“They looked German, albeit with even tighter pants and uglier shoes, but there was something different about them”: The Function of East and West Germany and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Paul Beatty’s Slumberland

“They looked German, albeit with even tighter pants and uglier shoes, but there was something different about them”: The Function of East and West Germany and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in Paul Beatty’s Slumberland

Elisa Schweinfurth

“They looked German, albeit with even tighter pants and uglier shoes, but there was something different about them” (110), observes Paul Beatty’s American protagonist when he first encounters East Germans in West Berlin after the fall of the Wall. He does not know who they are, since he simply forgot about Germany’s division into East and West during his stay in West Berlin, but he notices that the former East Germans are somehow different from West Germans. The striking point about Beatty’s novel Slumberland is not that he depicts East Germans as different but that he depicts them at all. Most American novels set in Germany and published after 1949 take place in West Germany and present it as pars pro toto for all of Germany. Post-war novels like John Hawkes’ The Cannibal (1949), Thomas Berger’s Crazy in Berlin (1958), Kay Boyle’s Generation Without Farewell (1960), and even Walter Abish’s How German Is It (1980) all ignore almost entirely the existence of the GDR while concentrating on its Western counterpart. However, during the last fifteen years, the tradition of omitting East Germany in American literary texts has come to an end, and East Germany, the Berlin Wall, and German reunification are moving into the focus of U.S. American novelists.

Yet although the GDR is becoming a central topic in many American texts, scholarly work which deals with American literary representations of Germany usually does not address issues of East Germany and the Berlin Wall but still centers almost primarily on West Germany. Furthermore, most of these studies and anthologies concentrate on American heterostereotypes about Germany, i.e. the stereotypes that a nation shares about another nation, as seen in Henry Cord Meyer’s Five Images of Germany (1960) and Christine M. Totten’s Deutschland—Soll und Haben (1964).

During the 1990s, renewed and increased interest in German/American relations on the part of Americanists in Germany produced a prolific number of essays, anthologies, and analyses. Peter Freese published a collection of essays entitled Germany and German Thought in American Literature and Cultural Criticism (1990) which not only focuses on images of Germany in American literature and culture but also on the contribution of German philosophers in the United States. Moreover, there has also been an increased interest in travel literature as exemplified by Karl Ortseifen’s “Picturesque in the Highest Degree…”: Americans on the Rhine (1993) as well as a focus on specific authors and time periods as seen in Holger Kersten’s Von Hannibal nach Heidelberg: Mark Twain und die Deutschen (1993) and Martin Meyer’s Nachkriegsdeutschland im Spiegel amerikanischer Romane der Besatzungszeit (1945-1955) (1994). The most recent study of German-American relations is Waldemar Zacharasiewicz’s Images of Germany in American Literature (2007) in which he studies images of Germany in American literature since the late nineteenth century and puts them into historical context. However, besides three references to American post-war novels partly set in the GDR in the appendix of Martin Meyer’s Nachkriegsdeutschland,these publications do not discuss representations of East Germany and the Berlin Wall in American novels, nor do they question the representation of Germany as solely West Germany or point out the fact that there is a lack of American texts which portray East Germany.

The following essay addresses this striking research gap in American writing about Germany in its examination of Paul Beatty’s novel Slumberland (2008), a contemporary example that does deal with the former GDR, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and German reunification. It will ask for the function(s) which the setting in a divided Germany and the events of the fall of the Wall and German reunification attain in this text. Often, as Freese observes, a foreign country and its citizens are used in literature as a “means of comparison and contrast” (“Exercises” 94) and therefore “national hetero-images must be recognized as ideological projections having as their principal intention not the objective evaluation of a collective ‘other,’ but, on the contrary, the affirmation of a group identity through comparative and contrastive boundary-making” (Freese, Introduction 15).

One example of this building of a national identity is the heterostereotype of the callous German scientist which is often used as a means of distancing the ‘evil German other’ in order to foreground America’s own virtues and ‘goodness’. However, I argue that the main function of the setting in Slumberland is not the construction of a U.S. American group identity through the othering of Germany but that, instead, the German setting and the political events are used in the novel to critically talk about controversial issues in the United States through the use of displacement.

Paul Beatty’s satire Slumberland sets in shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The novel follows an African American DJ, Ferguson W. Sowell alias DJ Darky, on his search for the famous saxophonist “the Schwa” to perfect his beat. During his approximately one-year stay in Berlin, where he works as a ‘jukebox sommelier’ in the namesake bar Slumberland, the Berlin Wall is torn down and East and West Germany become reunited. However, owing to their frustration with the increased racism in post-Wall Germany since German reunification, DJ Darky and the Schwa decide to rebuild the wall, not with concrete, but through music.

At the beginning of the novel, DJ Darky encounters a divided country which is still strictly separated into East and West Germany through the Berlin Wall. The separation of Germany into East and West can be read as an analogy for the division of the United States into a black and white America in which people with light skin color enjoy white privileges and people of color are more likely to face racial discrimination than other U.S. citizens. The binary division of the United States into black and white worlds where the latter is seen as the norm and blackness is othered is transferred to Germany through the technique of displacement. The novel depicts East and West Germany as two irreconcilable worlds, with the East taking the less favorable role and thus suggesting parallels to the United States’ black ‘other.’ However, this binary is not only represented in form of a division of geographical space but also on the levels of characterization and the depiction of outward appearance; the issue of goods and status symbols; the subject of freedom; and the use of language.

In the novel, the former East Germans are othered through the description of their outward appearance. When DJ Darky first encounters East Germans when the Berlin Wall is torn down, his categories get confused: although the people from the former GDR look and speak German they wear “even tighter pants and uglier shoes” (110) than West Germans. They represent a “sturdy wash-and-wear group” who favors “comfort and practicality over style and flash. For them it [is not] the clothes that made the man. It [is] the person who [makes] the clothes” (111). This difference also extends to other questions of style and consumption that seem outlandish to DJ Darky such as the East German cars.

The East German cars are different from their West German counterparts. After the fall of the Wall, a former East German man tries to steal a West German Benz to replace his Trabant which he dubs a “piece-of-shit socialist sedan” (114). He keeps telling ‘Trabant jokes’—“How do you double the value of your Trabant?” […] “Fill it with gas!” (114)—thus demonstrating a kind of East German inferiority complex with regard to car technology and consumption. The East German’s desire for Western cars suggests the degree to which GDR citizens longed for the Fordist system of the West and his lighthearted abandonment of the Trabant alludes to their readiness to leave the ‘deficient’ and ‘inferior’ socialist East behind in the novel.

The GDR is depicted as a space where freedom is severely restricted. When Germany is still divided into East and West in the novel, a West German woman explains to DJ Darky that it is not allowed to simply mail a package to a foreign country in the GDR. “An East German can’t just mail a package to America. That’s high treason” (61). The woman continues to explain that in the GDR it is only possible to mail packages abroad if a GDR citizen “works for the government or the Stasi” (61).

Furthermore, East Germans have no free access to a great variety of (Western) foods in the GDR. When the Berlin Wall is torn down by protesters in 1989, DJ Darky observes masses of people running down the Western streets, eating bananas and drinking Coca Cola (110), products that were not available to the citizens of the GDR and which are signs of global capitalism and international trade. In contrast to the depiction of East Germany as a space of confinement and limitation, West Germany is represented as “Disneyland” (115) where everything is possible. DJ Darky describes the excited former East Germans as “sojourners into Western imperialism” (115) who feverishly spend all of their complimentary 100 deutschmarks, received as “Bundestag howdy-dos to the Free World” (129), already on their first day in West Germany when the Wall comes down. He explains that the former East Germans are dragging their “sluggish, candy-smeared, toy-laden, lumpen proletarian progeny behind them” (115), demonstrating how easily they can be converted to consumers and worshipers of Western goods. Furthermore, according to the West Germans in the novel, West Germany is “a state-supported counterculture, a Jamestown without the Indians, Woodstock without the rain” (139). East Berlin, in contrast, is compared to “Wounded Knee without the news coverage, Wattstax without the soul music” (139) by West Germans. However, in retrospective, even the East Germans argue that there was a “lack of choice” (139) in the GDR and that East Germany represented a world that spun in “slow pace” (139), always standing in the shadow of the progressive and vigorous West.

Before the fall of the Wall, the differences between East and West Germany are also highlighted in their use of language and the invention of specific terms. While DJ Darky stays DJ Darky in West Berlin, in the East he becomes “Schallplattenunterhalter Dunkelmann” (43), Schallplattenunterhalter being the East German word for DJ while Dunkelmann is the word referring to a dark or obscure man (43). DJ Darky concludes that “the global predominance of English” (43) has not yet reached East Germany. This image is further emphasized through the different names given to the Berlin Wall: “The Wessies euphemistically referred to it as the Innerdeutsche Grenze, or Inner German border. The paranoid Ossies didn’t have time for such Cold War genteelism. The Antifaschistischer Schutzwall was what it was, the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall, a rampart against bullshit” (161). Hence, East Germany is depicted as a romanticized space still untouched by the brutal forces of the West, a Soviet vacuum not influenced by the outside world.

The impression that the Soviet East protected its citizens from the capitalist forces of the West is also supported by a discussion between DJ Darky and the African American Schwa, who accidently got stuck in East Germany when the Berlin Wall was built, about the proper word for the button to switch on electricity. The Schwa argues that East Germans did not have a power button for electricity because “the word ‘power’ was too aggressive […] We had the ‘Netz’ button […] It’s like ‘network.’ So when you turned on the television or whatever, you were plugged into the people. Everybody was sharing the power” (205).1 Hence, the Schwa represents the GDR as a peaceful community in which all people were connected with each other and in which (political) power was shared evenly among the people.

Although East Germany sounds like a wonderful place in the description of the Schwa, it is mainly depicted as a space where freedom is severely limited. To DJ Darky, being East German before the fall of the Wall strongly resembles “being black—the constant sloganeering, the protest songs, no electricity or long-distance telephone service” (118). He equates the experiences and status of East Germans to the situation of African Americans in the United States, contributing to representations of East Germany as a place where people are deprived of their civil rights and freedoms. This comparison is further backed by an incident after the fall of the Wall when an East German embraces DJ Darky with the words “’Ich bin frei!’ I am free!” and adding in reference to Kennedy’s famous speech, “’Ich bin ein Negro. Ich bin frei jetzt’” (118). Hence, the East German man compares the fall of the Berlin Wall to the abolition of slavery in 1865, insinuating that the freeing of four million slaves can be equated to the ‘liberation’ of 16.4 million East Germans in 1989 (“Bevölkerungsentwicklung”).

The previous examples demonstrate that in a divided Germany, East Germans were considered inferior to West Germans as well as restricted in their civil liberties, which is emphasized by their comparison to black people and to the many obstacles African Americans had to overcome in order to gain freedom and civil rights in the United States. At the beginning of the novel, DJ Darky moves from Los Angeles to Berlin, convinced that the situation of black people has changed: the race wars are finally over, black people are considered “officially human” (3), and “[b]lackness is passé” (4). With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the situation of East Germans in Germany also seems to change. Like blackness, Germany’s division into East and West is about to become passé when the Berlin Wall is destroyed. Yet DJ Darky encounters several incidents of racial discrimination nonetheless. Likewise, the fall of the Berlin Wall does not erase Germany’s internal division but instead reinforces the othering of East Germans and feelings of superiority among West Germans towards the former GDR citizens:

GERMANY CHANGED. After the Wall fell it reminded me of the Reconstruction period of American history, complete with scalawags, carpetbaggers, lynch mobs, and the woefully lynched. The country had every manifestation of the post-1865 Union save Negro senators and decent peanut butter […] There were the requisite whining editorials warning the public that assimilation was a dream, that the inherently lazy and shiftless East Germans would never be productive citizens. There were East Germans passing for West Germans. Hiding their accent and fashion sense behind a faux-Bavarian stoicism and glacier hat, and making sure that whenever someone said the words Helmut Kohl they responded with ‘that fat bastard.’ (134)

The comparison of post-Wall Germany to the post-Civil War United States suggests that the German setting is not only used to address the problematic relations between East and West Germans but also to approach racial tensions between black and white people in the United States through displacement, disproving DJ Darky’s enthusiastic initial claim about the end of the race wars.

Yet similar to the time of the American Reconstruction period, at first glance it seems that the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the beginning of a “new era” (135) in which even the American DJ Darky is starting “to feel German” (135). East and West Germany begin to look more alike when the “vast uninhabited no-man’s-land” of the former GDR is “reforested into a rich-man’s-land concrete tract of apartment complexes, shopping centers, and office buildings” (135). Moreover, as a means to unite the country, the government legislates “spelling-reform laws in a covert attempt to institute a uniform thought process. The country that spells together stays together” (136).

After the initial enthusiasm about German reunification vanishes, the country is more divided than ever and former East Germans are treated as second-class citizens. The Western couple Doris and Lars start to view “East Germans, or Ossies, as fundamentally different from themselves. Lazy, unmotivated, and ungrateful” (136), and they invent numerous jokes about them: “Q: Why do East German policemen travel in threes? A: One to read, one to write, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals” (136). Through these jokes, the couple not only reinforces discriminating stereotypes of East Germans, in this case the lack of East German education and intelligence, but also demonstrates their superiority by objectifying them into figures to poke fun of. Hence, although the Berlin Wall no longer exists in material form, it is still present in people’s minds as an “inexorable ghost” and “invisible barrier” (150).

The fall of the Berlin Wall not only reinforces the negative stereotyping of former East Germans but also increases racism against Jews and people of color. DJ Darky points out that before reunification no one called him “Neger” or “Smokey” to his face or said “Jew as a pejorative” (138). The racial tensions in Germany reach their peak when the Afro-East-German woman Fatima becomes anorexic and afraid of everything white as a result of the constant racism to which she is openly exposed in the West (185). Fatima publicly commits suicide by burning herself on the street (189). DJ Darky suddenly sees himself confronted with a resurgence of the racism that haunted him in the past and which he proclaimed had finally ended.

As a result of the racial and cultural tensions in Germany, people start to miss the Wall. West Berliners “miss how special living on an island in the middle of a landmass made them feel” (139), and East Germans long for the “totalitarian state where there was free education, no unemployment, and no discrimination” (142). Furthermore, the novel refers to polls in Berlin newspapers which indicate that at least 20 percent of their readership want the Wall back (199). The increased racism triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall can be understood as an indicator that East and West Germans are not yet ready for a united Germany, just as black and white people in the United States have not yet reached the point at which they are able to end the race wars.

As a means of overcoming the nation’s increased racism, the Schwa decides to rebuild the Berlin Wall (152). However, this time the Berlin Wall consist of music instead of concrete and barbed wire (199), a “transparent wall” (191). The Schwa leaves it to the people if “the wall of sound [is] confinement, exclusion, or protection” (198), indicating that a wall can also be interpreted as something positive which shields people from the dangers that come from the outside. The Schwa opens the new wall with a concert entitled “The Black Passé Tour - Building Walls, Tearing Down Bridges” (209). The name of the concert is an ironic reversal of the familiar slogans associated with integration and multiculturalism which usually encourage to build bridges and tear down the walls that separate people. At first glance, it seems that the reversed slogan indicates that neither blackness nor East and West German tensions can be passé unless new walls between people are built. Thus, it appears that through the concert’s slogan, the text encourages separation.

However, to “celebrate the city’s resegregation” (211) and the newly built wall, the concert ironically manages to bring together diverse groups of people. Although the music unites the different groups, people’s reception of it simultaneously separates them:

They say the Schwa’s wall sounds different depending upon which side you’re standing on. Experienced from the west, the replay of the concert invokes the West Berlin of thirty years ago. It gives the city a sense of the old intimacy that once made it so special. Standing on that side of the wall the music makes you feel safe. It’s the sound of inspiration, encouragement, and hope. On the other hand, if you walk ten meters east, the same music stirs up a different set of emotions. You’re overcome by a power-ballad wistfulness that leaves one reflecting upon how far the city and its citizens have come. In contrast to those on the west who take from the wall, listeners on the eastern side are moved to give of themselves. They treat this wailing wall like a musical temple. (232)

Therefore, through the music, through the transparent wall, the differences between former East and West Germans become more apparent, making visible the difficulties that arise when diverse groups of people are forced to become one united community while their individual historical and cultural backgrounds are not taken into account. The novel shows that the tensions between people cannot be resolved through (forced) integration. Thus, Schwa’s wall of sound highlights the differences between East and West Germans but shows them in a positive light. They are not depicted as inherent but as results of different political and historical circumstances. Only through the positive acknowledgment of these disparities and the possibility to maintain each culture’s heritage, former East and West Germans become one through the uniting power of music. The transparent wall allows the two groups to see and get to know the other side while simultaneously forcing them to rethink former social constructions of superiority and inferiority. As the German citizens realize that the tearing down of the Berlin Wall does not erase the mental wall in people’s minds, the novel insinuates that the United States will not overcome its racial issues by simply proclaiming that they no longer exist just because slavery and segregation - as the most visible signs of racism - are over. The many voices proclaiming a post-race era, especially since the election of Barack Obama, should be careful to not confuse the overall absence of racist laws and legal segregation in the United States with the assumption that racism is passé when it just went underground.

1 The English word ‘power button’ translates into German as the ‘An/Aus-Schalter’ and has no connection to the word ‘power’ (in the sense of the German word ‘Macht’). Hence, the wordplay is another indicator that the novel does not primarily deal with German issues but targets an American audience.

Works Cited

Abish, Walter. How German Is It. New York: New Directions, 1980. Print.

Beatty, Paul. Slumberland. London: Harvill Secker, 2008. Print.

Berger, Thomas. Crazy in Berlin. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1982. Print.

“Bevölkerungsentwicklung.” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. 2001. Web. 1 September 2009 <http://library.fes.de/fulltext/fo-wirtschaft/00323001.htm>.

Boyle, Kay. Generation Without Farewell. New York: Knopf, 1960. Print.

Cord Meyer, Henry. Five Images of Germany: Half a Century of American Views on German History. Washington: Service Center for Teachers, 1960. Print.

Freese, Peter. Germany and German Thought in American Literature and Cultural Criticism. Essen, Germany: Die Blaue Eule, 1990. Print.

—. Introduction. Freese 12 -23. Print.

—. “Exercises in Boundary-Making: The German as the ‘Other’ in American Literature.” Freese 93-132. Print.

Hawke, John. The Cannibal. New York: New Directions, 1962. Print.

Kersten, Holger. Von Hannibal nach Heidelberg: Mark Twain und die Deutschen. Eine Studie zu Literarischen und Soziokulturellen Quellen eines Deutschlandbildes. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1993. Print.

Marcus, Alan. Straw to Make Brick. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948. Print.

Meyer, Martin. Nachkriegsdeutschland im Spiegel amerikanischer Romane der Besatzungszeit (1945-1955). Tübingen: Narr, 1994. Print.

Ortseifen, Karl. “Picturesque in the Highest Degree…”: Americans on the Rhine. Tübingen: Narr, 1993. Print.

Smith, William Gardner. The Last of the Conqueror. London: Victor Gollianz, 1949. Print.

Totten, Christine Margaret. Deutschland—Soll und Haben. Amerikas Deutschlandbild. München: Rüten & Loening, 1964. Print.

Zacharasiewicz, Waldemar. Images of Germany in American Literature. Iowa City, U of Iowa P, 2007. Print.


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