No Man's Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Since receiving the award of the Gruppe 47 in 1955 and the publication of a collection of his short prose works the same year, Martin Walser has been one of the most popular and prolific writers in postwar West Germany. Apart from a steady stream of novels and novellas, many of which have been translated into English, he has published dramatic works for the stage and radio in addition to numerous essays and translations. Author of a published dissertation on Franz Kafka and editor of a selection of Kafka’s works as well, Walser has received his country’s most prestigious literary prizes. He has lectured and taught at universities both at home and in the United States. In one of his most recent works (Brandung, 1985; Breakers, 1987), he exploits and fictionalizes the experience accumulated during a semester of teaching at Berkeley during the fall semester of 1983.

The novella No Man’s Land, first published in German in 1987 as Dorle und Wolf returns to a specifically German problem, the division of Germany after World War II into two states, each committed to one of the opposing ideological powers of the Cold War. In an interview conducted in December; 1983, Walser disparagingly termed the two countries “model students” of these powers, both trapped in a situation of submissive dependence that he considers a national embarrassment. He put the identical term into the thoughts of the main character in No Man’s Land as he ruminates about the fate of postwar Germany: “Each vied with the other as an ardent shieldbearer for the camp to which it had been allocated. Each wanted to be a model student in its own school.” Walser stressed the provisional nature of the situation in the interview, dismissing foreign fears of a united Germany as “grotesque” and pointing to the postwar institutionalization of democracy in West Germany. He argued that a union of the two nations is of paramount importance to all Germans while he consciously avoided the politically explosive word “reunification.” With the exception of a brief period of direct support of the German Communist Party in the late 1960’s, Walser has pointedly limited his expression of political views to his literary works. As a writer living at the historical moment of a divided Germany, he seeks to prevent this moment from becoming a final and definitive reality in public consciousness. He contends that the national partition is artificial and unjustly punitive for the generations removed in history from the era of National Socialism. As reflected in the character and perceptions of Wolf Zieger, the main figure in No Man’s Land, the political split has had profound effects on the individual lives of both West and East Germans.

Wolf, an East German spy living close to the source of state power in Bonn with his wife Dorle, a secretary at the Ministry of Defense, has had fifteen years of apparent success in delivering classified technical data to his superiors in East Berlin. Walser commences his narration at the point in Wolf’s career when these activities have come into an increasingly unbearable conflict with his love for his wife. It is the growing sense of illegitimacy in his relationship with her rather than qualms about the illegality of his situation that finally forces upon him the decision to surrender to West German authorities. Fully aware of the facts of her husband’s double life, including the longstanding affair with her colleague and his intermediary, Sylvia Wellershoff, Dorle has delayed having children for the sake of his career. Yet against his will and as he can admit only to himself, Wolf has answered Dorle’s trust with betrayal. He feigns disinterest in Sylvia’s sexual allures and asserts that their physical relationship has meant nothing to him. The liaison, Wolf tells his wife, is an odious but necessary part of the deal he has made with her in exchange for copies of secret protocols. In the bedroom scenes with Sylvia, however, Wolf falls eager prey to her erotic banter and prowess. With Dorle, on the other hand, he turns to a copy of Friedrich Schiller’s romantic tragedy about Joan of Arc, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801; The Maid of Orleans, 1835). Ironically, Dorle falls asleep while he reads passages aloud to her in search of the self-justification he hopes to find in the lofty idealism and earthly limitations of Schiller’s heroine. The ethicist in Wolf’s character, a trait inherited from his Prussian forebears; does battle with the sensualist, finally dictating that he provide his thirty-five- year-old wife with the desired child and cease his illicit relationship with Sylvia. His voluntary surrender marks the triumph of the ethicist and an escape from the moral “no man’s land” between Dorle and Sylvia into which his espionage had forced him. In terms of generic structure, this act also signals the turning point in the plot, a shift to the courtroom drama of his trial in the latter third of the novella.

Contrite only about the betrayal of his wife, Wolf is unable to...

(The entire section is 2080 words.)

No Man's Land Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, January 1, 1989, p.753.

Boston Globe. January II, 1989, p.67.

Chicago Tribune. January 22, 1989, XIV, p.7.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, December 15, 1988, p.1771.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p.103.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 1, 1989, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, January 22, 1989, p.8.

The New Yorker. LXV, October 9, 1989, p.132.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 28, 1988, p.62.

Tribune Books. January 22, 1989, p.7.

The Washington Post. March 3, 1989, p. D3.