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1989 in fiction: a story that is not a story

By Blog Admin, on 17 November 2012

Tim Beasley-Murray on a story that slips under the radar of history

Pictures of 1989 - Exterior

Photo: Gribsche (Rob Sinclair). Creative Commons license via Flickr

Peter Pišťanek’s Rivers of Babylon is the best-selling Slovak novel of all time.  It tells the story of Rácz, a peasant from the Hungarian- speaking countryside, who arrives in Bratislava in Autumn 1989 and finds a job stoking up the boilers of the city’s top hotel.  With a combination of priapic brutality, Nietzschean will-to-power, and control of the heating in a freezing winter, he rises with meteoric speed to become, by the summer 1990, the head of a criminal empire, with the Hotel Ambassador, the city and its politicians in his pocket.

 This riotous and irrepressible novel is a combination of things: a video-nasty subversion of the Bildungsroman; a vicious satire of (Slovak) notions of the ethnic and moral purity of the countryside and the corruption and vice of the city (after all, it is Rácz who corrupts the city and not the other way round); and, with its cast of ballet-dancers-turned-prostitutes, intellectuals-turned-pornographers, secret policemen-turned-mafiosi and so forth, a Rabelaisian carnival of the birth of wild-East capitalism.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book, however, is what it does not portray:  Rácz meteoric rise coincides exactly with the period that sees the fall of the Berlin Wall, mass demonstrations in November against the Communist regime in Prague and Bratislava, the resignation of the Presidium of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the election of Václav Havel to the presidency at the end of December, and finally, in June, the first free elections in Czechoslovakia since 1946.  None of this appears in the novel.

Much of the action of the novel occurs on the square immediately in front of the Hotel Ambassador, a square on which (if we are allowed to map the urban geography of fiction onto its unmistakable real-world equivalent) many of the demonstrations of that tumultuous Autumn took place.  We may, if we half close our eyes for a moment, imagine the crowds of earnest demonstrators mingling with Pišťanek’s motley band of Swedish sex tourists, onanistic car-park attendants and gypsy pickpockets, but Pišťanek does not show us that.  This novel is both absolutely about the fall of Communism and the revolution of 1989 and, at the same time, resolutely unwilling or unable to represent these events.

Something similar can be observed in similar Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film, ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’  Here, in Autumn 1989, shortly before the fall of the wall, a middle-aged woman and still faithful Communist party-member happens to observe her son, Alex, being arrested for taking part in an anti-regime protest of the streets of East Berlin.  The shock is such that she suffers a heart-attack and falls into a coma.  While she is motionless in her hospital bed, the world around her changes unrecognizably: the wall comes down, a revolution of consumer culture takes place, and, eight months later when she comes to consciousness again, Germany is about formally to reunify.

 On her return to recover at home, however, such is her fragile state of health that the doctors fear that the slightest shock may be fatal, so Alex, her son, decides to hide from her the fact that the German Democratic Republic and the everyday world that it inhabited (a world that seemed forever) is no more.  In what follows, Alex attempts, by means of comic subterfuge, to recreate East Germany within the walls of their flat, keeping a whole way of life on life-support.  At the end of the film, the mother dies and the film leaves a deliberate ambiguity as to whether she has, in the end, seen though her son’s elaborate charade.

 Three points can be made: first, in film the changes of 1989, depending on the shifting perspectives with which we as viewers are encouraged to identify, both shown and not shown, registered and not registered.  Second, at least from the mother’s perspective, the seismic event of the Wende is not the shock.  Shock occurs beforehand in the form of her son’s arrest.  Revolution does its eruptive business somewhere else and the ticking bomb of shock appears never to go off. And third, the real story that the film tells is not the story of how a newly reunified Germany comes into being, but rather the uchronic story of the creation of an alternative East Germany that Alex simulates in order to hide the reality of what has happened from his mother.  This is an East Germany in which former cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn replaces Erich Honnecker as leader, where the regime dismantles the wall to let in refugees fleeing hardship in the West, the East Germany, as Alex tells us, that he would have wanted to live in.

Bruegel, Pieter de Oude - De val van icarus - hi res

Bruegel, The Fall of Icarus

Both Pišťanek’s and Becker’s fictions show, and do not show 1989. They tell its story and they tell other parallel and divergent stories.  They are seismographs of its upheavals whose needles scarcely flicker. They are like Brueghel’s famous painting of the Fall of Icarus (and W.H Auden’s poem on the subject): somewhere in the background the dramatic event happens and Icarus falls to earth.  But in the foreground, the ploughman keeps on ploughing the furrow of the everyday.

 In order to understand this situation, what needs to be examined is the curious nature of 1989 and what it is about the structure of those events that issue in unrepresentability.  More than the other great upheavals that history has witnessed, the upheavals were dominated not by what we might imagine to be the usual questions of politics or, indeed, economics: questions of justice, legal or social questions about access to the public sphere and a right to representation, questions of equality, whether political or material, and so forth.  Rather, the key questions that were at stake in 1989 were those of the determination of the standards of, and the right to a normal life.   As Joe Moran puts it in his essay ‘November in Berlin’:

 ‘My favourite Berlin Wall story is the one about the East Berliner who borrowed three books from the American Memorial Library in West Berlin a few days before the Wall was erected in August 1961, and then returned them all in pristine condition on November 10, 1989. This story seems to encapsulate the capacity of everyday routines to survive the most dramatic interruptions, and the loyalty of people to mundane tasks and communal rules. It is also symptomatic of the events of November 1989, which were truly a revolution of the everyday: they were about being able to commute and walkabout the city, visit friends, go to work, and take your library books back.’

 A revolution about the right to return library books, 1989 was a revolution in the name of the normal.  Now, the exceptional – great feats and deeds – is what stories are about.  The normal is not the stuff of representation.  The consequence is that representations of 1989 are strange hollow shells. They have a structure of a story, a story of the exceptional, but, since their content is that of normality, those structures are empty.  Indeed, one might suggest that that 1989 has to be understood as a story about not telling stories.  A story that about slips under the radar of history because it is precisely about slipping under that radar.  An upheaval that is keen not to make much noise.


Tim Beasley-Murray
is Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture at UCL-SSEES.  This post draws  on his research on silence and speech and on work that he doing on conceptions of exceptionality and and normality in the political philosophy of Czech dissidents.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL