The Short End of the Sonnenallee
by Thomas Brussig
Macmillan Publishers, 2023
Translated by Jenny Watson
Reviewed by Lisa Seidenberg
A surprisingly lighthearted portrait of life in the former East Berlin, Thomas Brussig’s The Short End of the Sonnenallee has been newly released in an English translation. Those of us who once passed through Checkpoint Charlie, the eponymous crossing point into the Soviet Occupied Sector known as East Berlin, from the three sectors that comprised West Berlin (American, French, and British) recall the gray, stark world with its Stalinist architecture that greeted one on the other side. It was a stark contrast to the West, land of cars, colors, and consumerism.
Brussig’s East Berlin focusses on the story of Micha, a teenage boy, and his quest for the object of his lust and longing, the incomparably lovely Miriam. It’s derived from the author’s own experience living in that divided city after World War Two.
This new translation is credited to an unlikely duo; star author Jonathan Franzen, who has penned five novels, among them: Freedom, The Corrections, Crossroads; five nonfiction books; won the National Book Award and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. The other translator is Jennifer Watson, a professor of East German Literature and history at Marquette University.
Franzen, in his introduction to the book, provides a lyrical explanation of why this slim novel was worth translating:
The very title of the book is a declaration of independence. Defying the one adjective we all associate with life behind the Iron Curtain, the word dark, Brussig gives us the word Sonnenallee -Boulevard of the Sun. The street name is real and can be found on a map, and where a different writer might have used its warmth and its poetry to telegraph irony, Brussig deploys it as a straightforward correction of our assumptions about life in the East.
While offering a bearable lightness of being, this slim novel neither ignores nor diminishes the reality of life in East Berlin. Taking place in the 1970’s, the Berlin Wall was an inescapable physical presence. Built in 1961, it stood, carving its ugly path through the divided city until 1990, when it came down in a largely unpredicted burst of democratic momentum. As Robert Frost’s poem asks, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out.” The residents on the East side of the Berlin Wall knew very well who was being walled in. Thousands tried to escape by various ingenious means to cross over the wall (or under the wall in tunnels) and 600 were shot and killed trying to do so. A brave and lucky few succeeded.
The Sonnenallee is a four mile street, with only the last few blocks cut off into the Eastern side. This is where Micha and his family live, in their cramped apartment, as their neighbors do. One of the more memorable characters is Uncle Heinz, who lives in the West, and smuggles in cookies, shoes, and other unobtainable goods strapped to his legs or in his coat. Despite the suspicions he receives from border guards for his frequent visits, he seems very willing to risk arrest – or a stint in Siberia – for his efforts.
And then there is young Micha, improbably signing up for dance lessons to be near his inamorata, Miriam, who prefers dating young men from the West, with their fancy motorbikes and other material items. The digressions prove the most interesting in capturing the era – how the group of male friends is preoccupied with procuring vinyl records banned in the East and making cassette tapes from the vinyl. Micha’s friend, Frizz is on a particular quest for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. After a circuitous search, he finds a “dealer” named Edge, “ a thin dude loitering with a rectangular bag and staring into space.”
After Frizz places his order, Edge replies:
“You want Dylan? That is so yesterday over there. Beegees? Quaking Eunuchs, faggified disco shit. The Stones you can forget about now that Brian Jones is dead.” When Frizz placed his order for Exile on Main Street, an English pressing, still in its shrink-wrap, Edge said, “Of course it’s shrink-wrapped. You think I still listen to that junk?”
It’s the condescending put-down of the dealer that is so specific to the era and comical. To be in the know of what’s going on on the other side of the Wall , is to be the height of cool. It’s an admirable feat on the part of the translators, as much of the dialog must have been the authentic “Ossi” (Eastern) slang of the time.
East Germany, or the GDR, as it was known, had a surveillance apparatus run by the fearsome Stasi, the Ministry of State Security. The Stasi operated a system of intimidation and spying on citizens, often by friends and neighbors. There now exists a Stasi Museum in Berlin (in the former Stasi headquarters), with displays of wiretapping gizmos, rudimentary computers and spy cameras and more chillingly, recreations of interrogation rooms. These early tech devices look laughably clunky to contemporary eyes, but they achieved their nefarious use. The movie, The Lives of Others (2006) captures how the insidious intimacy of the Stasi spy network functioned.
The East Berlin of Micha is a place he knows how to negotiate, as his parents have. Micha’s mother makes sure to subscribe to Bild-Zeitung, the party newspaper, and leave it on prominently displayed in their mailbox, so the neighbors can observe their loyalty. Happily, Micha receives his first love letter. Is it from Miriam? Or someone else? He is distraught as the letter sails from his fingers in a sudden gust of wind, flies aloft and descends inside the Death Strip of the Wall – a no man’s land – and unquestionably off limits. How to retrieve it? Not interested in escape to the West, Micha wants more than anything to have his letter back.
The Short End of the Sonnenallee is a fresh take on a chapter of Cold War history that speaks to the resilience of human nature, and the quirky comical nature of being an adolescent, in any circumstances.