The Wall Jumper is an interesting book. It’s the first narrative account I’ve read where sections start with bullet points. It is fragmented and especially in the beginning proceeds in a journalistic style (Schneider is a journalist). But it does have a sense of continuity and an ending. I love the subtle humour, but there’s also sadness.
So the book is narrated by a West German before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is about the experience of living in a divided city. We hear the two perspectives through the characters who live on either side. There are naughty teenagers who keep jumping over the wall illegally, and a grown-up with an obsession for wall-jumping. East and West Germans live physically very close to each other, but parts of the book make you think they are worlds apart:
Through the half-open window I can hear the voices of two workers taking it easy on the scaffolding during their morning break. The plank they’re sitting on runs level with the top of my window; I only see their four dangling legs.
“The DDR will be world champion in soccer at the next Olympics.”
“Not a chance!” I’ll bet you a case of beer!”
“Okay, a case! They can do it, they go at it scientifically! Listen – you know Alex, my uncle’s grandson over there? He has a classmate, she’s an ace swimmer. She’s two heads in the lead at the starting gun, I’ve seen it myself. Yeah, so they take someone like that out of school, she won’t have to study Russian anymore, they give her a couple of shots and work her until she’s as slippery as an eel. It’s not pretty, but you get results.”
“In swimming, sure – in swimming. Swimming is drill-work, and when you’re talking drill, they can beat us. But soccer? Not a chance! You can’t get anywhere by drilling – you need player personality, that’s what, you need a feel for the ball, and you can’t get that feel by drilling! You can teach a robot anything, but not that feel for the ball! (134-135)”
When I visited the DDR museum in Berlin, I was more interested in people’s interest in the objects and pictures displayed than the objects themselves. Unlike other museums I visited, a good proportion of the visitors were locals (Germans), and they were carefully examining the everyday objects that East Germans used, as if they were in Pitt Rivers Museum.
The narrator pokes fun at DDR and its self-proclaimed independent status, and refers to “German-German” relations being strained by this and that. The book has atmospheric sections as well:
It isn’t midnight yet when we reach Pommerer’s place; but when I open the door to his study; it’s as though I’ve come to the wrong apartment in my vodka haze. Blue lightning streaks through the room; the table, the chair, the bed, the books dance in a shower of sparks. In the course of the evening, one wing of the new building by the window has grown another story. Two workers kneel on the cement floor and solder iron parts.
“To the West they gild, in the East we build,” says Pommerer, and wishes me goodnight.
The next morning I go to the department store across the street and ask for the stationary section. I purchase a notebook for 84 pfennigs and return to sit down with it at Pommerer’s desk. Since last night the inexorably growing high-rise has blocked my view of the television tower. The crane swings close by the window; now and again, the screeching of winches and the squealing of the crane are punctuated by yelled half-sentences that fly back and forth between the operator and the workers in the pit. I watch the operator execute a half-turn that brings him face to face with me. We are now on the same level, and we light cigarettes at almost the same time (56-57).
This above section also shows the skill of the translator Leigh Hafrey (see the rhyming gild-build!). But I’m cross to see that he hasn’t been given any visibility in the book. There are two biographies in the front end-paper; when I first saw them I immediately assumed it would be the author and the translator and gave Penguin a pat on the shoulder in my head, before realising, to my horror, that the second biography is that of Ian McEwan, who wrote a 9-page introduction to a 139-page novel, praising himself among other things. Moreover, there are occasional footnotes in the text, and we don’t know if they’re the translator’s notes or the editor’s. I don’t approve!
My next read will be Tahar ben Jelloun’s A Palace in the Old Village. It is his most recent novel in English, and I waited for the book to be available for a few months after I heard the author talk about it in an event in London. I’m sure it will be worth the wait…