Described by the publishers as ‘a ground-breaking classic of post-war German literature’, Siblings is the first of Brigitte Reimann’s novels to be translated into English, and what an interesting rediscovery it is – bold, edgy and evocative with a style all of its own! Originally published in Germany in 1963, the novel is narrated by Elisabeth Arendt, a young, idealistic painter whose steadfast beliefs in the possibility of building an egalitarian socialist future in the GDR bring her into conflict with her beloved older brother, Uli, a disillusioned engineer.
Set in 1960, before the construction of the Berlin Wall, the novel is bookended by snippets from the same conservation between the siblings, giving the narrative a circular feel. While Elisabeth is determined to fashion a fulfilling life for herself in the East, Uli feels constrained by the Party structures and ways of working, fuelling his desire to defect to the West. Following an earlier association with a radical University Professor, Uli has been left with a black mark against his name; consequently, he can only find work as a glorified draughtsman, despite his excellent qualifications as an engineer.
‘It’s like being pricked with needles every day,’ he said, ‘which is worse than being stabbed by a dagger…’ (p. 74)
In his desire to achieve creative freedom, Uli tells Elisabeth of his plans to cross the border, prompting the argument that kick-starts the book. From there, the narrative slips backwards and forwards in time, illustrating how the siblings have arrived at this point.
With her keen eye for a painterly image, Reimann skilfully evokes the siblings’ childhood memories in a vivid, evocative style.
Blossoming cherry trees in the garden, the sandpit with our red and blue tin toys; a wall covered in ivy, and, at its foot between the broad-leafed, violet vines, we gather snail shells in the damp, black leaf mould; (pp. 4-5)
By her early twenties, Elisabeth is working at an industrial plant in the East, holding painting classes for the workers at her artist’s studio. There is some lovely descriptive writing here, capturing the stark beauty of the industrial landscapes and the workers in situ.
I worked urgently, haphazardly and unsystematically, drawn to the arc of the bridges and the prosaic curve of the cooling towers on delicately braced struts, or lured by the mellow colours under the blue September sky. I painted watercolours to catch the innocent colour of that man-made landscape; I sketched the welders on our factory floor, and the carpenters wearing velvet waistcoats over their suntanned, bare torsos, and the girls waiting and chatting on the road to the factory works, their hair tousled and skirts ballooning in sharp gusts of wind. (p. 81)
With politics playing a central role in the novel, Elisabeth soon finds herself at odds with the authorities when she criticises an older painter – a man favoured by the Party – for his outmoded depiction of activists. When the artist in question reports Elisabeth to the Stasi, she fights to defend her more modern style of creative expression – one imbued with layers of feeling. Moreover, it is rumoured that she has formed a bourgeois faction within the workers, a subversive group with the power to disrupt. Nevertheless, Elisabeth successfully defends her position, allowing her vivid artworks to speak for themselves.
Also of note is Elisabeth’s eldest brother, Konrad, whose earlier defection to the West has unsettled Elisabeth, prompting worries that this might have fuelled Uli’s decision to follow suit. Although Konrad is now relatively settled in Hamburg, his path to freedom was not an easy one, adversely affecting his marriage to Charlotte (a fellow defector) – a relationship that now feels somewhat ambivalent at best. In a particularly striking sequence, Elisabeth and her mother cross the border to meet Konrad in West Belin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, brother and sister clash over their contradictory political views and ideals, prompting Elisabeth to leave the reunion early. Only as she is waiting by the border for her mother does Elisabeth realise what a divided Germany really means.
By the novel’s conclusion, Elisabeth has enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Joachim, to persuade Uli to stay – a move likely to force a wedge between the two siblings, irrespective of Uli’s final decision. In many respects, the novel is about separations and divided loyalties – divisions that cleave open the fault lines between the East and the West, from the political and ideological to the emotional and physical.
Siblings unfolds through a jagged, fractured narrative, blending realism with flashes of modernism – an unusual style that makes this novella a highly evocative read. Reimann skilfully captures the atmosphere of Elisabeth’s world, complete with the sights, sounds and smells of life in East Germany. Interestingly, it’s not quite the grim, colourless picture one might expect.
In the evenings, Lukas came over from the neighbouring compound. He brought a few brigade people with him, and we nattered over peppermint tea and, sometimes, cheap, bitter-smelling miner’s schnapps. The window stood ajar, and the mild evening air drove in the breath of the forest, with its tangy smell of mushrooms and damp moss. We heard the deep, dark hum of the pine trees in the wind, the tootling of an accordion and, on paydays, laughter and drunken singing from the beer parlour. (pp. 35–36)
Like Elisabeth, Reimann had to balance her desires for creative expression and freedom against the constraints of the prevailing authorities. In the brief biography accompanying the Penguin Classics edition, we learn that Reimann was just thirty-nine when she died of cancer. As a passionate young writer keen to depict the realities of life in socialist East Germany, Reimann wished to live ’30 wild years instead of 70 well-behaved ones’. If Siblings is anything to go by, it appears she achieved her aim, making a case for cult status through her exciting feminist voice.
(My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)