Heroes Like Us Paperback – 21 Aug 1997
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About the Author
John Brownjohn is an award-winning translator. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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* Portnoy's Complaint
** Helden wie wir
Perhaps I should add Joseph Heller's CATCH-22 to that list. By far the funniest section of the book is the middle, when Klaus has joined the Stasi (the infamous secret police of the DDR) as an officer cadet. At least he thinks it is the Stasi. All he can get from his superiors are cryptic reminders that "You know what kind of outfit you are in." But is his group the official Stasi, or a counter-Stasi, or a Stasi plant to distract attention from the real Stasi? All he knows is that their function is "the negation of negation," whatever that means. One of his superiors, who had once taken a course in philosophy, has a habit of illustrating his points with totally irrelevant analogies. Another breaks all his sentences into numbered sub-headings: "We always have pretzels here. It is (a) everyone's responsibility to (b) ensure that we never run out of pretzels." Most of Klaus' work consists of mounting months-long surveillance on apparently random locations, on the principle that "the criminal always revisits the scene of the crime."
As a teenager, Klaus goes to great lengths to obtain a copy of the East German sex manual, MANN UND FRAU INTIM. He does not have much success with its, shall we say, interactive sections, but he rivals Roth's Portnoy in the matter of self-gratification, and is soon exploring some of the practices in the book's final chapter on perversions, and even going beyond it. Indeed, Klaus, who once saw himself as a future Nobel Prizewinner, now sees himself as a sexual pioneer adding to the glory of the Socialist Ideal. I have to say that some of this writing becomes rather tiresome, but take away its more lurid aspects and there is a great deal of truth there. Anyone who has grown up as a rather nerdish boy in a restrictive atmosphere, simultaneously curious and ashamed, feeling the odd-man-out in any group of his peers, will see something of himself in poor Klaus.
No, where I found I lost company with Klaus was in the political aspects of the book. It was a huge success on its publication in Germany in 1995, and you can see why. Brüssig's satire would surely have hit very specific targets with those who had lived through recent history, whereas for non-German readers it is funny enough but somewhat generic. In particular the end of the book, dealing with the Alexanderplatz demonstration and the breech of the Wall, depends a lot on references to the work of an East German writer called Christa Wolff, a name unknown to me. So just at the point where fact and fancy should have met, the book largely lost me. A pity -- but the rest of it was unique and great fun.
Be aware that if you can't handle "penis talk" then you definitely should not read this. The German version is equally as good, and likewise the translation is quite accurate.