Book Review: Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

“Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of socialism.”

20697583Read: 22nd, July, 2018

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My Rating: 5 Stars

Description: Now, married with two children and the Wall a distant memory, Maxim decides to find the answers to the questions he couldn’t ask. Why did his parents, once passionately in love, grow apart? Why did his father become so angry, and his mother quit her career in journalism? And why did his grandfather Gerhard, the Socialist war hero, turn into a stranger? The story he unearths is, like his country’s past, one of hopes, lies, cruelties, betrayals but also love. In Red Love he captures, with warmth and unflinching honesty, why so many dreamed the GDR would be a new world and why, in the end, it fell apart.
Growing up in East Berlin, Maxim Leo knew not to ask questions. All he knew was that his rebellious parents, Wolf and Anne, with their dyed hair, leather jackets and insistence he call them by their first names, were a bit embarrassing. That there were some places you couldn’t play; certain things you didn’t say.

If there is something that fascinated me this year then that would be Cold War period and most importantly life in GDR. All this because of a movie, a movie! Seriously.

Red Love: A Story of an East German family written by Maxim Leo delves into the lives of three generations who spent their life, or at least major portion of their life in GDR. For some people the country provided them with hope, for some it became their identity and some lived in complete detachment.

I had this notion that people who lived in GDR must have detested it, but that notion of mine was proved wrong here. After reading this book, I realized that not all who lived there were unhappy with the country or the party.

The central players in this book are Leo’s parents, Anne and Wolf, and both his grandfathers, Gerhard and Werner. Each one of them with their different experiences in GDR. This book contained more of the family history and less of Leo’s own childhood, which can be disappointing but not completely, I enjoyed the book anyway. Grandmothers, other women and some other people were not given much space in the story, they came into the story to make an appearance and to prove their existence but they were removed from the story just as they showed up. I don’t know what happened to them.

Leo’s maternal grandfather, Gerhard, was a Jews descendant or say part Jews, with Jews father and Aryan mother. They left Germany when he was of age 10 and moved to France. After his father’s death, he tried to find his place in the world and later joined The Partisans and fought against Nazis in the World War II. After the war was over, he permanently became part of the communist party mostly because the people who helped him during the war were mostly communists and his communist friends influenced him a lot. Later during the formation of GDR, he went along with the communist party and moved to East Germany even though earlier he belonged to the West. During the end of the book, we get to know even though he lived in East Germany and was a influential person in GDR, he lived his best years in France.

“New faith for old suffering: that was the ideal behind the foundation of the GDR.”

Leo’s paternal grandfather, Werner, on the other hand fought for the Nazis in World War II, he adopted Nazism and served in the war. He belonged to worker class family and wanted to be successful and influential and show people that children from working class can also reach great heights. Later he moved to East Germany and advocated communist political party system. For most part he went along with the flow and mostly followed things as they came. I guess he did what was best for his survival, he just wanted to live and along the way also find his position in the society.

“I’m surprised that Werner allowed his professional future to be determined by a tram. The stage workshops were in Kreuzberg at the time. If other tram had come first, Werner would have remained a West Berliner, my parents would have never met, and I would have never have been born.”

The first generation that lived in GDR and also had invested in the foundation of GDR. For them GDR was the symbol of protection, peace and a fresh start.

“Heroes, survivors from the big wide world who have found their new home in the little GDR. Because they aren’t prosecuted here, because they are safe here.”

GDR gave them the hope that now they could be anything they want and that they could live without any threat to their lives.

“I think that for both my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. I t was a new start, a chance to begin all over again.”

For Leo’s mother, Anne, things were different, she didn’t play any part in the foundation of GDR, for her GDR was just something that happened, even though she was born in West Germany, she had to move to the East because of her father’s ideologies. She grew up in a communist family and GDR became her identity, she couldn’t see herself without GDR. Later in life we see her deflect from those ideologies, but even then she won’t completely give upon them, she learned to balance and live in GDR without contradicting the Party even though she had different thoughts and they didn’t align with the Party’s ideologies.

“The feeling that she must not harm the GDR because it is the safe haven that offers peace and protection to her persecuted parents.”

For her things became a little easy in East Germany also because she belonged to a influential family. She tried to speak her thoughts but stopped before things turned nasty for her. It was really necessary to create a facade if you had to live in the country without getting punishments for breaking the laws or going against GDR.

A few decades later Anne finds that letter in her Stasi File. She learns that an operational procedure had been launched against her. But later case is dropped a short time late. “Father of the woman in question is a member of the Central Committee of the SED*,” it says in the file. And this is an end to the matter, because investigations aren’t usually carried out into important party workers ad their families.

*SED – Socialist Unity Party.

Leo’s father, Wolf, an artist who didn’t really liked ideologies of the Party though he was not really sure if the system was wrong or not, but one thing he discovered earlier in life that you don’t really have to believe in the system to live in GDR only that you have to show them that you do. Like every other artist who dealt with multiple censorship and governmental control publication, he also suffered from that though he resisted it every chance he got, he tested the water to see how far he can go without getting into trouble or breaking a law.

“I don’t think Wolf was an especially political person at the time. He wasn’t yet convinced that the system was wrong. He was more concerned with himself, with his needs, with his dignity. He didn’t like being told what to do. He was allergic to other people’s rules, he wanted to determine his own life. When he felt pressure from outside he grew stubborn.”

For wolf, neither the system was in his favor nor the fall of the wall in 1989. At least the system gave him something to resist against, the fall of the wall came with, no resistance, and nothing to fight against, with the fall of the wall he saw his own downfall.

Anne found herself again and with a new found spirit because after GDR was collapsed. Now she could express her true self without hurting sentiments of her communist family and without going against the party.

There was this section in the book where Leo was not selected for Higher Education and had to go for work while some other students went to college to get further education and be the intellectuals and the influencers in the country. I’m not still sure why he was denied admission in the first place but what I learned is that The Party had a lot of power to make decisions and if they felt a family is hindering or going against their ideologies they made them suffer and comrades didn’t have the power to fight them. Another thing I learned from the desperation of Leo’s parents to get him into the university is that life in GDR for workers was not very good and they suffered the most. Leo’s family was full of intellectuals and his parents’ friends were intellectual and had good place in the society. So, that shows why they made sure he went to college and good thing that he did.

Now, I wonder what was it like to live in GDR when people concerned were workers and not the influentials.

I liked to read the history of his grandparents mostly because it gave an insight into their life and why they made those decisions they made and how they played their part in the WWII. And mostly how their decisions affected their family. It also helped in providing the distinction of how life was different for three different generations living together in the same country.

This book was a really good memoir and was very engaging. I haven’t read many books so as to compare them but this I believe is one of the best out there. Worth reading.

Book Review: The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

“You feel most foreign when you no longer belong where you did…”

195993Read: 21st, June, 2018

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 9 seconds. Contains 1432 words

My Rating: 4 Stars

Description: One of Elizabeth Bowen’s most artful and psychologically acute novels, The House in Paris is a timeless masterpiece of nuance and construction, and represents the very best of Bowen’s celebrated work.

When eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ well-appointed house in Paris, she is prepared to spend her day between trains looked after by an old friend of her grandmother’s. Little does Henrietta know what fascinations the Fisher house itself contains–along with secrets that have the potential to topple a marriage and redeem the life of a peculiar young boy. By the time Henrietta leaves the house that evening, she is in possession of the kind of grave knowledge that is usually reserved only for adults.

First published in 1935, The House in Paris, is the fifth book written by Elizabeth Bowen and as I have come to know, it is also one of the best books written by her. This is the first Bowen that I have read and most probably also the last.

In the book, the writer beautifully described the surroundings and did a wonderful job in capturing all the details of the external world in a book which was being shaken up by the internal world of the characters. I like descriptive novels, I complain about fewer descriptions in books but this book was over the top in that department. I could actually visualize the surroundings when I read this book, it was a good experience, but then those visuals were there throughout the book which was insane, I got tired of it. The book wasn’t boring but a slow-burner.

In the book, the writer defined many moments using inanimate objects and bring life to them, created visuals to show the passion and the tension and added depth to what the characters were feeling and thinking.

Some examples:

“Like rain on the taxi windows, soft affections and melancholies blurred her mind; she saw inanimate things as being friendly to love.”

“Max looked at me like someone through bars in a death cell; to part is to leave him to what must be. The law takes you away.”

The concept of telling the story was odd, I never read anything in this format. She used this tri-partite structure where the first and the last part were written in “The Present” and the middle part was written in “The Past” with 10 years gap between the present and the past. The second part, The Past, was the longest of all the three parts, it took me 10 days to go through it, some days I dreaded to pick it up again. All the while I was reading this book, I was wondering if I would ever reach to the end of it. I liked the parts that were written in ‘The Present’ and most importantly I loved the last part of the book.

The story mostly dealt with the complexities of human relationships, ‘of mother and child’, ‘of lovers’, ‘of husband and wife’, and most importantly and very discreetly she also talked about ‘friendship’. There were multiple plots within the story and the writer played well with both time and point of views of different characters. Pure emotions were expressed without any corruption or falsity that actually helped in knowing the characters well, good or bad.

In the beginning, I thought the two children Leopold and Henrietta were the main characters but with time reader gets to know who the central characters really are. These two kids are actually used as a device to show reality in a different view, of how kids perceive the reality and assess it besides the central characters actually show us the reality they lived. So, we get to see two realities, the one that was perceived and the one that actually happened. This is the case of hidden realities and exposing them to the reader.

“Grownup people form a secret society, they must have something to hold by; they dare not say to a child: ‘There is nothing you do know here.”

Children think their parents’ life start with them, they see their parents realities and create their parents identities in their mind with what they see while living with them, from all that happens in the present. They don’t have any idea of what happened before they were born, what these individuals went through and what shaped their identities and personalities. There are so many secrets that are hidden beneath those faces that might never be uncovered and they have no idea about them. Sometimes those hidden realities make no much difference and sometimes they ruin families and lives.

So, yes the adults are actually the central characters and most importantly Leopold’s mother, Karen. In the past she was someone’s lover and someone’s child; now in the present, she is a mother and a wife. Throughout the book we see her relationships and roles she played in them, we read about how each relationship shaped her and how they were responsible in forming her identity and how one relationship affected the other relationship. Most importantly this is a story of love gone wrong, where passion, love, and betrayal create the central theme.

I’m not sure what was the role of Henrietta but I think she was also a device to explore Leopold because children kind of communicate with each other and also to assess the situation for readers that was unfolding in front of her in the Fisher’s house. Since she was not part of the family secrets and drama, she gave readers an honest view of the whole situation as she saw it unfold.

Ms. Fisher was one of the characters that I felt bad for, she was hit by series of disappointments in the past, and she was the only one who took good control over the situation and handled it with some sense. She was a giver, a soft person who took care of things and people.

What I found weird was how the conversations were led in this book. The characters talked in a very odd way, I don’t think people really speak like that. I quite didn’t like the conversations. The essence behind them yes, the conversations no.

The story itself I felt was secondary, the most important aspects were the characters and their doings. The ghosts of the past also influenced everything that was happening in the present, we get to know about that in a narrative in the last part, where it is revealed what Karen actually feels in the present and what she is going through and why she can’t face her past. I totally understand what she feels, and only time I sympathized with her was in the last part. It was disturbing to think about how she must feel now about everything that happened to her and how her decisions molded her life to come to this point, the whole thing made me quite uncomfortable.

Of all the three parts, the last part was more structured but none of them were very well defined. We don’t really get an ending that concludes everything but there is a hope that things might get a little better, at least that is what I felt while reading the ending.

I would say, it was an interesting read, yes, it was slow and I slog through it but that didn’t stop me from engaging with these characters who were filled with flaws and imperfections and the whole idea seemed very intriguing to me, also the reason I continued reading it till the end.

Some Quotes from the book:

“But you must grow faster, more strongly than other people. There is no question, for you, of having someone to cherish you. For the man you may be, that your father was not, the father and mother have only been instruments. Their faces and names do not matter. By deluding themselves with each other, they served you without knowing.”

“Goodbyes breed a sort of distaste for whoever you say goodbye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If today goodbye is not final, someday it will be.”

“The mystery about sex comes from confusion and terror: to a mind on which these have not yet settled there is nothing you cannot tell. Grownup people form a secret society, they must have something to hold by; they dare not say to a child: ‘There is nothing you do know here.”

“Never to lie is to have no lock to your door, you are never wholly alone.”

“There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.”