Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 139 pages; 2005. Translated from the German by Leigh Hafrey.
One of the seminal events in my life was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I was 20 years old at the time, but I can still remember watching the live coverage on TV from my living room in Australia with a mixture of joy, fascination and unbridled optimism for the future.
Peter Schneider’s classic German novel, The Wall Jumper, which was penned in 1982, provides a fascinating glimpse of Berlin life before the wall came down.
Life in a divided city
The book follows the lives of a handful of East Berliners who move to the West: Robert, who misses the rigid predictability of his previous life; Pommerer, who spends his time trying to outwit the system; Lena, a woman infected by suspicion and paranoia; and the unnamed narrator, who spends quite a lot of time crossing the border to visit family and friends.
The best time to cross the border at Heirich Heine Strasse is between twelve and two in the afternoon. The checkpoint is almost empty: just one other traveler, with a shepherd dog on a leash, waits under the loudspeaker for his number to be called. I could simply drive up to the shed from which a border official will soon emerge to hand me my numbered ticket. But I know the consequences of crossing the white line unasked: the officer, even if he is there and ready, will wave me back and make me wait until he gives me a sign. I can’t follow impulse: I have to wait for his beckoning hand, and I can’t afford to miss it. The message in this ritual is clear and seems deliberate: I am entering a state where even things that will happen anyway require authorisation.
Much of the book revolves around the narrator collecting stories of people “jumping the wall”, which are told anecdotal style in this plot-free narrative. Many of these anecdotes show the ingenious (and sometimes hilarious) lengths people will go to, the risks they will take, to outwit the system and cross the border — and the absurdity of having to risks their lives to jump through such hoops.
The author’s overall message seems to be that even with the wall removed, there would still be divisions between east and west, because it is difficult for people to ignore the way they are raised and the political values to which their society subscribes. Or, as the narrator puts it:
Pommerer and I can dissociate ourselves from our states as much as we like, but we can’t speak to each other without having our states speak for us. If I insist on majorities as instinctively as Pommerer distrusts them, it is because we have been equally receptive sons of the system that has brought us up.
Such ingrained attitudes become apparent when both of them witness a violent protest in the street one day: the narrator thinks the protest is purely an act of spontaneity; Pommerer believes it is a set-up by police designed to give them reason to prevent a real protest at a later date.
The Wall Jumper’s short length might suggest it’s a quick read, but it is actually quite heavy going, seeing as it explores many big issues — freedom, repression, the line between the state and the self, propaganda and politics, capitalism and communism, to name but a few — and does so in a dry, authoritative style, occasionally lightened by humour. Indeed, I had to double-check this wasn’t a non-fiction book when I began it, because it feels like reportage or long-form journalism.
But as a slice of fictionalised history it does an important job of showing how people lived their lives in the shadow of the Cold War’s most tangible symbol.