Tupolew 134 – that was the make of the Polish airliner scheduled to fly from Danzig to Schönefeld (East Berlin) on 30th August 1978. In the event it was captured by two East Germans hijackers and forced to land in Tempelhof in West Berlin instead. The hijackers, a man and a young woman fleeing East Germany for the West, were later tried on the airfield by an American court set up especially for the purpose. These are the key facts behind a sensational hijacking that hasn’t been fully explained almost thirty years after the event; facts that provide the starting point for Antje Rávic Strubel’s fourth novel. The young German writer’s latest book is a gripping story about the search for love and personal freedom in the Cold War era, a search ending in disappointment and disillusionment and the death of all utopias.
In Strubel’s novel the hijackers are Katja Siems, an attractive young woman with a love of life, and her older colleague and friend, Lutz Schaper. They are employed in a factory that manufactures heavy goods vehicles, and their life is governed by the daily routine of work. Then one day, while Katja is standing at her workbench, it hits her: ‘I don’t want to live like this any more.’ The words are uttered casually and yet they mark the start of her resolve to leave the GDR.
Katja’s enthusiastic longing for a world in which ‘it would be possible to see the sunset forty-four times in one day. Forty-four sunsets, said the little prince […]’ eventually spreads to Lutz, who agrees to join her in fleeing to the West, probably because he loves her, although he hasn’t ever told her so. But Katja’s plan to escape only gains real momentum when a West German, Hans Meerkopf, starts work at the factory as coordinator for cooperation between the two German states. With practised charm he flings himself into an affair with Katja—or is it the other way round?
Out of this encounter between the two Germanys a plan is born. Katja and Lutz arrange to meet Meerkopf in Danzig and escape with forged passports on a ferry to the West. But Meerkopf never gets to Danzig. Someone has betrayed him and the Stasi arrest him en route. When their helper fails to turn up at the appointed time, Katja and Lutz run scared and in a kind of fight-or-flight reflex choose the apparently hopeless course of hijacking an aeroplane. One thing is clear: they will never be able to return to Ludwigsfelde again.
On landing in West Berlin the pair are arrested and tried. The charges against Katja Siems are dropped due to lack of evidence. Lutz Schaper is given a token prison sentence of just a few weeks. As it transpires, the weapon he brandished in the aeroplane was an eighty-year-old toy gun. Once released, Lutz and Katja both settle in West Berlin, but have no further contact with each another.
Strubel’s novel about love, jealousy, betrayal and the failure to determine one’s own future unfolds on three different time planes, covering fifty years of German history. Abrupt transitions seem to place the time planes in stark juxtaposition to one another, but on a deeper level they are cleverly connected. Each of the time planes is characterised by different key words and marks a different level in the well shaft of the past where memory and narrative meet.
‘Above’ is where the present tense of the narrative unfolds, as twenty-five years after the hijacking a young journalist interviews Katja in an attempt to understand her motives. ‘Below’ is the level on which the hijacking, the arrests and the court case take place; while ‘the depths’ characterize the period prior to this, descending back to 1953, the year of Katja’s birth.
Strubel’s narrative strategy is complex and effective, reproducing in its discontinuities and unreliability the patterns of memory itself: ‘The story has started. With its own logic that emerges only after the event. In memory. The future is a root of memory.’ Reality seems always to evade us, an impression reinforced by the unreliability of the narrator. In the end we realize that this narrator is Katja—who questions everything that is said, making the reader join her in the multi-layered process of reconstructing the past. Strubel’s novel is predicated on the doubt as to whether truth can ever be known, so there can be no objective result at its conclusion; instead at best subjective truth:
‘That’s the way it could have been at least. It costs a lot of effort to see things properly. Even when you don’t have much to see. All I have are bubbles and air. Pools of water that shimmer in the desert sand. You can make the effort. To get things in their proper order. To be fair. To distance yourself sufficiently and see things from above.’
This passage is characteristic of the way in which the novel keeps returning to metapoetic questions, to the relationship between truth and fiction or subjective experience and the objective course of history. And so it is all the more astonishing that Tupolew 134, despite all its scepticism towards straightforward realism, contains some extraordinarily vivid descriptions of everyday life in the GDR. The same sober language is also used to portray the main characters and their relationships, which remain, nonetheless, oddly opaque, due to the narrator’s consistent refusal to explain the characters’ actions.
In Tupolew 134, her outstanding new novel, Strubel is less concerned with ‘the way it really was’ than with the way it might have been. The different ways of seeing what happened and the doubts cast on reality are to a large extent the result of the juxtaposition and overlaying of different voices and hypotheses that spiral through the novel in ever-changing patterns like the shifts of a kaleidoscope. ‘Stories can have lots of hidey-holes’; hence you never can be certain.
Translated by Sally Ann Spencer