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.
15 thoughts on “‘The Wall Jumper’ by Peter Schneider”
Oh wow! How did this one slip under my radar? I love this period, having lived for most of my childhood in Communism and then for a year in West Germany. I love books on Communism, life after, life during, the feeling of dislocation in the post Iron Curtain Europe. Thanks for reviewing it.
Fantastic new site! Looks great and I can’t wait for more reviews!
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Thanks, Kinga. I’d not heard of it before either, but stumbled upon it by chance while browsing in Blackwell’s earlier in the summer.
Oh, and thanks for the being the first person to comment on this new blog!
I would recommend Stasiland, as well, but best leave it for a bit, like you said. Did we ever chat about Good bye Lenin? It’s a film, but fits the period we’re discussing so well!
I’m not the most frequent commenter, but I do always read your reviews and thoughts on books. I missed your blog while you’ve been working behind the scenes.
So glad that RM has returned! No more star ratings?
I removed ratings because I became increasingly disheartened by commenters saying they wouldn’t read anything to which I’d given three stars to, yet these were very good reads. I also noticed that people were merely looking at the ratings and not actually reading the reviews (which take a lot of time and effort to write), so best solution was to do away with them. You can always check my GoodRead Account for star ratings…
This sounds like a good one for my book club – we try to have at least one German/Swiss author each year as a nod to living in a German speaking country. On the subject of East & West Germany, we read Anna Funder’s Stasiland last year and had some lively discussion. Your comment re it reading like non-fiction is particularly interesting as this is exactly how Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World reads. I loved it and was disappointed she didn’t make the Booker shortlist.
Sounds like this book will fit your book group’s needs perfectly. It’s a very slim volume but certainly lots in it to discuss. I have Stasiland in my pile and actually planned to read it back-to-back with this one, but changed my mind, as there is only so much repression/oppression I can take in a short space of time. I will get around to reading it eventually.
Wonderful book isn’t it I read it a couple of years ago he really caught the time so well rather like wenders did in his ode to Berlin wings of desire
Not so much as wonderful (it’s a bit too dry for that) as intriguing. I enjoyed the glimpse of a different time and place, a real snapshot of history, so to speak.
Yes he caught time so well
Star ratings are so fraught with problems!
Wanted to leave you a quick note that I love the new look, Kim, and am glad to see Reading Matters back up and running. It took me a moment to figure out where to click (thank you for the how-to page), but the focus on book covers on the home page reminds me of seeing books in the shops or at the library. Clicking through to your reviews is like flipping over the book to read the back.
Thanks for your kind words, Christina. I wanted the design to look like a table of books with enticing covers on show, so I’m delighted you recognise this! The template is actually for photographers/artists to showcase their images, but I thought it was suitable for book covers, too. I hope the look entices people to click covers they like and to perhaps explore my archive in a way they haven’t done so before.