A review by Katy Derbyshire
I’m a major fan of the writer Irina Liebmann, especially her dogged devotion to one particular street in Berlin, about which more in a later post. The very first of her books that I read, however, was Berliner Mietshaus. It has been extremely cold in Berlin lately, the kind of weather that requires you to curl up near a heat source with a familiar book, and this was that old favourite.
The premise is simple enough: In 1979, Irina Liebmann chose one building in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg and interviewed everybody living in it, then wrote down what they told her about their lives, their homes and their jobs. It opens up a detailed doll’s house, a portrait of a particular place at a particular time painted by its inhabitants, climbing the stairs from one flat to the next, crossing the yard and doing the same in the rear building.
Liebmann describes her work since 1988, when she left East Germany for the West, as ‘non-fictional prose that is always also lyrical and dramatic.’ And we can see the seeds of that style here in her first book. It was originally planned as a reportage series for the GDR’s Wochenpost, but the newspaper ended up not printing several of the pieces (too negative) and then discontinuing the feature entirely. And so it was first published in East Germany in 1982 by a small publisher in Halle – to not much acclaim, as Liebmann explains in an afterword. The book, she writes, was not affirmative enough for the politicians and not critical enough for the critics. Now, however, it serves as a unique and revealing monument to that time and place.
Each chapter loosely follows the same pattern, starting with the writer’s approach to the tenants in the flat. She knocks on their doors, explains what she’s doing, and usually they invite her in quite willingly and talk freely. They offer her drinks – coffee, vodka, beer, wine – and sometimes food, often cigarettes. The TV might be on, half-watched ice skating or science fiction. Children eat their tea, wash up in the bathroom or the kitchen and are brought in to say good night to the visitor. We don’t get a sense that anyone feels threatened; they’re clearly comfortable airing all sorts of gripes about life in the GDR. When the conversation turned to politics, however, Liebmann writes, ‘I put down my pencil,’ and she was at pains to protect everyone’s anonymity by keeping the address to herself, shuffling the residents around the flats and borrowing the shops on the ground floor (lingerie and haberdashery; a bakery) from a different building.
In the GDR (unlike today), Prenzlauer Berg was a working-class neighbourhood with a fairly bad reputation; in the early 80s, many people moved out to new tower blocks in the outskirts, complete with lifts and central heating. The tenants are largely workers, some of them in jobs that no longer exist, but there are also students, a photographer, a couple who make marionettes for a living and a copy editor eager to share his literary preferences and mental health history. We meet elderly women who experienced the 1918 revolution, for example, and of course the Nazis. One claims her father can’t have been a true believer since everyone had to join the party; Liebmann lets this clearly untrue statement stand without editorialising. One woman’s sister used to be a cleaner for the writer Alfred Döblin’s brother; she’s lost the two paintings of his that she inherited. Or perhaps they never existed – who can say? Liebmann writes that she never questioned what people told her, was more interested in what they’d tell a stranger spontaneously.
Another long-term tenant, Frau N., remembers receiving a note from her family’s Jewish doctor:
‘We have to fall in with kit and caboodle tomorrow morning. Dr Neihoff. […] On Metzer Strasse, opposite his practice, the N.s stood and watched the next morning as the old doctor carried his suitcase out of the building and climbed onto a truck. It was a last farewell. There was nothing we could do, says Frau N.’
Like Walter Kempowski or Svetlana Alexievich, Irina Liebmann collages other people’s statements but lends them structure and context – and like Alexievich, she has an unusual gift for getting people to tell their stories. The book’s literary quality lies partly in its keen eye for tragedy and comedy.
We meet a number of confident young women and learn the strategic ins and outs of marriage, divorce, child benefit and housing policy in the GDR. They seem very wise for their years, often working mothers in their early twenties, independent whether they’re in a relationship or not. Here’s Liebmann’s touching farewell from Sylvia S., who works behind the counter at a butcher’s shop. When she had her son Stephan, her employer couldn’t arrange childcare to start with so she didn’t marry his dad, because single mothers get more benefits that allowed her to stay at home. Now she gets up at 4:30, takes her boy to nursery for 6 and starts work at 6:30. She’s on leave when Liebmann visits; her partner’s off sick.
‘Sylvia puts her pale-blue anorak back on and she and I leave the flat, down the dark corridor, open the wooden door of the front building – the passage is damp so you don’t hear the plaster crumbling – say goodbye on the street, head in different directions; I pause after three steps and turn around. Far ahead, the pale-blue anorak turns too, and Sylvia waves at me for a long time. She’s 22 years old.’
I could go on; the tenants feel genuine, some funny and positive, some dull or irritating. The moments of friction are fascinating too, particularly the encounter with two theology students, an academic discipline often frowned upon in East Germany. It’s hard to say whether the book’s poignancy stems entirely from the fact that these people’s world has disappeared. I think Liebmann’s melancholy style, nascent here but already recognisable in passages like the one above, also plays a part. I’m sure I’ll be re-reading Berliner Mietshaus for years to come.