Rummelplatz ("Amusement Park") is a doorstopper of a novel that was written in 1965 but not published in its entirety until 2007, 31 years after the author - Werner Bräunig - died at the age of 42 from alchoholism. The novel deals with the early years of the East Germany, beginning with the establishment of the GDR in 1949 and ending during the June 17 Uprising in 1953, This is roughly the same period covered in Anna Segher's 1959 novel Die Entscheidung (see my review here). Like Die Entscheidung ( "The Decision") Rummelplatz was meant to be a gesamtdeutscher Roman - a novel about Germany as a whole - both the BRD and GDR, and the purpose was to depict the heroic effort to build a true worker state against all odds from the rubble of a land ruined by war. But unlike Seghers, Werner Bräunig was a worker - he had worked in the mines, he knew what it was like to work in a paper mill, he had spent time in the penitentiary. And his writing expresses perfectly what it is like to work to exhaustion under inhuman conditions, but also the exhilaration of collectively creating something out of nothing through one's labor.
Werner Bräunig was the real thing: the Marxist ideal of the Arbeiterschriftsteller/ Worker Artist who was also a committed activist (he was a member of the SED). Unfortunately for his career in the GDR, he was uncompromising in his writing about "real-existing socialism" and his solidarity with the workers instead of the Party comes through in his writing. It was to be his downfall, and Rummelplatz was was his only novel.
Most of the novel takes place in Wismut uranium mines in the Erzgebirge Moutains in southern East Germany. In 1949 this was the Wild West of the GDR, where men went to make money under dangerous conditions, for the Soviet Union needed the uranium from Wismut to build up its arsenal of atomic bombs in the new arms race with America. In Wismut we meet the three central figures of Rummelplatz: Christian Kleinschmidt, the intellectual who somewhat resentfully has to defer his university studies to work in the mines. (Bräunig doesn't pretend that class differences don't exist ithe worker state), Hermann Fischer, an old-guard communist who had been tortured by the Nazis and is now a foreman in the mines. Fischer is something of a mentor to Kleinschmidt and the younger workers; he has a super-human capacity for work and is martyred during the June 17 Uprising (portrayed by Bräunig as a fascist coup-attempt orchestrated by the Americans). And finally there is Peter Loose, a James Dean-like figure, irresistibly attractive to women but whom trouble follows. These three are the core of Rummelplatz, and much of the novel consists of their interior monologues. But Bräunig brings in a number of peripheral characters, and there are several narrative threads that provide a kaleidoscope of the entire country and its serious challenges: a subplot follows Fischer's daughter Ruth who tries to keep production up a paper mill as the entire management team flees to the West; her fiance grows emotionally detached as he rises in the Party.
Peter Loose is the most compelling character, and the author's alter ego. (Interestingly, the proletarian hero of Segher's novel is named Lohse). Loose is a hard-luck guy who never got a break: his father was in the SS, his step-father kicked him out of his house, he is thrown in prison for a crime he didn't commit. At one point he reflects on his bad luck:
„Immer wirst du unten bleiben mit der Nase im Dreck, Peter Loose, wirst dein Leben lang schuften in harter Mühle und dich für ein paar Stunden entschädigen auf den Rummelplätzen der Welt, beim Wodka, an der warmen Haut eines Mädchens, denn es fehlen dir ein paar Kleinigkeiten, ohne die man in dieser Zeit nicht hochkommt. Ein bißchen Anpassungsfähigkeit fehlt dir und ein bißchen Arschkriecherei..
("They'll always put you down, with your nose in the dirt, Peter Loose, you'll slave your life away in the grinding work and as a reward you'll have a few hours in the amusement parks of the world, some vodka, and the warm skin of a girl, for you are missing some essential ingredients to get ahead in these times. You ran't do what you are told, and you refuse to suck up to the bosses...)
This is certainly not the image of the worker that Walter Ulbricht wanted in his socialist realist novels. For Loose is an exemplary worker: his production in the mine impresses Fischer and the Russian overseers. But in spite of his strong work ethic, Loose ends up in the hospital - and then in prison. How could this happen in the Arbeiter-und Bauern-Staat ?
The least successful sections of Rummelplatz take place in the west, and a narrative strand revolving around the daughter of an industrialist and her unhappy love affair with a journalist goes nowhere. (By contrast, the BRD and New York scenes in Segher's Die Entscheidung are her strongest.)
Rummelplatz is a terrific first novel by a talented writer of realist fiction. I'm afraid I can't go along with Hella Streicher and others who put Rummelplatz along side of the works of Grass, Böll and Koeppen as great postwar literature. But like Koeppen, Bräunig stopped writing far too early, and undoubtly would have written some great novels if he had been encouraged rather than muzzled.
The Aufbau edition of Rummelplatz includes a fine introduction by Christa Wolf and an essay by Angela Drescher that discusses the aesthetic debate in by the East German SED in 1965 which resulted in a witch hunt against Bräunig and ended his career as a writer. The book also includes extremely helpful notes that explain the historical background and obscure political terminology of Rummelplatz.