Joachim Walther. Himmelsbrück. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 2009. 279 Pages.
Joachim Walther’s novel Himmelsbrück tells a love story from the last decade of the GDR so dramatically that you can’t put it down for a minute. The most fascinating aspect is the narrator’s drawing on the discourse of the American Indian Kwakiutl tribe in order to import a model of reading the main protagonist’s troubled relationship with Ria, his lover and later wife, as well as the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall. This anthropological way of seeing things might be the result of the protagonists’ friendship with an American diplomat and their trip to the United States. They prepare for the trip carefully, reading a book on the Kwakiutl tribe, which they will manage to visit as one important episode of their trip. Interestingly, Walther’s narrator (who is, without doubt, the alter ego of the author) presents examples from Mathias’ and Rias’ journals and letters as well as quotations from Stasi dossiers as an anthropologist would insert ethnographic material into his narrative about an exotic tribe. For scholars of German literature who prefer to interpret texts from an anthropological perspective, the book is a treasure trove.
But also for those who are interested in forms of inner exile in the late GDR, the novel is interesting because the name “Himmelsbrück” (”Bridge to heaven”) is symbolic. It signifies a niche where you can hide from the state and enter paradise. Such niches of the East German intelligentsia were often in Mecklenburg – approximately two driving hours north of Berlin in an attractive area with many woods and lakes and sparse population. (To find more information, go to Google.de and type in the words “Künstlerkolonie Drispeth.”) The novel’s niche, “Himmelsbrück,” where Mathias and Ria try to hide from the ominous eye of the state, is in Mecklenburg also. Besides the wonderful descriptions of the landscape around the city of Parchim, it’s fascinating to read how the cars of the Stasi’s observers of Mathias, a critical intellectual, have problems entering this environment without being seen.
Mathias is a painter who also runs a gallery in Berlin. In his late thirties, he appears to be very successful. Ria, his lover and later wife, is in her early twenties. As the comparison of their apartments (“Stadtpalais” – “Loch”) indicates, she is just getting by. But, she is beautiful. Before giving up her “Loch” in Berlin and moving with Mathias into his “Stadtpalais” and later to the farmhouse in “Himmelsbrück,” she makes her living working in a nursing home. Later, it turns out that she is very talented as an artist, perhaps more than he is. In fact, she is on the way to becoming a successful artist in East Germany when she suddenly dies in a car accident. Before this happens, Mathias and Ria have separated. Her death, so it seems, is not an accident. Equipped with the gift of extrasensory perception – a gift that strangely troubles Mathias, whose intelligence is more cerebral – she foresaw her death. The narrator tries to suggest that it was the age difference that did not allow Mathias and Ria to enjoy a harmonious relationship. However, reading Ria’s letters and notes, an attentive reader could come to believe that it was not the difference in age at all that did not allow them to save their love. Ria is a talented person of the kind who pulls visions and images out of a deep anxiety; sometimes, she is balancing on the edge of madness. As an example, although Mathias suspects that her friend Lilith inspires her to sleep with other men as a kind of feminist rebellion, it is more likely her existential restlessness that drives her to other men.
Some readers of Himmelsbrück might not like the narrator’s habit of going too much into detail in describing female bodies, sometimes derogatively, as well as very graphic scenes of sexual intercourse. Indeed, it lends the novel a sexist touch and takes away from the mystery of the relationship described.
The events narrated extend after the fall of the Wall in 1989. Although completely absorbed in their personal “Nahkampf,” Mathias and Ria manage to participate in the events that finally lead to the fall of the Wall. Having moved back to Berlin to be closer to the political events, Ria joins a group of women who try to publish a politically independent journal for children – an effort that Mathias ridicules with his usual sarcasm: “Mit Gummibärchen gegen Gummiknüppel.” Focusing on the very interesting activities of this group of women before the fall of the Wall, the novel can also be interpreted from a feminist perspective. Mathias, on the other hand, becomes the spokesman for a group of critical artists who try successfully to replace the president of their organization and participates in the preparations for a huge demonstration in the streets of East Berlin. The opening of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, refreshes the couple’s relationship; as most other East Germans at this moment of history, they are euphoric. However, it doesn’t take long until they realize that the end of the GDR also means the end of the once necessary “Rückzugsräume, Notgemeinschaften und Liebesbiotope.” In what Ria’s friend Lilith calls their “Geschlechterkrieg,” they end up hurting each other to the extreme. Once more referring to American Indians’ discourse, the narrator states that Mathias “verstand nun vollkommen, wie ein betrogener Kwakiutl seiner untreuen Frau den abgetrennten Kopf ihres Liebhabers ins Bett werfen konnte.” Before Ria dies, they burn all letters they wrote to each other, paintings they created during the seven years since they met, and beloved tokens of memory. After her death, Mathias will also put fire to their lovingly reconstructed and embellished farmhouse in “Himmelsbrück.” In this final scene, however, what I liked most about Walther’s book, the wonderful irony in the narrator’s voice, gets lost. In an almost “Tristan und Isolde” way, the novel ends – with Mathias jumping into the flames from which he sees Ria waving to him – melodramatically.Gabriele Eckart
Missouri State University