This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ devastating fire bombing of Dresden during the waning days of World War II. Tellkamp, a native of Dresden, has written a love ballad to that city and its people. Set in the 1980s, The Tower (Der Turm, 2008; tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell, 2014) is a stylistically wonderful discourse on the stubborn perseverance of beauty, art and intellectual curiosity in the face of decades’ long government repression.
The narrative is told through the alternating perspectives of three men: Richard Hoffman, a surgeon; Richard’s teenage son, Christian; and Richard’s brother-in-law, Meno Rohde, a writer and editor. The Hoffmans and their extended family are “Tower-dwellers,” inhabitants of the intellectual and professional center of Dresden known as the Tower district. The family is rich with musicians, actors and writers, and it is art that sustains and nourishes their collective soul, enabling them to survive the humiliations of communal housing, long queues, Kafkaesque bureaucracy and suppression.
In one respect The Tower is a bildungsroman as it follows the course of Christian’s emotional and intellectual growth from boarding school to manhood, a journey which involves his mandatory service in the military and later, a sentence in a military prison. Christian’s difficult path to maturity reveals the government’s control and manipulation of its citizens, where success is based far less on merit than blind commitment to the system and a willingness to denounce friends, neighbors and co-workers. Christian contemplates his feelings of entrapment when he is placed in solitary confinement, known by the prisoners as the “U-boat.”
Christian could not get rid of the idea that he had reached the innermost point of the system. He was in the GDR, the country had fortified frontiers and a wall. He was in the National People’s Army, which had barracks walls and guarded entrances. And in Schwedt Military Prison he was stuck in the U-boat, behind walls with no windows. So now he was entirely there, now he must have arrived . . . . Now, Christian thought, I really am . . . No one.
While large chunks of the novel deal with the characters’ significant endured hardships under communism, Tellkamp’s writing brings the quirkiness of his characters into high relief and this often adds levity to the novel.
Meno had been staring at his desk, trying to count the pencils, which were arranged precisely according to size, in one of Ritschel’s transparent blocks, a battery of sharply pointed little lances.
‘There are precisely three hundred and fourteen. Pi, you understand. Three point one four pencils would have been too few for me, so I moved the decimal point back two places. But unfortunately I can’t give you a pencil. There always have to be exactly three hundred and fourteen, the Ludolphine number, the relationship between circumference and diameter. And it must always be these same pencils. Genuine Faber pencils. The dark green is soothing, it’s a real little pine forest I have before me here, the colour is fresh and young, too; the Czech ones you can buy in this country use poorer-quality wood, it splinters and breaks. Moreover, they’re yellow . . .’
Time is a major theme of the novel (it is not a coincidence that Richard’s father is a clockmaker) and for the Tower-dwellers the past is omnipresent, idealized, supplanting the present in their consciousness. The time prior to Soviet occupation is real time, whereas the present is suspended time in which life is not the process of living but instead surviving.
. . . I sometimes thought that the Tower-dwellers themselves moved through time in a similarly strange and typical way: their future led into the past, the present was merely a pale shadow, an inadequate and stunted variant, a dull rehash of the great days of yore, and sometimes I suspected that it was good when something sank into the past, when it expired and perished, that the Tower-dwellers secretly approved of that, for then it was saved — it was no longer part of the present, that they shunned, . . .
This feeling of arrested history is not just nostalgia for the past but also a product of the state’s stifling of intellectual progress. As one avowed Communist Party member declares,
“Time is the devil’s work, Rohde, for it is the instrument of change . . . . That is why we’re living in a divinely ordained state, for we have undertaken to abolish time.”
The novel’s denouement comes as Richard’s wife Anne finally confronts him about his habitual infidelity. And it is at the point in which Anne reaches the limit of her tolerance and confronts Richard that the residents of Dresden and many other cities throughout Eastern Europe reach the limits of their collective tolerance and revolt against their governments’ power structures. Tellkamp makes a very effective parallel between Anne’s micro revolt against Richard and the macro revolts against Soviet authority in 1989.
The large segments of the novel that are told from Meno’s perspective demonstrate the merger of the two parts of Meno’s intellect — his scientific mind as a zoologist by training, and his artistic sensitivity as a literary writer. For example Meno mentors Christian, showing him the extra work but great rewards in describing things precisely and appreciating their subtleties. Here is Meno in response to Christian’s use of the word magic “to characterize something that fascinated him in a way that he still couldn’t explain.”
‘You use it like a flyswatter, of course, walloping something on the head is one way of exorcizing it, but in doing that you just go round and round your own helplessness, as bad writers do who are not capable of generating a phenomenon — which would be the actual creative act — but are only able to talk about the phenomenon: to say “magic,” that is, instead of making something out of words that has it.’
There is no question that in this respect at least, Meno is Tellkamp’s alter ego because on nearly every page of the novel Tellkamp’s writing style excels as the perfect execution of Meno’s advice to Christian. For example, here Meno describes with the metaphor of music what, according to Christian, are the traits of a very unremarkable moth specimen:
‘Those are the orchestral parts over which the composer took the greatest care, even though the audience hardly hears them; but they are the ones that are particularly important to him, and you can pay him no greater compliment than to listen carefully, for what is the point of music if not to be listened to. These patches of crimson, moss-green and lilac, this blue that’s so intense . . . these are the high points, such as Italian bel canto composers love, as do the average opera-goers, who don’t go to the theatre to listen . . . but what I’m interested in are the inconspicuous tissues, disguises, transitions; camouflage and mimicry; . . .’
The Tower won the German Book Prize in 2008, and Penguin released the English language edition just last year. Translator Mike Mitchell did a wonderful job, not just on a technical level but also in bringing out the warmth and humanity of Tellkamp’s writing. At one thousand pages, reading The Tower is a time commitment; however, the writing is so aesthetically satisfying and the tribulations and joys of the Hoffman family so immersing that the novel’s length almost never feels like a liability. The Tower is a novel to be savored, admired and shared.