Siblings by Brigitte Reimann review – rebel with a cause

This intoxicating 1963 novel explores the tension between socialist ideals, self-fulfilment and repressive reality in East Germany

As a young woman in East Germany, Brigitte Reimann claimed that she would rather live 30 wild years than 70 well-behaved ones. When she died from cancer in 1973, aged only 39, she left behind an impressive but tantalisingly incomplete set of literary achievements. Her life – as her riveting diaries and autobiographical novels attest – was as fascinating as she hoped it would be. Reimann started writing early and quickly became a GDR literary star. A dedicated socialist, she joined a state initiative that sent her to write and teach workers at a coal-fired power plant. There she won success with a communist Bildungsroman about factory life, spawning a whole genre of imitators. Over time, however, she grew increasingly frustrated with the strictures of both married life and the GDR cultural sphere; she was also shaken by her brother Lutz’s emigration to the west in 1960. In art and life, she relentlessly criticised the GDR: not quite a dissident, but certainly disobedient.

Much of this biography appears in Reimann’s novel Siblings, originally published in 1963 and now available in English. Its narrator, Elisabeth Arendt, is an idealistic young painter who clashes with her beloved brother Uli over the GDR’s repressiveness. (Both are haunted by their other brother, Konrad, already seeking his fortune in the west.) Like Reimann, Elisabeth works at a power plant; she also, like Reimann, strains against the artistic and political orthodoxies of old party comrades who refuse to listen to young people, especially women, with fresh ideas.

The action begins when Uli tells Elisabeth that he, too, plans to emigrate. Tensions rise, culminating in a scene of betrayal and its surprising aftermath. Elisabeth’s narration wanders in time but persistently returns to the night in question, as Elisabeth and Uli share their frustrations over the GDR. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs,” Uli quotes, adding: “But I don’t want to be the broken egg, trodden underfoot.”

Beneath the emigration drama bubbles a vital subplot: Elisabeth developing her own artistic vision, and deciding to fight for it within GDR institutions. Here one senses that Reimann, too, is thinking through how she might reconcile her socialist commitments with her drive to make literature that genuinely explores the self. East Germany’s literature was not always conformist – this was the land of Bertolt Brecht, after all – but its prevailing socialist realism mode was seriously dull: corny love plots tacked on to pro-socialist moralising made for a genre dubbed “boy-meets-girl-meets-tractor”. Siblings, in this context, was radical. When Elisabeth is accused by a party hack of abandoning realism, she replies in terms that also apply to the novel: “I could take pictures of your sort of realism with a good colour film. But my eye isn’t a lens, and I’m not a camera. I’m a person with feelings and a relationship to the people I paint, and they also have feelings and their own attitude to life, work and their families, and all of this has to come across in a portrait, all of the layers, not just a flat surface.”

Reimann’s own literary style is an attempt to find space for subjectivity. Lucy Jones’s translation excellently captures the dry wit, expressionistic boldness and seductively odd rhythms that make the original German so charismatic. Elisabeth is spiky and appealingly flawed: we never quite know if she really believes in the GDR or just doesn’t want to lose another brother. All the novel’s various arguments are framed within painterly evocations of weather, mood and setting – ideas never exist in a vacuum. The personal and political mix messily together.

There is something intoxicating about Reimann’s dense, jagged prose. It conveys hunger for a life that encompasses idealism with desire, the person with the cause, the self with the siblings, and the present with the past, all united by the force of personality.

After the publication of Siblings, Reimann found herself increasingly out of step with the regime. “The reins are being tightened again,” she wrote in her diary in 1965. “I like my country less and less.” But we will never fully understand that ill-fated national project without hearing the voices of those who believed in the dream before the nightmare – and those who fought for a more equitable world and freer artistic expression, even within the constraints of state socialism. After all, the most courageous opponents of the GDR were for the most part also communists.

Siblings by Brigitte Reimann, translated by Lucy Jones, is published by Penguin Classics (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Alexander Wells

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore review – frontier journeys
Based on a true story, this is a riveting account of one woman’s quest during the Dakota uprising, from the author of In the Cut

Erica Wagner

28, Apr, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
A Shining by Jon Fosse review – a spiritual journey
The new Nobel laureate’s latest novella is a shimmering fable about a man lost in a dark forest

Lauren Groff

18, Nov, 2023 @7:30 AM

Article image
To Battersea Park by Philip Hensher review – a pandemic masterclass
Hensher brilliantly explores the lockdown experience, and how to bear witness to it, in this fluid portrait of south London lives

Keiran Goddard

23, Mar, 2023 @7:30 AM

Article image
Holly by Stephen King review – unlikely serial killers
King’s dogged private detective returns in this dark and lyrical thriller set during the pandemic

Catriona Ward

02, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Bardskull by Martin Shaw review – a mystical voyage
The oral storyteller’s autofictional account of inner and outer journeys blends memory, myth and nature

Ian Sansom

31, Mar, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Close to Home by Michael Magee review – Belfast struggles
This taut debut about a working-class young man wrestling with masculinity and lack of opportunity feels like a genuinely necessary book

Keiran Goddard

21, Apr, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Variations by Patrick Langley review – hearing the voices of the dead
There’s a Nabokovian intrigue to this thrilling tale of a composer and her grandson with the same mysterious gift

Matthew Janney

21, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson review – a bravura feat
Six years on from her translation of the Odyssey, Wilson revels in the clarity and emotional clout of Homer’s battlefield epic

Edith Hall

27, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong review – a masterpiece of Korean history
This epic political novel traces the country from Japanese occupation through partition, as experienced by a family of railway workers

Maya Jaggi

03, Jun, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya review – meltdown in Mumbai
A young man’s troubled existence mirrors wider social and political turmoil, in this epic yet intimate debut

Rahul Raina

24, Feb, 2023 @7:30 AM