In this humorous book on the former East German state (GDR), the author has his tongue placed firmly in his cheek. He retells Proust’s famous Madeleine moment in detail, only to depict how an old bottle of Eastern Bloc red wine caused him to spew it out in an arc.
This book has you wondering whether the author is inventing something or telling an absurd historical fact. Far more than one may imagine is actually based on fact, the author’s own experiences serving as the starting point. This book is full of absurd ideas while still portraying everyday life. This is not the world of artists being surveilled, oppressed, and blackmailed all day long as in movies like “The Lives of Others”. The charm of the book is to portray everyday life and ordinary people. Even a small time crook involved in illegal gambling.
The protagonist receives an invitation to The Society of Unknown Underground German Authors. He isn’t a writer so he thinks they have the wrong person, or it’s some kind of joke. It turns out the East German secret police, the Stasi, intercepted his adolescent love poems to Liane, a girl in the West. Fraternizing with the enemy by letter was obviously highly suspicious.
“I Suggest We Kiss” by Rayk Wieland is in many ways a modern picaresque novel, known in German as a Schelmenroman. A genre name, derived from the Spanish word picaro (German: Schelm), meaning rogue or rascal, which began in the 16th Century. From what I can tell, German literature was early to pick up the genre from Spain. This might explain why the novel has been translated and published in Spain and Argentina.
Parody and biting political satire are firmly rooted in German speaking culture. Here, even the Kafkaesque use of W. is both playful and authentic since the Stasi reports refer to him only via “der/des W.”. The book may have you wondering why you are smiling so often in such a serious context. It’s not laugh-out-loud humor very often. It’s mainly subtle, absurd humor that creeps up on you as you realise the underlying references.
Some of the most hilarious dark humour is to be found in the novel’s appendix. This contains all W.’s poems to Liane which were intercepted by the Stasi. Each poem is commented by the officer scrutinizing every word for signs of enemy activity. Utterly banal things are totally misinterpreted by the paranoid police state.
Here’s an excerpt of one of W.’s adolescent love poems to Liane. The translation is mine and not very good. Translating poetry, even something simple like this, is tricky and requires a lot of time, but you’ll get the gist:
Und nicht nur küssen, meine Liebe.
Ich denke auch an andre Triebe,
Die, weißt du, weiter südlich liegen.
Ich dichte nur. Um dich zu kriegen.
And not only kisses, my Love.
I also think of other passions,
Ones which, you know, lie farther south**.
Poetry I only write. That I may get you.
** “farther south” is interpreted by the Stasi to mean possible escape with Western girlfriend to Portugal🙂
Making light of a dictatorship may not be to everyone’s liking, but the author has a Stasi file himself and people deal with difficult times in different ways. In bad times, we often say “One day we’ll laugh about this.” Rayk Wieland does just that in this novel.