Category: Fiction

Lutz Seiler
Stern 111
[Star 111]

Novel

A visionary take on the Wende

For a long time Germany waited expectantly for the epic novel about the Wende - for a definitive and truly worthy literary treatment of the great theme of the unification of the two Germanies. Gradually, however, the realisation dawned that in fact there was probably never going to be an all-embracing magnum opus of that sort, and that instead a whole succession of novelists would over the years shine a light on specific aspects of the topic and thereby bring it as vividly to life as their individual narrative skills allowed.

More recently, indeed, the issue appeared to have taken a back seat - until the 30th anniversary of unification served to bring it to the fore once again. Lutz Seiler, born in 1963 in the Thuringian town of Gera, was not the only author to respond to the challenge, but his novel Stern 111 stands out from its competitors thanks to a poetic radiance that appears fully worthy of the star in its title. And yet what lies behind it is a mere radio - a portable radio that enabled the 16-year-old in Thuringia to listen-in to the big wide world and which in the process turned into an emblem instinct with promise for the future.

Lutz Seiler had already achieved distinction as a writer of both poetry and prose by the time he won the German Book Prize in 2014 for his first novel, Kruso. Even more than in his debut novel, he weaves autobiographical elements into his new book, making use of the powerful authenticity, rich imagery and sensuous immediacy of his memories to give his fiction additional vitality. Above all, however, he directs our attention to an aspect of the Wende that has not previously found literary expression: the protagonist, Carl Bischoff - time-served bricklayer, ex-soldier, university dropout and aspiring poet - experiences the brief period of transition from one social system to another as a time-window full of risks and opportunities, daring experiments and utopian visions. Such things come to nothing in the face of the ensuing reality with its unyielding mix of the new and the old - but out of the turmoil there emerges a poet that we have no difficulty in recognising as Lutz Seiler.

It begins with Carl being caught by surprise: his parents, an unremarkable couple from the depths of the Thuringian provinces, decide there and then to go off to the West to try and make a fresh start. Their son, who happens at that point to be in the throes of a major existential crisis, is supposed to stay behind in Gera and look after their house, car and workshop. But soon he, too, decides to get away, and before long he finds himself in the underground scene in East Berlin, where he pals up with a ‘smart gang’ of outsiders who are trying out alternative ways of living and supporting themselves. In this somewhat bizarre milieu Lutz Seiler contrives in a decidedly romantic spirit to create a space for the enactment of free-ranging fantasies, underpinned by a finely wrought web of literary subtexts and allusions. The narrative as a whole, however, remains firmly rooted in reality thanks to the world of ‘things’, so characteristic of the period, which the author calmly, repeatedly and very expressively draws on, and of which the eponymous radio of the novel’s title is also part. Stern 111 - winner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize - is not least an act of homage to craftsmanship and the rapidly vanishing machine age.

In his early years Lutz Seiler trained as a craftsman in the building trade - and he has remained an excellent craftsman in his writing, too. By successfully combining the epitomisation of an era, linguistic elegance and a subtly conveyed political message, he has created what we can safely describe as a masterpiece. And if at some point in the future this book does indeed enter the literary pantheon as the great representation of the Wende, it will certainly have deserved its place.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 25.09.2020

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by John Reddick