Today’s post is an online conversation between myself and Fiona Rintoul, the author of the historical fiction novel The Leipzig Affair. It is the story of Robert, a Scottish student who travels to the GDR in 1985, where he meets Magda, a young East German looking to escape. As a fan of the book, I had the chance to speak with Fiona – an accomplished journalist and translator, in addition to her literary talents – about fiction, history, and the Stasi.
Ned Richardson-Little: When writing a work of history, you are ultimately bound by the texts and artifacts of the era that make up your source base. While you have a greater freedom to go beyond this as a fiction writer, how do you see the constraints of history as you write about this era?
Fiona Rintoul: When you are writing a novel that is grounded in a particular time and place, I think you have a responsibility to make sure it is authentic, especially if you are writing about events that were traumatic for many people. The characters and events in The Leipzig Affair are fictional, but real people in the former GDR suffered the kinds of problems and injustices that my characters endure. Therefore, I did feel it was important to get the details right.
At the same time, the book is a work of fiction, and there is truth and fictional truth, and they are not quite the same. A story has to work as a story regardless of what actually happened to actual people. I think a writer can allow themselves some freedom to create their own reality within their chosen setting – as long as the story remains authentic. If there are lots of things that are just plain wrong, then you lose credibility and your story becomes a bit of an insult to people who lived through the period you’re describing. However, I don’t think you need to check the location of every lamppost. I’m reminded of a story my husband tells about WG Sebald, who allegedly received a letter from a reader saying the clock in Antwerp station is on the left of the departure board in one of his books when in fact it’s on the right. Apparently, he wrote back and said, ‘In my book, it’s on the left.’
I think that’s fair enough. It’s not fair enough to misrepresent people’s experiences. For a long time, I hesitated to write the book because I’m not East German. However, after spending time in Berlin on a journalists’ exchange and seeing how much tension and lack of understanding there was between East and West Germans, I came to the conclusion that an outsider might actually be the best person to write this book. After it was published, I received an email for an elderly woman in Dresden thanking me for writing it and saying she appreciated that I’m neither an Ossi nor a Wessi. That’s still my favourite review ever.
NRL: I’ve had similar responses as a Canadian writing about East German history. After one seminar, I was told that it was a relief that we didn’t have to discuss my family’s role on either side of the Wall before getting down to actually debating the merits of a historical argument. Not that I actually am inherently objective about this subject, but there was a sense that being an outsider made it easier to talk about certain sensitive subjects. In the case of your book, you also seem to be balancing the use of an outsider perspective through one of your protagonists – a Scot who is encountering the GDR for the first time and is written in the first person – but at the same time, the other protagonist is East German and is written in the second person.
FR: Yes, writing the story of Magda, the East German protagonist, in the second person, was quite an important choice. For reasons that I can’t entirely explain, using the second person really helped me to get inside her head and to stop worrying about not being East German myself. I’ve written about why I think the second person was the right choice for Magda’s voice elsewhere. I think writing in the second person did also put me at a little bit of remove from her – almost as if I were a Stasi agent watching her – which somehow helped. And, yes, you’re right, meanwhile I could put across the outsider’s perspective on the GDR through Robert.
NRL: When telling this story, did you see yourself as a vehicle for a factual recounting of what occurred in the GDR or is the act of fiction writing, even when writing about a historical era, more concerned with a broader truth?
FR: I think there’s a bit of both. There were certain things I wanted to convey about the GDR in the book. Mainly, I wanted to go behind the dominant narrative that reunification was a joyous release from communism and present a more nuanced picture. I wanted to do that because I believe that to be the truth. I’m not sure I’d have been interested in writing the book if I hadn’t had that belief. At the same time, that truth about the GDR is, I think, part of a broader human truth. Things are always more complicated than they seem. Be careful what you wish for etc. Also, one of the things that’s interesting about life in a police state is that it brings out the best and the worst in people, and so truths about human nature are thrown into sharp relief.
I was also very interested in the two central characters, particularly Magda. She is flawed but has strength of character. I was interested in portraying a female character like her, who is independent and basically quite strong – stronger really than the men around her.
NRL: Since your own writing on East Germany is also grounded in your own personal experiences, to what extent is your own subjective perception of the GDR as a writer also informed by historical work?
FR: My own experience of living in East Germany was the inspiration for the book. The time I spent there made a big impression on me, and I had a lot of very clear memories. I used those for a lot of the small background details. I think those memories also informed my overall sense that, whilst there were many problems in the GDR and many unforgivable assaults on personal freedom, people did take a pride in their country. I did a lot of research too, though, when I was writing the book. In particular, I spent a lot of time looking into how the Stasi operated. Although I was aware of the Stasi when I was in Leipzig, I didn’t know that much about them and – fortunately – I never went to prison or underwent interrogation.
NRL: In trying to show a nuanced picture of the GDR, you also grapple with the problem of what it meant to work for the Stasi, both as an officer and as an informant. The forced resignation earlier this year of Berlin’s housing secretary Andrej Holm for his connections to the Stasi as a 19 year old in 1989 showed how polarizing this subject remains even 28 years after the fall of the Wall. As much as the Stasi are to some extent the villains in the book, you also seem to want to give them a fair hearing.
FR: I’ve never quite thought of it like that but I suppose I do believe that everyone is a victim in a repressive society. Again, this is perhaps where an outsider’s perspective helps. If you personally have been spied upon by people who were in equal part terrifying and ridiculous, as the Stasi officials were, and have suffered because of that, I don’t think anyone can expect you to be objective about the Stasi. But if you are an outsider looking in, you can see that most of the individuals who worked for the Stasi were just cogs in a machine who would probably have been insurance salesmen if they’d been born in Duisburg rather than Dresden. In a way, it’s not my place to judge them because I don’t know what I’d have done in their situation. I am lucky enough never to have faced those choices. An East German who lived through the GDR and didn’t cooperate with the Stasi can judge them. Absolutely they can. They’ve earned that right; I don’t think I have that right. All I can do as a writer is try to understand them.
I also think it’s important to recognize the humanity of perpetrators whether we’re talking about the Stasi or the Nazis or someone in our society who commits a horrible murder. It’s precisely because perpetrators are human that their actions are so chilling. I think Bernard Schlink brought that across brilliantly in The Reader. But it’s a subtle point, and people sometimes react with hostility to The Reader – which makes the book all the more important.
NRL: While the role of the Stasi remains very sensitive, it does seem like there is a new openness to trying to move beyond seeing the GDR only in terms of totalitarian oppression. When films like Sonnenallee or Good Bye Lenin! were released in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was outcry that they weren’t simply condemnatory, but acknowledged that many had positive feelings towards some aspects of life in East Germany. More recently, however, a TV show like Deutschland 83 has sympathetically explored the perspective of the Stasi and its fears of Western nuclear aggression. Did these debates about Ostalgie and the politics of how to portray the East German past play any role in your writing process?
FR: I certainly thought about those debates. And I’m aware I have a bit of Ostalgie myself. There was something oddly alluring about East Germany, perhaps because there was no real material hardship, but it was a society that wasn’t dominated by money where you kind of knitted your own fun. Still, the phenomenon of Ostalgie is perplexing. Why do people get nostalgic about soap powder from a police state they overthrew? I’ve thought about this a lot. I think it’s because there was a kind of takeover by West Germany after reunification. Everything East German was to be replaced by the West German equivalent, whether the West German equivalent was better or not. People in East Germany lost agency and at some point they said: stop. This is our country, our past, our lives. We don’t want to ditch it all.
I think that’s an important part of the East German experience and I did try to bring it across in the book. To be honest, I feel a lot of West Germans had a slightly patronizing and ill-informed attitude towards East Germans, which contributed to the discomfort people felt after reunification. I tried to covey that too in The Leipzig Affair. It’s something I can slightly relate to as a Scot and perhaps particularly as a Glaswegian. That’s another reason why I think it was easier for me to write this story than it would be for someone from, say, Gelsenkirchen.
About Fiona Rintoul:
Fiona Rintoul is a writer, journalist and translator. The Leipzig Affair, which is her first novel, was shortlisted in the 2015 Saltire awards and serialised on BBC R4’s Book at Bedtime. Fiona is also the author of Whisky Island, a celebration of the Isle of Islay and its eight whisky distilleries in poetry and prose, which was shortlisted in the 2017 Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards, and translator of Erziehung vor Verdun (Outside Verdun), Arnold Zweig’s masterpiece of the first world war. She is a graduate of the Glasgow University creative writing programme and a past winner of the Gillian Purvis new writing award and the Sceptre prize. She lives in Glasgow and on the Isle of Harris.
The Leipzig Affair by Fiona Rintoul
Publisher: Aurora Metro Books