Maxim Leo | Pushkin Press | April 2014 | 17 minutes (4,200 words)
For this week’s Longreads Member Pick, we’re excited to share the first chapters from the forthcoming book Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo. Growing up with bohemian parents in the GDR, Leo recreates their lives as rebellious artists in an increasingly restrictive world. Our thanks to Pushkin Press for sharing the book with the Longreads community.
When I stepped into the hospital room, Gerhard laughed. He said something. Weird, throaty words came out of his mouth. Then he laughed again. I can’t remember my grandfather ever being so pleased to see me. The doctor told me the stroke had damaged the language centre in Gerhard’s brain. All he could do now was express emotions. The rational side of him was blocked. I reflected that it had been precisely the other way around before.
Gerhard talked away at me. I pretended I understood. Eventually I told him that unfortunately I didn’t understand anything at all. Gerhard nodded sadly. Perhaps he’d hoped I might be able to free him from his speechlessness. Just as I’d sometimes helped him out of his emotional stiffness in the past. With a joke or a cheeky remark that shook his authority. I was the clown of the family, the one nobody suspected of evil intentions. I could overstep the mark with the hero of the family, the man no one else dared to contradict.
A clear spring light shone through the window of the hospital room. Gerhard’s face was slack and empty. We said nothing. I would have liked to have a conversation with him. I mean a real conversation. Usually conversations with Gerhard turned into monologues about his latest successes after ten minutes at the most. He talked about books he happened to be writing, about lectures he’d given, about newspaper articles people had written about him. A few times I tried to learn more about him. More than the stories everybody knew. But he didn’t want to. Perhaps he was scared of getting too close to himself. That he’d got used to being a monument.
It was too late now. This man, for whom language had always been the most important thing, has become speechless. I can’t ask him questions any more. No one can. He’s going to keep his secrets.
Gerhard was a hero even before he entered adulthood. At the age of seventeen he’d fought with the French Resistance, was tortured by the SS and freed by partisans. After the war he came back to Germany as a victor and built up the GDR, that state in which everything was to be better. He became an important journalist, a part of the new power. They needed people like him at the time. People who had done everything right in the war, people you could refer to if you wanted to explain why this anti-fascist state had to exist. They sent him to schools and universities. Again and again he talked about his fight against Hitler, about torture, about victory.
I grew up with those stories. I was proud to belong to this family, to this grandfather. I knew Gerhard had had a pistol at some point, and that he knew how to use explosives. When I visited my grandparents in Friedrichshagen, there was apple cake and fruit salad. Again and again I asked Gerhard to talk about the past. Gerhard talked about frightening Nazis and courageous partisans. Sometimes he jumped up and acted out a play with different parts. When Gerhard played a Nazi, he pulled his face into a grimace and spoke in a deep, gurgling voice. After the performance he would usually give me a bar of Milka chocolate. Even today I think of those monster Nazis every time I eat Milka chocolate.
In the presence of adults, Gerhard wasn’t as funny. He didn’t like anyone in the family to “go around politicking”, as he put it. In fact everybody who didn’t, like Gerhard, believe in the GDR, was politicking around the place in one way or another. The worst was Wolf, my father, who wasn’t even a member of the Party, but had married Gerhard’s favourite daughter Anne, my mother. There were lots of arguments, mostly about things I only really understood later on. About the state, about society, about the cause, whatever it happened to be. Our family was like a miniature GDR. It was here that the struggles took place, the ones that couldn’t be fought out anywhere else. Here ideology collided with life. That struggle raged for whole years. It was the reason my father went around the house shouting, why my mother secretly cried in the kitchen, why Gerhard became a stranger to me.
Gerhard and I sat together for a while on that spring day in that hospital room, which smelt of canteen food and disinfectant. It was slowly getting dark outside. Gerhard had caved in on himself. His body was there, but he seemed to be somewhere else. It may sound strange, but I had the feeling that the GDR only really came to an end at that moment. Eighteen years after the fall of the Wall the stern hero had disappeared. Before me there sat a helpless, lovable man. A grandfather. When I left we hugged, which I don’t think we’d ever done before. I walked down the long hospital corridor and felt at once sad and elated.