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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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