Image: From the cover of Ronald M. Schernikau’s Kleinstadtnovelle (Small-town Novella).
Lucy Renner Jones’s translation of Ronald M. Schernikau’s “Small-town Novella” appears in the June 2016 issue of Words without Borders: “The Queer Issue VII.”
It all started with a photograph of a longhaired man with a beard wearing eyeliner. He gazes with an enigmatic smile into the camera and his fingernails look as if they are lacquered with black polish. The cover of Ronald Schernikau’s Small-town Novella, which I came across when translating the incredible story of this writer for Die Schönheit von Ost-Berlin (The Beauty of East Berlin) at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, intrigued me.
Schernikau’s story goes like this: He was born in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, in July 1960. At the age of six, his mother smuggled him into the trunk of her car and crossed the border into West Germany to join her lover in Lehrte, near Hanover. Lehrte is the eponymous small town of Schernikau’s novella, which he wrote at the age of eighteen—a coming-out story set in high school. It became a bestseller. He was interviewed on TV, including Austria’s now defunct Club2 talk show that featured the likes of Nina Hagen, and where the hosts and guests chain-smoked and adlibbed. He showed a remarkable talent for a good punch line, such as: “Wenn ich mit allen nett sein wollte, mit denen ich nicht schlafe, hätte ich viel zu tun. Also bin ich nett zu denen, mit denen ich schlafe. Das ist Politik.” (“If I wanted to be nice to everyone I haven’t slept with, I’d be very busy. So instead I’m nice to those I sleep with. That’s politics.”) In 1980, he moved to West Berlin, studied writing at the Leipzig Literature Institute under Peter Hacks, and became a vibrant and eloquent figure on Berlin’s gay scene. Motivated by a letter from Hacks which stated that if he wanted to become a great poet, he would have to move to East Germany, Schernikau became the last West German to acquire GDR citizenship on September 1, 1989—two months before the fall of the Wall. On October 20, 1991, he died of an AIDS-related illness. He left behind an estate, including an 800-page manuscript Legende (Legend), which he finished shortly before his death; die tage in l. (days in L.); various other shorter pieces; and poems, essays, and his diary. He was thirty-one years old.
As Small-town Novella and the Club2 interview clip aptly demonstrate, Schernikau was confident in his ability to be heard. His convictions were political: he was a dyed-in-the-wool communist, and strongly opposed to privilege. Questioning the status quo was not, however, a knee-jerk reaction on his part. He had clear aims: one was to point out blatant prejudice against “otherness,” whether it was homosexuality or non-conservative political views. Another was to attempt, quietly yet radically, to change those prejudices—by way of the “scratchy record technique.” In other words, by repeating the same thing over and over with infinite patience. He coaxed his opponents into the ring of their own contradictions. The great strength and surprise of Small-town Novella is how the protagonist, b, does not recoil into a corner after being accused of seducing Leif, a fellow male pupil. Instead, b stands up for his right to love the gender he feels attracted to. Leif has played along in their mutual masturbatory sessions for weeks, fantasizing about girls unbeknown to b—only to turn around and betray b after an intimate moment. Leif then invokes his privilege as a white boy “from an intact home.” The highest authorities are called in: his parents, the school principal, and various school committees. When Leif’s mother demands “compensation” for b’s behavior, including b’s expulsion from school, b’s mother is unruffled: “Why my son? Yours was just as much involved. Who seduced whom here?” she asks.
The case of the two boys is passed from committee to committee like a hot potato, because each group hopes not to have to tackle the problem. b regards school as an institution “where sexuality must not exist.” Privately, b struggles with his disappointment of unrequited love. This turns into an internal political monologue, studied from the angle of what Leif represents: Leif is part of the group, the heterosexual who needs protecting from the gay predator. He is “a man who will have children, family holidays, a job, a car, and a tie.” He “will have to make chauvinist jokes on Monday mornings to be seen as a man.” He represents a “happy normality” that must be defended at all cost.
Schernikau later referred to his novella as a form of self-defense, brimming with revenge. The conclusion is heartening: the path b takes is not apathy but resistance, the will to create a political subculture, and continued provocation. Schernikau himself managed to straddle a difficult position—being a communist when it was no longer fashionable, immigrating back to the GDR only to point out its biggest failings. In his speech at the East German Writers’ Congress in 1990, he said that the stupidity of communists was not an argument against communism; that he was amazed at how the East let in the West without the least resistance—an act of self-annihilation. But he himself was not one to lie down and be walked over. And his strength was to do it quietly, radically, and eloquently.