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 guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.