Durs Grünbein’s The Bars of Atlantis

Reviewed by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Image of Durs Grünbein’s The Bars of Atlantis

Despite its brief history, East Germany held potent sway over the Western imagination; “athletes, spies and writers were three things they seemed worryingly good at producing” as Michael Hofmann put it. Escape artists also belong on that list. Thanks to the steady stream of emigration, the GDR had lost over three million citizens by 1991. In retaliation, the Eastern authorities radically altered their half of Berlin until it was virtually unrecognisable. Aside from the fortifications around the Wall, streets on the red side of the Spree were widened into colossal thoroughfares, or “pure marching zones for the military or the police” as Grünbein writes in “Breaking The Body,” one of the essays in The Bars of Atlantis, a collection that spans over twenty years of Grünbein's remarkable productivity as an essayist, here available in English for the first time.

Naturally, what the West knew of the East came from those lucky enough to have made it out alive.  But what of those who stayed? The way Durs Grünbein uses Pompeii, Dresden, Berlin and Herculaneum so interchangeably in his descriptions of life in the GDR is telling: “I had the idea of being one of the inhabitants of Campania, living with the mountain always within view, and I recall how as a child one day near Dresden, I saw a different mountain, around which my thoughts have revolved ever since.” This trümmerberg or “rubbish mountain,” which Grünbein goes on to describe, is only one of many gargantuan mounds of debris formed in the aftermath of the Second World War. There are twenty-four such piles scattered across Germany, eight of which are in Berlin. The tallest, Teufelsberg, or “Devil's Mountain,” in the North-West, was assembled on the remains of Albert Speer's Bundeswehr Technical School, part of his projected Welthauptstadt. The NSA later installed a radar station on its summit; its decommissioned remains are now the playthings of day-tourists and truants. Graffiti cover the walls and one can't move an inch without the accompanying crunch of glass. Touring its premises, one would hardly suspect that deep inside its bowels are, as Grünbein informs us, “crumbled church portals,” “defunct balconies” and “the torsos of fire-blackened statues” or, as he also puts it, the raw materials of his imaginative landscape:

Today, I know that almost every city has its own Vesuvius. Our modern-day volcanoes are the large slag-heaps beside open workings, the garbage heaps and dumps of all kinds, the mighty soaring scrap heaps on the edges of our cities . . . If you break the seal, vowels turn into artefacts, lines of verse prove to be little capsules loaded with emblems. Whatever is subsequently encountered . . . all that is the stuff of poetry.

Any urban observer living in the cities of the former GDR today is likely to come across the innumerable pockets of urban desolation where rubbish and animals are the only signs of life. Yet where some see trash, Grünbein sees the active ingredients of history. Despite repeated promises of investment, much of the east bears a closer resemblance to Thatcherite Britain than to the rest of Germany. Its cities are positively yellow with unlove—every third building is boarded-up; the lack of youth and money is palpable—everywhere the eye roves it sees ruins, ashes and dogs. There is an idiom in German, which encapsulates much of what has been written since the war, particularly since 'Reunification': “wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen” (“where foxes and hares say goodnight to each other”). This suggests a lonely and remote place. Nietzsche, who is frequently quoted and discussed in The Bars of Atlantis, saw animals as totemic guides out of the nightmare of history. It thus seems easy to imagine why Grünbein sees Dresden as a modern Pompeii, a time-capsule preserved by the brutal force of a cataclysm, the only difference being of course, that Vesuvius, unlike the Second World War, was both unstoppable and unpredictable.

Destroyed by the War, kept in disrepair by Realsozialismus and uncared for by the “new” Germany, these scrap-heaps and ruins, which Grünbein analyses with his characteristically archaeological acumen, are the only way to lift our eyes “out of the fog of time.” Luckily for Grünbein, there was little else to do in the GDR. It was an oppressively monotonous existence, where “half a motorcycle meant more than an edition of the classics.” By the time of the “wall months” of 1989, Grünbein had had it: “I wanted to rest, to cut myself off from East and West.”Less than a month later, the Wall was pickaxed and its pieces pocketed. Reunification has since proved rather problematic. Former dissidents like Stefan Heym, for years a thorn in Honecker's side, claimed that the neue länder of the East had become second-class states in the new Federal Republic. Two decades on and the situation has hardly improved. Last year's elections to the Bundestag saw the Linkspartei (an amalgam of left-wing parties) poll an unprecedented 11.9%; enough to prompt Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East herself, to admit that “German unity” hadn't yet “run its course.” To further complicate matters, much intellectual energy is still devoted to uncovering past loyalties to either the Third Reich or the GDR. Durs Grünbein a poet “writing in German” rather than “a German poet, as Eskin puts it in his cursory but well-balanced introduction to The Bars of Atlantis, is the overwhelming and internationally lauded exception.

Born in Dresden, “a baroque version of Pompeii on the Elbe” in 1962, “the only child of youthful parents”, Grünbein originally intended to become a veterinarian and roam the “heat-hazed” Serengeti. His determination was obvious from an early age. Later, thanks to Novalis, Hölderlin, and a teenage encounter with a “tattered paperback” of Pound's Cantos, Grünbein opted to persevere with his writing. His first collection of poems, Grauzone, morgens made his name at twenty-six. But the boyhood interest in the natural sciences never went away. A good number of pages in The Bars of Atlantis are devoted to memoirs of his animal-obsessed childhood, such as the delightful sketches grouped under “Three Miniatures”; in particular “Away from Home” where Grünbein describes sleep-walking out of his parents' house, which, in dream-like imagery, he sees being towed away. Grünbein then assumes the garb of Alexander von Humboldt; he scans the black lawn of the newly empty-lot: “Just then it seemed as wildly implausible to me that I belonged here as that I should lay claim to a childhood in the jungles of Amazonia under the tutelage of blowpipe hunters, an agile companion to apes and primeval lizards. My tiredness felt like a jungle boy's. Stunned with plant smells, giddy with humid air full of insect swarms, he lived in an uninterrupted dizziness in wild chlorophyll . . . neighbours finding me there later, told me I had never gone so far from home.” Not far enough, it seems. Ever since 1989 “that pivotal year,” Grünbein has been on the road, with Berlin as his “transit lounge.”

Although a number of essays—“Childhood in the Diorama,” “Darwin's Eyes” as well as sections of the forty-page-long title essay—display a fascination with categories, Grünbein does not reduce humanity to “a handful of zoological assumptions.” Much to his credit, he shies away from facile assessments; he questions, elaborates, and proffers advice. Some of his sentences are as finely-wrought as aphorisms: “poems are pauses in dying, at least on paper”; “some mental associations are like the sins of youth. They lead nowhere and are best forgotten.” One feels as if Grünbein is learning as he writes, compiling his own Encyclopédie along the way. His couple of pages on the nature of “Cosmopolites” constitutes some of the finest writing on that slippery tribe I have ever come across. His pronouncement on globalization is equally striking:

Every inhabitant of the earth is now the centre of this world, stuck in the same fix, with the fine   distinction that the fix is a heated swimming pool for some, and a desert, flood zone, earthquake region,        or bloody quagmire half the size of Africa for others.

The pieces in The Bars of Atlantis further distinguish themselves through their interconnectedness with the other spheres of Grünbein's oeuvre.  As he readily admits, “I wrote . . . essays as studies for poems, and I also wrote poems from which essays emerged.” Lest that sound too convoluted, it should be stressed that Grünbein's tone is playfully lighthearted. He lacks the historian's overbearing hand, the surgical precision of the true scholar. Rather, he reminds one of the opening lines of Enzensberger's “Valse triste et sentimentale”: “Blast the old days./What about now?/Do as you like,/but please,/no apologies.” Unlike Enzensberger, Grünbein is no enfant terrible; nor is he as partisan as Grass. And unlike Seamus Heaney, who paid lip-service to the “cause,” but emphasized the primacy of his own imagination, Grünbein makes these ruins and the post-War German identity crisis the very center of his activity, without any overriding dogma to sour their mood or tone. It is precisely the tone of these essays that makes them such a delight. We permit his digressions because they fascinate as well as instruct. Grünbein is refreshingly unacademic. His experience in academia is limited to four semesters at Berlin's Humboldt University. The essays have the freshness and poise of the autodidact; his subjects range from architecture, painting, music, and philosophy and above all—poetry. It is rare to see such a consummate essayist devote so much energy to emphasizing the force of poetry without it sounding like a feeble apology:

When the average intellectual today reflects on the artistic and cultural achievements of the past century, he first thinks of such names as Freud and Picasso, Stravinsky and Heisenberg, Hitchcock and     Wittgenstein . . . Not a single poet . . . will cross the mind of the historically minded thinker who claims to understand what modernity is all about.

Grünbein later remonstrates against the unfortunate situation in which most poets find themselves—that of having to defend the worth of their vocation. “Not even prostitution, beset by at least as many taboos and half-truths, ever needed to furnish answers as to its whys and wherefores . . . you just called it the oldest profession and pulled rank. At the same time, you forgot that poetry, satisfying similarly inexhaustible appetites, was surely as old. If not older still.” The  breadth, inquisitiveness and candor of The Bars of Atlantis confirms the rave reviews Grünbein's work has occasioned from the likes of John Ashbery, Helen Vendler, and Adam Zagajewski and is a welcome companion to Ashes for Breakfast: Selected Poems (Faber 2004). The recent surge of interest in Grünbein has been a long time coming. As far back as 1999, Ian Bamforth wrote in the London Review of Books about that “young and very productive East Berlin poet” whose “hard-bitten urban topographies” aptly balanced the polarizing influences of Gottfried Benn and Bertolt Brecht. Any one fortunate enough to read German will no doubt concur with Michael Hofmann, who in his introduction to The Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems (2006) said that, alongside the Irish, the Poles, the Americans, the Russians and the Spanish, the Germans produced some of the finest poets of the 20th-century. The mere fact that one has to point this out may be because of the dearth of gifted translators. (Why, for instance, are Musil and Walser so underrated, seldom-read?) This is precisely why English-language readers have ample reason to thank the translators of this volume. Thanks to them, Grünbein's stock is, and has been, on the rise.