Jurek Becker Becker, Jurek (Vol. 7) - Essay

Becker, Jurek (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Becker, Jurek 1937–

Becker, a Polish author living in East Germany, writes primarily for the screen and stage. His first novel, Jacob the Liar, was originally conceived as a screenplay. It was not until Becker rewrote the story as a novel, however, that it achieved international success.

Jurek Becker, the East German novelist, is above all things a sane writer, and this is not to damn with faint praise. His work has all the qualities associated with sanity: a sense of proportion, humour, lightness of touch, a voice never raised above talking pitch. His first novel, Jakob der Lügner (1970), has a subtlety and gentle irony reminiscent of Gogol. In it Becker showed the struggle for survival in a Polish ghetto during the war….

In Irreführung der Behörden Becker has made the transition from "überleben" (surviving) to "leben" (living)….

Irreführung is not a political novel, though perhaps the sheer delight of pursuing personal relationships is tinged with guilt. Throughout there is a feeling of quiet affection for Bienek/Becker's own part of Berlin—the East where he lives because he chooses to. It is made definitively clear that the wrong side is the West when [Gregor Bienek, the protagonist,] refuses offers of help to get published from an old friend he runs into in West Berlin….

Like many other contemporary novelists, Becker has written a story which is close to himself as he is now, and so a kind of paralysis sets in; the writer cannot get nearer to himself because he is already there, and nothing more can be discovered.

It is, however, in the very "stories which seem incidental to me" that the strength of Irreführung lies. Fantasy, already prominent in Jakob with its wish-fulfilment alternative ending, plays an even stronger part here. The magic key which unlocks all doors for true lovers, the teeth made of a precious mineral, the intending thieves who set about building a new road to facilitate their robbery, the imaginary trip to Japan with Hirohito, weave in and out of the main narrative and occasionally merge with it….

In both novels Jurek Becker portrays his characters with perceptive kindness and reveals them with healing humour. In Jakob he achieved the exact balance of detached involvement necessary to create a work of art. If he takes to heart the criticism made of Bienek in Irreführung, that "You mislead your readers and give them old hat", there is no reason why he should, like one of the characters in the book, continue to "rest on his laurels".

"Ordinary Living," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 21, 1973, p. 1557.

The Yiddish storyteller Sholem Aleichem has found a worthy descendant in Jurek Becker. (p. 5)

[In Jacob the Liar] Becker's nameless narrator, a survivor of an entire shtetl sent off to the extermination camp, has eschewed strident tones and conveys his story through understatement and irony. Lament and accusation are avoided. The horror is often conveyed parenthetically. Neither aggressive nor angry, the novel is astonishingly gentle, while Becker's composure has nothing in common with lukewarm reconciliation. (p. 6)

Becker, like Sholem Aleichem [in Dreyfus in Kasvilevka], makes use of two narratives, the past story itself and its present telling or unburdening by the narrator. The effect is one of reliving the fate of his community while providing for himself some overview and distance from those events. Becker's narrator, recognizing the impossibility of understanding his survival, admits "my caprice has no limits." He can permit his imagination but not his reality to spin off happy endings for his community. The tension between his necessarily naïve belief in logic and the realization that the belief is and was naïve leads to the irony in the novel, as it does in the stories of Sholem Aleichem.

In order to survive, Sholem Aleichem's characters accept compromise. Such compromise does not exist for Becker's characters, since choice is taken from them. While a good-natured humor flows from a situation of compromise in the former, the humor in the latter hovers on the edge of despair. Jacob's lie, because it is life-giving, is in constant need of replenishment in order to make it viable. That search provides the basis for most of the novel's desperate humor. Jacob, having once raised the Jews' hope, can no longer play a neutral role. Either he actively continues and embellishes his lie, in which case he risks raising false hopes and wretched disillusionment, or he abrogates his life-giving role and accepts the Jews' anger and despair. He decides finally to get rid of the Jews. That is, he tries to have nothing to do with them—unsuccessfully. (p. 6-7)

Melvin Kornfeld, in his Preface to Jacob the Liar, by Jurek Becker (© 1975 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1975.