The Origin of Rávik

She likes it when a name conceals a secret in one life, but reveals it in another…Either you are Adina or the Last Mohican.

Having translated two short stories, an essay, and a novel by Antje Rávik Strubel, I decided to visit her at her home in Berlin to continue our conversation about literature, translation, and what it was like growing up in East Germany, the GDR (German Democratic Republic).  Her apartment, located in the unfashionable section of Schöneberg, is surrounded by sex shops and kebab stands.  I pass through the sunless courtyard of a pre-War building and climb the staircase, checking each name plate along the way:  Meyer, Raskovsky, Arslan.  Finally, at the summit of a seemingly endless spiral, I discover some writing in a tiny font at the side of the door, a “so what?” in lieu of a name.  The private joke (nobody really looks that closely) is typical of Antje’s deadpan humor, and a pithy description of the author’s perspective on identity.  It also sheds an interesting light on the Slavic sounding moniker she attached to her name, which, to her dismay, is always mispronounced as “Ravitch” rather than “Ravic” with a “k” sound.  Defending my own impulse to “ch” the name, I suggest that her misguided victims merely wanted to give it a proper Slavic intonation.  “But Rávic is a completely invented name,” she says, and anyway, the accent would have to be over the letter c for it to make a “ch” sound, not over the a!  Rávic stands for who I am when I’m writing, which differs from who I am in life.  But since everybody mispronounced it, I was given a Romanian childhood; others said my parents were war refugees coming from Eastern Europe, but that’s good.  When the social system you grew up in suddenly disappears, then you can continually reinvent yourself.  Anything that has been constructed, like society or the self, can be deconstructed—just like that.

Sometimes it happens overnight

Born in Potsdam and raised in Ludwigsfelde (a factory town in East Germany) Antje was fifteen when the Berlin Wall fell.  In 2005, Antje was just thirty when she found the artifacts of her lost childhood on display at the newly inaugurated Wende Museum in Los Angeles.  There she saw the Ten Statutes of the Young Pioneers, children’s books, magazines, Stasi files, Pioneer slogans, pennants, money, shoes, uniforms, and yet nothing on display, none of the accompanying explanations of the mysterious rites of passage corresponded to her memories of them.  In short, what Antje found under glass was foreign.  This wasn’t the first time she had visited a folk art museum, she writes in an essay about her visit entitled “Extincted Alive,” but it was the first time she belonged to the “folk” on display. 

Wende Kids \ G `ven-də `kids n -pl of KID\: [first usage, USA 2006] 

  1. East German authors born in the 1970s whose parents consciously experienced the GDR from its beginnings and who came of age when the Wall fell in 1989.  Having spent equal time in both systems, they write about their contradictory experiences and feelings as they navigate through the personal and historical upheaval of the post-Wall period. 

Averse to biography-based analyses of literature, Antje balks at the connection I make between her personal history and her fiction, and suggests I instead talk about how she discovered her idol Joan Didion, or that I mention her other idol, Vladmir Nabokov, had lived around the corner from her present apartment in the late 1920s.  That’s good, I think, but I’m missing the bigger picture.  I’d like to know what distinguishes young writers of a unified Germany from the older political writers of the GDR.

We younger authors from the East find the GDR a bizarre world we experienced only as children.  Of course, we know how deadly it was, but we don’t take it seriously anymore; maybe because we didn’t experience it as a personal threat.  It didn’t destroy our lives because we were fifteen when the wall fell and we were just starting out.  This means that we can write about the GDR, that we can use it as material, but we don’t belong to the generation that needs to come to terms with the past.  You could say we are the first generation that isn’t dealing directly with that process.

As I sit in the middle of Antje’s spacious study, musing about her role in the larger scheme of post-War German history and literature, and this much is clear: post-Unification writers are creating works from an entirely different set of socio-historical exigencies than their predecessors (from the East and West) and they are largely unknown outside Germany’s borders. 
Of the new authors shaping the post-Unification narrative, Antje Rávic Strubel is one of the most prolific.  At age thirty-three she has published six critically acclaimed novels (Offene Blende(2001), Unter Schnee (2001), Fremd Gehen (2002),Tupolew 134 (2004) Kältere Schichten der Luft  (2007), and Vom Dorf: Abenteuer Geschichten zum Fest (2007).  She has written enough short stories to fill two volumes; essays and articles numbering in the hundreds, and has won a handful of Germany’s most prestigious literary awards, including a nomination for the Leipzig Book Fair Award. Critics repeatedly refer to her writerly virtuosity, poetic economy, precise prose, laconic wit, and to a musicality of language rarely seen in contemporary German fiction.  They also describe her as a keen observer of human behavior, with an ethnographer’s eye view of the German-German past. These are all very good reasons why Antje’s work should be translated now.  But there are other larger reasons.  Given that worldwide translations of German authors largely end with the post-Holocaust musings of Bernhard Schlink and W. G. Sebald in the mid-1980s and 1990s, it is crucial to the understanding of German literature—and Germany— that Antje’s generation of post-Wall authors be heard.

by Zaia Alexander, Los Angeles, October 2007.
published in: Snowed Under, Red Hen Press 2008