Category: Fiction

Monika Maron
Zwischenspiel
[Between the acts]

Novel

Review

Two sentences in this book function perfectly as headings. The first is: "Guilt remains forever, one way or another." The other is a quote from Strindberg's A Dream Play: “Mankind is to be pitied.” Indeed guilt and mourning: guilt as an existential category and mourning over what has become of a mankind that had so much potential. Both sentences are uttered by a dead person—the 90+ year-old Olga, whose funeral was set to take place on the day of the narrative.

Several decades earlier, the first person narrator, Ruth, had been romantically involved with Olga's son Bernhard, and nearly became her daughter-in-law. On her way to the funeral, Ruth sees a constant shimmer before her eyes that transforms the world into an impressionist painting; and a malfunctioning navigation device directs her to a park in the northeast section of Berlin, where dead people speak to her in this strange limbo, and she is followed by a dog with blue, very human eyes. Even Margot and Erich Honecker make an appearance as a pair of clumsy and eternally embittered undead: ghosts who refuse to face their guilt. Everything is possible in this absurd twilight zone.

Monika Maron's novel “Between the acts” is a book about love, about the failures of life, pain, sorrow and death, and it is also a book about the lost GDR. These are familiar topoi for Maron , yet here she handles them surprisingly surrealistic, light and airy as a summer night’s dream. Could she have lived her life differently? What would have happened, had Ruth not run away before her planned wedding to Bernard, her daughter’s father, because she was afraid of having to care for his disabled son? This flight is the source of her guilt. And yet she is grateful for the decision of that young woman she used to be, because it allowed her to live another life, her life. After the fall of the wall, she discovered that Bernhard had been a Stasi informant, and even used his own daughter (without her knowledge) to get information about Ruth and her husband - what would become of him?

Life is not predictable. But maybe it takes days like these, that act as an “interlude” from the continuum of the everyday life, that make it possible to reflect on one’s personal history with a bit of distance and madness. The Stasi baggage will always be horrific, but it also is a thing of the past. The consequences of betraying confidence and the failure of love carry far more weight. What made the GDR so agonizing was precisely the fact that everything of a personal nature was politically formed and deformed; breaking free of it, therefore, meant depoliticizing the guilt. What is a Stasi story compared to the vast abysses of love? The strength of Maron's reflection is this: “Mankind is to be pitied,” even if she, or rather her narrator, is also included in this maxim. Guilt remains forever, one way or another. The question is how to live with it and what we do with it.

What is this self actually, I thought, if the self of one’s youth is so foreign to the older self, as if it had never been part of it. Where are the different Selves of our past life to whom we owe so great a debt in the end?” In “Zwischenspiel” they all come together, and all of them have their claim to being right and to their guilt. A powerfully serene calmness towards life, and death, radiates from the pages of this exquisitely poetic novel.  
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By Jörg Magenau, 18.06.2014

Jörg Magenau is an author and literary critic for newspapers and radio, including Süddeutsche Zeitung and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. His most recently published book is titled, "Princeton '66: Die Abeteneuerliche Reise der Gruppe 47" (Klett-Cotta).

Translated by Zaia Alexander