Magazine article The Spectator

When the Wall Came Down

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Wall Came Down

Article excerpt

When the Wall came down Michael Hulse HEROES LIKE US by Thomas Brussig, translated from the German by John Brownjohn Harvill, 9.99, pp. 250

Every nation likes to look at itself in the mirror. Germany has been in a fever to read a definitive account of its moment of glory in November 1989, when the rusty `anti-Fascist' padlock finally snapped under Eastern clamouring for the CD stores, sexshops and cars of the West. The Cold War was declared over, for 15 minutes Germany was Sexy Nation Number One, and the presently reunified German critics waited anxiously for a fiction that would earn its place in the pantheon by putting the whole thing into the proper words.

What were they hoping for? War and Peace? Wondering at intervals what kind of novel might prove adequate to the task, I imagined the light but unremitting scrutiny of Fontane combined with the freedom from humbug of Le Carre and the deft, sharp compass of Thackeray -- something like that, with any luck. Thomas Brussig's novel, published in 1995, possesses instead a yawping manner that derives from early Grass, with a touch of Beavis and Butthead.

Klaus Uhltzscht, the narrator, is born in August 1968 when Soviet tanks, passing on their way to Czechoslovakia, panic him out of the amniotic sac. A mummy's boy, the youngster soon finds that

the world is divided into gallant failures, triers and experts on the one hand and doggy-paddlers on the other. Doggypaddlers are the ones who strive in vain, and I'm one of their number.

Heroes Like Us implies an East Germany peopled with doggy-paddlers, and, from the title on, it is rich in sarcasm at the expense of the East Germans' myth of themselves:

Opposition, or what passed for it, they define as coinciding with the extent of their own sporadic intransigence. No one will admit to having conformed, everyone was in some way 'anti', yet . …

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