Stille Zeile Sechs by Monika Maron

How much fury fits into 142 pages?

Monika Maron tells her readers from the very first sentence that Herbert Beerenbaum dies, so a good bit of Stille Zeile Sechs (Silent Close Number Six — “Close” in the sense of a small cul-de-sac street, with six as the house number) is finding out who he his, how he dies, and why that matters. Maron also has her first-person narrator, Rosalind Polkowski, slowly reveal how she came to know Beerenbaum, and what he came to mean for her.

Stille Zeile Sechs by Monika Maron

The book is set in East Berlin in the mid-1980s, a time when it looked like the Wall would remain in place forever, keeping people locked in place and subject to the whims of the bureaucrats of the Socialist Unity Party under the watchful eyes of the Ministry for State Security. Silent Close is a fictional street in East Berlin where former Party bigwigs live out their retirement, the current leadership having decamped to a closed settlement about 15km outside the city limits. The real counterpart to the Silent Close is the Majakowskiring, located in the norther part of Pankow. These days it’s a relatively normal street in a leafy part of the city; I haven’t visited. Back then it would have been very closely watched, with every visitor noted, identified and reported. One of the streets that ends at the Majakowskiring is Stille Strasse, Silent Street.

Polkowski is an unusual figure in 1980s East Germany: She has given up her assigned job as a researcher in a history institute and is making a living with whatever comes her way. In her telling, one day she had simply had enough. She had been assigned a topic soon after completing her studies, and plugged away at it year after year until in her early forties she didn’t see any sense in it. That decision was in its way a fundamental challenge to East Germany’s system. Everyone was supposed to have a job, they were all supposed to be doing their bit to build socialism and advance the revolution. They were not supposed to make their own way, outside of the institutions, like a cat with no fixed home who gets a little bit from everyone in the neighborhood. It’s never spelled out in the book, but Polkowski had to have had a relatively privileged upbringing, in Party terms, to have gotten a job as a researcher in the first place.

A chance meeting in a café brings the two of them into conversation, and it emerges that Beerenbaum’s right hand no longer functions well enough for him to do much with it. He’s been asked to write his memoirs, but he needs someone to physically write them down for him. Despite her misgivings, Polkowski agrees, but with one condition: He can hire her hand, but not her mind. She is finished with lending out her mind for money. He can dictate and she can write, but no commentary, no editing, no assistance. And so the struggle begins, a class struggle even. For Beerenbaum, whatever his origins, ended among the little country’s highest aristocracy. When the Nazis took power, he fled east, and he managed to survive the deadly years in Moscow when Stalin’s purges killed more Communists than Hitler ever did. Beerenbaum rode into Berlin with the Red Army and set about remolding the city and the Soviet zone of occupation, “resurrected from the ruins” as the text of the GDR’s national anthem had it.

Polkowski was far from this aristocracy, though privileged in her way. Her father had been a teacher, a true believer in the system that Beerenbaum and company had set up, and she had known self-satisfied men like Beerenbaum all her life. Engaging in a largely silent battle with him is a way for her to fight back against all of the ones who had preceded him, their way of assuming and ordering, all the years of smarm. Even in their first meeting, she relishes unnerving him with her ability to guess his background just from looking at him. Men like him have held the upper hand in all the decisions shaping her life, and being able to get even a little of that back energizes her.

Parts of the conflict are specific to East Germany. “Supported by the rich hoard of experience of the Leninist Party as well as by its fraternal help, our Party led the working class to victory and set up socialism for all time in the first worker-and-peasant state on German soil.” Beerenbaum dictates that sentence to Polkowski, and she judges it “just one of the thousands of written and spoken sentences that, over time, one notices no more than the number of gray hairs on the head of a person that one sees every day.” She is appalled that she had written it down with her own hand, and if she hadn’t been sure that Beerenbaum was waiting on her to contradict him, “I would have asked him about at least one of the five lies that the sentence contained.” (all p. 63) She doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but it costs her.

While the almost-silent conflict between Polkowski and Beerenbaum forms the heart of Stille Zeile Sechs, Maron shows some of the other parts of Polkowski’s life. There’s the slightly dumpy neighbor who must be newly in love, judging from the changes in her behavior. Polkowski gets to know her better, her life as a piano teacher. Polkowski always wanted to learn but never really had the chance; the teacher can barely stand the instrument anymore after so many years of students who are being forced by their parents to try to learn. There are some friends Polkowski occasionally meets in a pub. They’re more her semi-ex-boyfriend’s circle, but she’s welcome and they have a small corner of freedom in their tipsy banter. One of them might have had a sparkling academic career, but had sent a manuscript into the West for publication, and that was that. After his spell in jail, he’s a pub intellectual. Beerenbaum, who bent to all the winds of the party, attained the rank of full professor, despite his anti-intellectualism.

Eventually the tension between Polkowski and Beerenbaum flares as it must. Polkowski would very much like to believe the ideals that Beerenbaum and Party said they espoused, but she could look around and see what life was really like, from her work at the historical institute she knew what surviving in the Party really meant. She imagines a speech that she would give to Beerenbaum:

I imagined how I would — carefully and with an effort not to hurt him — explain why the existing relations, which he had in part brought about, compelled me to wish for his death. I would be happy, I would say, if your death could be a matter of indifference to me, could even be regrettable. Do not believe that your love for Grete, who survived twelve year of waiting, leaves me unmoved. Or that I cannot sympathize with the fear that must have tormented you, night after night [in Moscow]. Still more, I wish that I could be proud of you, you who resisted, who was not a Nazi and who didn’t try to hide like a mouse. Nevertheless, I would say to him, I have to wish for your death because you have stolen every house, every piece of paper, every street, every thought that I need to live, you have stolen everything that I need to live and you will not give it back. You are forcing me to do the most terrible thing that I can think of: to wish for someone’s death. How could I wish that you would continue to live. And then I would ask him: do you understand me.
I did not expect that he would consent to his own death. He should just understand that as things were, I had to wish for it. It was unimaginable that he would say: Yes, I understand you. How much he would have had to understand to say yes. (pp. 102–03)

That’s how much fury is in this book. It’s an answer to people who say of East Germany “It wasn’t all bad,” when what they mean is that it was pretty good actually. It wasn’t.

Maron’s own father was much more than a school teacher. He was Minister of the Interior and chief of the national police. Maron left East Germany in 1988. After the collapse of communism, she returned to Berlin in 1992.

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