Survival in the unreality of Orwellian reality

This is my review of Red Love: The Story of an East German Family (B-Format Paperback) by Maxim Leo.

When Maxim Leo and his girlfriend were arrested by the East Berlin police in a final fatuous show of strength before the Wall was opened, she happened to have in her pocket an illegal church newspaper which had been given to Maxim by one of his parents' friends, who had written a piece in it about her reasons for leaving the Communist Party. Maxim was ashamed how quickly he caved in to pressure and "confessed" to all this, although the ultimate irony was that the friend herself turned out to be an informer for the Stasi. It seems that it was hard to avoid being roped into this role – even Maxim's parents almost drifted into performing odd tasks for the Stasi. In another example of the sinister idiocy of the Communist regime, Maxim was denied a place to study for a professional qualification, since his liberal-minded artist father Wolf shouted at his headmistress for allowing machine gun training using live bullets on a school trip to "military camp".

The ludicrous twists of life under a communist regime are legion: on returning from fighting in the German army, Wolf's father Werner makes an arbitrary decision at a tram stop over which line of work to pursue – teaching in a vocational school or stage-set painting: the first tram to arrive takes him east to the teacher training college in the Soviet zone, later blocked off behind the infamous Wall, so he becomes a Communist by chance, this being the best way of "getting on" in the GDR. Maxim's maternal grandfather Gerhard fought for the French resistance in his youth, but opts for life in East Germany because, in his rejection of fascism he convinces himself that communism will create a fairer society. Thus, Gerhard and Werner, who come by very different routes to support the same surreally oppressive and sclerotic system, subject their families to lives of petty restriction and doublethink. It takes Maxim's sensitive, academic mother Anne years to be able to break free psychologically and think for herself. This causes many arguments with her independent-minded husband Wolf. Yet, ironically he finds it much harder to come to terms with freedom when the two Germanies are combined – he seems to feel the need for authority to fight against.

This is a fascinating, wry and often moving account of three generations of an East Berlin family, researched by the author after the fall of the Wall and when it was almost too late to gain first-hand information from his grandparents, who had at least left some written records. Maxim seems to have survived remarkably unscathed mentally by the stress of belonging to an intellectual bourgeois family in a communist regime, perhaps partly because his grandfather Gerhard's status gave him an advantage at times e.g. to get permission to travel abroad, Gerhard's family was in fact relatively quite well off, and, despite all the infighting, Maxim clearly received a good deal of love and attention, particularly from his parents.

My only minor reservation is over what I find to be the irritating tendency to use the "historic present" most of the time. The translator has presumably done this in order to maintain a sense of immediacy as in the original German. Some sentences do not seem to "fit in" to the text, and odd translations such as "fat blanket" for "thick blanket" have already been noted in reviews.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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