Monday 28 October 2019

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach

I wasn't sure that I would like Confession with Blue Horses. The blurb and the cover made me think this would be a bit too kitsch or light for my usual reading tastes.
Tobi and Ella's childhood in East Berlin is shrouded in mystery. Now adults living in London, their past in full of unanswered questions. Both remember their family's daring and terrifying attempt to escape, which ended in tragedy; but the fall-out from that single event remains elusive. Where did their parents disappear to, and why? What happened to Heiko, their little brother? And was there ever a painting of three blue horses? 
In contemporary Germany, Aaron works for the archive, making his way through old files, piecing together the tragic history of thousands of families. But one file in particular catches his eye; and soon unravelling the secrets at its heart becomes an obsession. 
When Ella is left a stash of notebooks by her mother, and she and Tobi embark on a search that will take them back to Berlin, her fate clashes with Aaron's, and together they piece together the details of Ella's past... and a family destroyed. 
Devastating and beautifully written, funny and life-affirming, Confession with Blue Horses explores intimate family life and its strength in the most difficult of circumstances.

However, this was chosen as my next book group read and I haven't read very much about East Germany so I decided to tackle it for this year's Dewey's 24 hr readathon.

What a great decision!

Yes, it was a lightly told story but it was well-told. There was a sense of it being solidly based on oodles of research without being smacked in the face by said research. It was a quick, easy read that kept me engaged and on tenterhooks for the entire readathon. I had never thought about the number of children that had been taken from their families in the GDR and what it must mean for them now, that modern research techniques are allowing people to find lost children and lost siblings again.

I didn't know that there were people working away at old shredded Stasi documents to put them back together. But reconstructing old documents from the GDR is an ongoing task that helps individuals to recover the story of their earlier lives or those of their family.

By the end, I was very curious about Hardach's own background story. Was there a personal element to this story or was it simply journalistic curiosity. Her online bio briefly states:
Sophie is a journalist and the author of two previous novels, The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Fraud Marriages, and Of Love and Other Wars. She started out as a news reporter for Reuters in Italy, Japan and France, and eventually settled in London where she now writes for a range of publications. Sophie was born and raised in Germany, and still counts Berlin as one of her favourite cities.

She has written extensively about the German experience in her newspaper articles. I even recognised some of the intimate details in the book as coming from what she had learnt via survivors that she had interviewed.

It's obvious that for Hardach, this journey of discovery is personal and professional. In the London Library Magazine, Spring 2019, Issue 43 - Stories from Behind the Wall (pgs 22-25), she says about writing this book,
I tried to capture the tensions and contradictions of life in the GBR....I wanted to show the coping strategies that people developed, the humour, solidarity, poetry, love and friendship. I grew up in West Germany, but my mother's family was from Berlin and the far eastern German provinces that are now part of Poland and Russia....The Wall has not not been there for longer than it was there. And yet, for those 28 years, it felt permanent, and left permanent marks.

It's that sense of permanent damage that I was left with when I finished the book. Even though, Hardach left us with a hopeful ending in this case, it seemed apparent that most real-life reunifications were far more complicated and distressing.

Timing is everything, they say.
For walls to come down or to read a book at a certain time.
In less than two weeks time, it will be thirtieth anniversary of the Wall coming down.
Opinion pieces are starting to appear as everyone with a story to tell reflects on the various effects and changes since that time. I will retro-add some of the relevant articles below.

I'm now keen to read some of the books and authors that Hardach referenced in her article above - Christa Wolf, Helga Schütz (Gute Nacht du Schӧne 1991), Maxie Wander (Guten Morgen, du Schӧne 1977) and Anna Mundry (Gute Nacht, du Schӧne 1991).

Other books to consider:

  • Günter Grass - Germany to Germany
  • Wolfgang Hilbig - The Sleep of the Righteous
  • Peter Schneider - The Wall Jumper
  • Herta Müller - Traveling On One Leg
  • Anna Funder - Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
  • Christa Wolf - Patterns of Childhood
  • Jana Hensel - After the Wall
  • Deborah Levy - The Man Who Saw Everything

  • The Lives of Others.
  •  Never Look Away

Opinion pieces:

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