The poisonous compromises and complicities of the old German Democratic Republic follow a child of the system from East Berlin to the America of his dreams.
Lasdun’s brief tour through the life of Stefan Vogel is almost unbearably intimate. The younger son of a privileged couple living just on the edge of power in the weird isolation of East Germany, Stefan is intelligent but untalented, unathletic and, by decision of his schoolmates, unpopular. Longing vaguely for the idea of America, where his father’s job might take the family, and living without any moral compass other than the veiled wishes of the totalitarian state, Stefan finds early on that he is willing to abandon the truth when the truth seems to offer neither help nor refuge. As a youth, he makes a deal with the devil, the trade of his sexual innocence for the works of Walt Whitman, books held under lock and key by a hideous building supervisor. Stefan needs Whitman to fulfill his artistically ambitious mother’s wish that he be a poet, a vocation for which he has no feel. With his father’s fall from partisan grace and the family’s subsequent recession from the good life, Stefan drifts further into the phony world of state-approved art to which his aristocratic mother clings. When he meets Inge, an actress so attractive to him that he is willing to sign on any number of dotted lines to keep her, Stefan solidifies his spurious identity as a poet and puts himself in a position to offer her comfort when she is left by her lover. When Stefan, in company with Inge, finally reaches America, the agreements he made in East Germany prove disastrously binding.
Good reading, but bad news for anyone who has ever fudged the truth.