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Rummelplatz (2007)

by Werner Bräunig

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1032220,493 (3.91)11
Werner Bräunig was once regarded as the great hope of East German literature--until an extract from Rummelplatz was read before the East German censorship authorities in 1965, and fierce opposition summarily sealed its fate. The novel's sin? It painted an all too accurate picture of East German society. Rummelplatz, translated here by Samuel P. Willcocks, focuses on a notorious East German uranium mine, run by the Soviets and supplying the brotherland's nuclear program. Veterans, fortune seekers, and outsiders with tenuous family ties like narrator Peter Loose flock to the well-paying mine, but soon find their new lives bleak. Safety provisions are almost nonexistent and tools are not adequately supplied. The only outlets for workers are the bars and fairgrounds where copious amounts of alcohol are consumed and brawls quickly ensue. In Rummelplatz, Bräunig paints his characters as intrinsically human and treats the death of each worker, no matter how poor, as a great tragedy. Bräunig occupies a cultlike status in Germany, and this new translation of his masterpiece is an excellent introduction for English-language readers.   Praise for the German edition "One of the best novels of postwar Germany. . . . The narrative force and the emotional punch are sensational."--Die Zeit "An event in literary history and one 'helluva' novel."--Der Spiegel… (more)
  1. 10
    5 Days in June by Stefan Heym (thorold)
    thorold: Two, similar, dissident socialist views of the 17th of June 1953
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German (1)  English (1)  All languages (2)
Rummelplatz was Bräunig's only novel, intended as the first part of a trilogy charting the early history of the DDR. It opens with the declaration of the East German state in October 1949 and ends with the failed popular rising of 17 June 1953. He advertised quite widely that he was working on this project, and published several excerpts in magazines up to 1965, when he suddenly found himself the object of an organised campaign of criticism by everyone from Walter Ulbricht to people who claimed to have been his colleagues in the mine. It doesn't seem to be clear whether the criticism was really directed at his book (which hardly anyone had actually read in manuscript), or whether he was just a convenient scapegoat for Ulbricht's plan to introduce more restrictive cultural policies. The book was attacked on the grounds of political deviation and moral degeneracy, but it seems likely that its setting in the Wismut mines — owned and run as a "war-reparation" operation by the Soviet Union and supplying 60% of its uranium — would also have been highly embarrassing to the DDR leadership. Other writers, including Christa Wolf (who was a candidate for the Central Committee at the time) spoke up in his defence, but to no effect. After the campaign against it, it was clear that no-one was ever going to publish it, and Bräunig took to hack-work and the bottle. A censored excerpt appeared in an anthology in 1981, but the novel was only published in full in 2007, 18 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The novel follows the experiences of a loosely-connected group of young characters, most of them industrial workers, and uses the detailed description of their ordinary working lives to illustrate what is going on in the DDR. Most of the book takes place in and around the Wismut uranium mines. This extremely vivid realism ("merciless realism" as Wolf calls it) is the key thing that makes this book stand out. There aren't many novels that describe work convincingly from the worker's point of view, and Rummelplatz is definitely up there with the best of them. I think this is the only novel I've read about miners that focusses on what they do and why, rather than on the conditions they do it in. That's not to say that the book is all in realist mode: there are also quite a number of passages where characters go off into Tolstoy-style reflections on the big historical picture, and in the later parts also some passages in a more modernist stream-of-consciousness style that feels a bit like Berlin, Alexanderplatz. Although this is intended as a political novel, it's on the human level that it's most powerful and most engaging. The use of voices, technical vocabulary, dialect, and sheer everyday detail is brilliant.

A Rummelplatz is a fairground, but the literal translation would be something like "place of disorder" — Bräunig uses it as an image in both senses. Bräunig's idea seems to be to show us the DDR growing up in the chaotic situation of the immediate post-war period, with all the human, political and economic challenges thrown up by trying to establish socialism in a state damaged by the experience of the Third Reich, defeated in war, and artificially split along borders that left widely-disparate amounts of resources in East and West (the East starts out with a quarter of the engineering industry, but only about 1% of the coal and steel production, for example). The theoretical notions of Marx are hard to apply in this messy situation where socialists who spent much of the last fifteen years in jail or in exile find themselves having to work with former Nazis; there are still close family and business ties between East and West that have to be disentangled, and there is a porous border that becomes increasingly attractive as the economic situation worsens. He cleverly shows us how the system discourages risk-taking and responsibility at low levels, and how this leads both to inefficient use of scarce resources and to the increasingly paranoid security state. It's not an entirely unbiased account: there is a strong element of caricature in the way the West German characters are portrayed, he's silent about things like the Russians' confiscation of everything that wasn't bolted down (and many things that were, right down to railway tracks) as war reparations, and he's careful not to discuss any individual East German leaders. The description of the 17th of June also diverges quite a bit from the accounts you see in West German sources (especially Bräunig's suggestion that Nazi activists played a leading role). All the same, he's very frank about things like the brutal behaviour of the police and Stasi. And he makes it clear where the uranium the miners dig up is going, and what it's intended to be used for. It's not hard to imagine why the book was suppressed. Even in Britain, it wouldn't have been possible for someone working in the nuclear industry to publish a book about uranium mining: he'd have had the Official Secrets Act waved in front of his face before he even got the typewriter out.

Lost masterpiece? Possibly. It's a bit patchy, and obviously Bräunig never had the heart to polish the manuscript into a definitive form, but it's certainly a very impressive book, and a unique document of a period that isn't very well known. It's not hard to imagine that, with a few of the rough edges taken off it, the trilogy would have been a masterpiece if it had ever been completed. And who knows: if the DDR had been the sort of state where people who wrote like that were encouraged, it might still have been with us today. ( )
1 vote thorold | Nov 14, 2014 |
Rummelplatz verscheen in 2007 in Duitsland en was toen een kleine sensatie. Hierin wordt niet alleen een authentiek beeld geschetst van een verdwenen wereld, maar Bräunig bleek ook een man met diepzinnige gedachten die met veel inlevingsvermogen zijn personages heeft beschreven en hun ontwikkeling gevolgd.
added by thorold | editDe Volkskrant, Jan Luijten (Dec 6, 2014)
 

» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Werner Bräunigprimary authorall editionscalculated
Drescher, AngelaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Willcocks, SamuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wolf, ChristaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Werner Bräunig was once regarded as the great hope of East German literature--until an extract from Rummelplatz was read before the East German censorship authorities in 1965, and fierce opposition summarily sealed its fate. The novel's sin? It painted an all too accurate picture of East German society. Rummelplatz, translated here by Samuel P. Willcocks, focuses on a notorious East German uranium mine, run by the Soviets and supplying the brotherland's nuclear program. Veterans, fortune seekers, and outsiders with tenuous family ties like narrator Peter Loose flock to the well-paying mine, but soon find their new lives bleak. Safety provisions are almost nonexistent and tools are not adequately supplied. The only outlets for workers are the bars and fairgrounds where copious amounts of alcohol are consumed and brawls quickly ensue. In Rummelplatz, Bräunig paints his characters as intrinsically human and treats the death of each worker, no matter how poor, as a great tragedy. Bräunig occupies a cultlike status in Germany, and this new translation of his masterpiece is an excellent introduction for English-language readers.   Praise for the German edition "One of the best novels of postwar Germany. . . . The narrative force and the emotional punch are sensational."--Die Zeit "An event in literary history and one 'helluva' novel."--Der Spiegel

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