Post-Reunification or Workers’ Novel?: The Zeroes of the Eastern Workers
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You were born in Saxony in 1985. They smoke and drink, work hard and don’t necessarily earn well. Domenico Müllensiefen writes about three friends in Leipzig after the reunion without bitterness or laziness.
Heiko, Thomas and Karsten have been friends since childhood. Now that Thomas is dead, one day in July 2014, Heiko is at the scene of the accident as an undertaker. Karsten is in America and the three have somehow lost their friendship. They are almost 30 now, except Thomas, who will never be 30. Born in 1985, children of the GDR in their last months.
And children growing up in the newly reunited Germany in Saxony, in Leipzig, which at the time hardly had the hip and forward-looking atmosphere that the city is so hyped about now. It’s the nineties, the adults are somehow trying to cope. The children feel their anger and frustration and at the same time the claim that they must be able to cope with this new system, whose promises seem to be within reach.
Thomas’ father owns a slaughterhouse and butcher’s shop, so at least one of them has the prospect of a job. Karsten’s father fled to the West, leaving his mother in debt. Heiko’s parents have a banquet hall in their own house where they drink all the time. A few years later, Thomas’s family goes bankrupt, as the West German meat companies have won the price war for increasingly cheaper meat from every long-standing craft company. Karsten becomes Saxony’s best student, so good that they even kiss him in America. And Heiko first learned to be an electrician, then became a pizza driver, before finally landing in the funeral business. His father died of cancer the year he was going to go to Kenya.
“Seize the day”
Heiko looks back on all this as he prepares Thomas for the funeral. He washes his friend’s body, including the spot with the tattoo that the friends drank together in Amsterdam – anyway: the words Carpe Diem and the wings of a windmill. They were determined to light their fires. Not like when they burned textbooks. Anyway. Live life to the fullest, drive big cars, have a wife, earn a lot of money.
They are not such big dreams, but they are also the 2000s. In East Germany unemployment is high, the model residential areas of the late GDR years degenerate into neighborhoods for stragglers, smoking, drinking, fighting at every football match when all frustration is gone. released. If you can, get out. But Thomas and Heiko don’t want to leave and even those who try to jump sometimes come back, driven by homesickness. It’s a homecoming that feels like a defeat.
Domenico Müllensiefen finds a story for these very difficult years with “From Our Fires”. The author, born in Magdeburg in 1987, turns it into a coming-of-age story that is East German and universal at the same time. The upheavals of Heiko, Thomas and Karsten’s childhood and youth reunion years shine through everywhere. At the same time, because of their social location outside of startups and Bionade Biedermeier, what was once seen as the working class environment, they are the workers of the new federal states.
There are craftsmen, construction workers, undertakers, people who used to earn well as skilled laborers and could work a house for themselves. A shift where “those up there” are scolded, always with a hint of xenophobia, and yet everyone is on the mat at 6am to open hatches, disassemble pigs or connect cables. In post-reunification Saxony, they are told how to write cover letters and that call centers always have work. You can hardly think of a house, the cars come from shady dealers and are actually rubbish, you hardly earn any more with work, but with all kinds of rogue deals.
soccer and women
Müllensiefen describes how it works from the point of view of his I-narrator Heiko. His electrician training includes instruction in the stealing of nonferrous metals, as well as drinking and the ubiquitous smoking, pornography, discipline and the almost tender camaraderie in the crappy underground mechanic’s quarters. Football and women, that’s what the conversations are about, who has sex, who doesn’t, who has lost and why. Lok Leipzig, European Cup opponent of Ajax Amsterdam and SSC Naples in the late 1980s, now plays in the second division, so you can also speak of relegation.
Müllensiefen writes dialogues of painful authenticity without exposing his characters. Men are called Mike and Maik or Raik, women Mandy or Jana, like Heiko’s first love, whose father was in the Stasi. Then the Stasi and its associated state was over and his wife ran away. Since then, alcohol has filled this void.
The time from Thomas’ death to the funeral, Heiko naturally also digs his grave, interweaving garbage with flashbacks. Heiko somehow tries to find his place while his mother offers him potential partners. Thomas wanders into the “Reichsbürger” scene and Karsten seems to be making his fortune in America. It is only when he returns to the funeral that it becomes clear: that too has failed.
Despite this, Müllensiefen never becomes bitter or self-pitying. Things are as they are. Thomas is dead, his father now works with the West German meat manufacturer. Karsten is back and Juliane is suddenly sitting next to Heiko. When she strokes his hand, she simply wipes away all fear and worry. But if you’ve learned one thing, it’s this: anything can change at any time.