The Wall Jumper

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Peter Schneider burst onto the West German literary scene in 1973 with the publication of the short novel Lenz. Although he was fairly well-known on the West German Left for his political writing and activism in the 1960’s, it was this novel that brought Schneider his first widespread notoriety and earned for him nearly universal critical acclaim. Modeled on Georg Büchner’s nineteenth century masterpiece of the same title, the story told of the growing political disillusionment and aimlessness of the young intellectual Lenz. Schneider wrote here primarily of his own experience, but he captured in his novel the confusion and frustration shared by others of his generation as well as the political malaise of the young German Left.

Schneider’s fiction centers on the interplay between the personal and the political in the lives of his protagonists. Like Schneider himself, the figures in his books—often former student activists of the 1960’s—attempt to find their way in contemporary West German society, a society with which they continue to be at odds. For example, his second novel, published in 1975, took up the controversial “radicals decree,” a measure, adopted by the West German state governments in 1972, that had been used to exclude potential “enemies of the constitution” from state employment. The novel documents the repercussions of the decree on the personal life and career of the teacher Kleff, whose earlier student activism is used as grounds for his dismissal. Likewise, the stories in the collection Die Wette (1978, the wager) focused on the effects that the radical politics of the 1960’s and early 1970’s had had upon the personal, nonpolitical life of Schneider’s generation, while his screenplay for Reinhard Hauff’s celebrated film, Messer im Kopf (1979; Knife in the Head, 1981), dealt with the character Hoffmann’s struggle to reestablish his personal and political identity after a bullet wound in the head robs him of his memory and thus of the experiences that had earlier defined his existence. While portrayed here in extreme terms, Hoffmann’s loss of identity is in some ways typical of the central characters in Schneider’s fiction. They too seem to be in search of an elusive former identity, of a sense of community and certainty that had once existed for them but which now has inexplicably vanished. They, like Hoffmann, are in a very real sense stranded and homeless in the midst of their own society.

Schneider returns to the question of personal and political identity in his most recent novel, The Wall Jumper (published in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1982 as Der Mauerspringer). Here, however, he moves beyond the confines of the political struggle in the West in order to explore his theme further within the broader context of the “German Question” and to examine the lasting effects of Germany’s division on the national consciousness. Somewhat surprisingly, Schneider’s book is the first serious German fiction to focus its attention on this question of national identity since Uwe Johnson’s novel Zwei Ansichten in 1965 (Two Views, 1966). Although Germany’s “national trauma” has been the subject of frequent debate and ideological posturing in the political arena, its long literary neglect is perhaps a better indicator of the depth of the psychological scars left by the partitioning of the country into East and West.

The reality of these scars is presented strikingly in the image drawn by Schneider in the opening passage of the book. The narrator describes how a plane, when approaching Berlin to land, must cross over the city and its infamous Wall three times. From the air, the Wall seems in its zigzag course to be “the figment of some anarchic imagination” and “more a civic monument than a border.” To the stranger, the two parts of the city, each with its television tower, stadium, and other public landmarks, are indistinguishable in their sameness. Once on the ground, however, the traveler is forced to realize that only the plane’s shadow is free to move back and forth between the two halves of this “Siamese city.”

For the narrator—like Schneider, a writer who has lived in Berlin for twenty years—the Wall has become something that he, as is the case with most Berliners in East and West, no longer really sees. In both parts of the city, the Wall had lost soon after its construction a good portion of its reality for the city’s residents. In the West, it degenerated quickly to a metaphor and became the “Wall of Shame” that marked the border between freedom and Communist tyranny, a “mirror that told [Germans in the West], day by day, who was the fairest one of all”; in the East, the Wall—officially proclaimed as the anti-Fascist “Bulwark of Peace”—was merely the state border, beyond which a “foreign” and hostile neighbor resided.

It is this perplexing indifference to the Wall that causes the narrator to reflect upon its effects on the mentality of Berlin’s citizens. He explains his decision to collect stories about life in the divided city: “I’m not sure of my purpose in collecting these stories. It isn’t the sense of an unbearable situation that has pushed me to the project; rather, my uneasiness at the absence of that sense.” It is an uneasiness that grows, too, from the observation that the ideological antagonism of the two opposing systems “had...

(The entire section is 2240 words.)