts, is porous. Tragedy bleeds down through the ages, staining each era red in its turn with death and dissent.

Oedipe is the only opera by Romania’s national composer George Enescu (1881-1956). The product of over 20 years’ labour, it distils Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays into a swift, four-act drama that’s part opera, part meditative oratorio. But unlike Stravinsky’s “opera-oratorio” Oedipus Rex, Enescu’s characters are fully-formed humans – more sympathetic but also less biddable than their tragic archetypes.

But it’s the music that makes the case for this little-heard work – ironic really, as the opera’s vast orchestral forces (including piano, harmonium, celesta, saxophone and musical saw) are largely responsible for its neglect. A rhapsodic score, rich in motivic interest, swirls in phrases that confound as often as they delight. Melodic dead-ends tease the ear, but so beguilingly under Leo Hussain’s precise baton that it doesn’t matter that musical journeys are often abortive or digressive. There are echoes of Wagner and Debussy here, but also Romanian folk-music and even Renaissance chant – all adding up to writing of filmic lushness.

Chafing against this musical excess and outpouring are visuals devised by designer Alfons Flores. Dimly but evocatively lit by Peter Van Praet, stratified architectural structures come into view, imposing order on spaces otherwise dominated by dust and a rich red-brown mud that gradually coats all the cast. Times shift fluidly between scenes, now set in Classical Greece, now under Axis occupation during World War II, now in the present-day. In the vision of directors Alex Olle and Valentina Carrasco of La Fura dels Baus, Oedipe becomes a luckless everyman, blundering wildly through history yet always trapped in his own tragic narrative cycle.

Some episodes emerge more clearly than others. Transforming the oppressive Sphinx (a  cameo at once gorgeous and grotesque from Marie-Nicole Lemieux) into a  Second World War fighter pilot, whose “wings” are those of her crashed bomber, works brilliantly, as does reimagining the Theban plague as a nuclear disaster, bright with hazard tape and smoky with burning bodies, but other scenes are less successful. The climactic parricide at the crossroads – a brutal, road-rage killing partially hidden in mist and backlighting – has curiously little of self-defence about it, undermining our hero’s subsequent claims of innocence, and the final scenes of Oedipe’s return to Thebes and his blinded vision of pastoral redemption lacks sufficient visual difference from the opening.

Musically, Oedipe is proof of the fire-power the Royal Opera has at its disposal, with serious names taking all but the very tiniest of parts. Enescu’s score is rich in basses and baritones, and here each one brings a distinct vocal colour to the mix, starting with the indefatigable Johan Reuter – massive through the opera’s almost continuous vocal demands, and marshalling enough voice through the taxing first three acts to deliver the exquisite final aria with its new, lyrical quality. His heroic intensity is balanced by Samuel Dale Johnson’s smoothly patrician Thesee (richly even and untroubled) and an exciting, youthful Phorbas from In Sung Sim. John Tomlinson brings craggy, grizzled intensity to the role of Tiresias, while Stefan Kocan makes tremendous impact in his cameo as a Watchman.

Sarah Connolly makes a fragrant, untouchable Jocasta, whose vocal lines unfold in unbroken arcs of melody, all legato seduction. We understand very well what drawn Oedipe to this glossy creature. Sophie Bevan’s Antigone, tonally richer than ever, is another highlight, a rare figure of light and hope among so many moral shades of grey. The Royal Opera House Chorus glue everything together as the cursed people of Thebes, their bolstered forces matching Hussain’s brass for power, and negotiating unison ensembles well from within  the tricky spaces and sightlines of Flores’s set.

Like last year’s Krol Roger, Oedipe is proof that neglected doesn’t necessarily mean second-rate when it comes to opera. An unknown piece by a little-known composer is a big risk, especially when it comes with such massive musical demands, but the Royal Opera have shown themselves willing to take it, to lead and educate their audiences rather than just satisfy commercial demand for endless Traviatas and Bohemes. Let’s hope it’s bravery that survives the imminent departure of the company’s artistic director Kasper Holten.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.