THIS impressive debut shows lives on the cusp of change as the Cold War ends, writes David Robinson
The Leipzig Affair
by Fiona Rintoul
Aurora Metro, 295pp, £8.99
Marek is dead. That’s one of the first things we find out in Fiona Rintoul’s dazzling debut novel: that he’s been shot while trying to get across the border from East Germany to West. That, and the fact that it’s all somehow Bob’s fault, which is why he’s turned to drink in a big, not to say self-destructive, way.
If Rintoul were writing a one-trick book, that would almost be enough: Marek the mid-Eighties idealist, Bob the innocent westerner who betrayed him, a Scottish PhD student in Leipzig who must now spend the rest of his life either seeking oblivion or redemption.
The fact is, though, that Bob couldn’t stand Marek. He was “smug, conceited, snide, bitchy and deceitful”. Marek’s girlfriend Magda, was different. She was beautiful, mysterious, a translator who had her own reasons for wanting to get across the border from the country of workers and farmers to the land of dreams and free-flowing market capitalism. She was an easy women to fall in love with, and that’s exactly what Bob did.
Yet again, nothing here is as simple as it might first appear. There are multiple betrayals within this love triangle, and they are personal as well as political, for this was a time when the fall of the Wall was completely unforeseen, even by the Stasi and the one in four East Germans rumoured to be its informers. The state’s power impacts on ordinary lives in ways that are both direct (to stand any chance of being allowed to study English in the West, Magda knows she has to sleep with the university’s head of languages) and subtle (how this affects her relationship with her boyfriend).
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These days there’s a Stasi museum: you can look up its files and find out who informed on whom, and sure enough, there’ll be revelations along these lines at the novel’s end. But even more fascinating than the bitter clarity of the present is Rintoul’s portrait of everyday life in the Cold War state, when no-one knew who could be trusted, when westerners stuck out, not just because of the way they dressed (oh for a pair of Levi 501s!) or the size of their tips, but because of their moral attentiveness and conversational obviousness. They’d listen to a story about bureaucratic bungling, for example, with genuine outrage, as if something could be done about it. Questioned by the police, they’d never expect that sudden punch to the stomach.
Rintoul pulls the reader through her story with craft and psychological precision, while trawling a satisfyingly long way into her characters’ pasts and futures. If this were being made into a film – and it would make a good one – these scenes of Bob’s relationship with his more successful best friend, with his rather dour Motherwell family, or his empty days as a fading City high flyer mightn’t make it to the final cut, but they provide the novel with plenty of emotional ballast. Given that at its core is the Stasi’s attempt to destroy both Bob and Magda, it’s important to know what made up that personality in the first place.
This is a novel about secrets, and there are so many of them in the plot that it is hard to do it justice without spoiling it. Suffice it to say that, in short, punchy chapters that alternate between Magda’s second-person account and Bob’s first-person narrative, Rintoul uses secrets to turn our expectations inside out.
So vividly does she convey a sense of place (and such delicious details as the area of Saxony known in the 1980s as “the Valley of the Clueless” because it couldn’t pick up western TV) that I’m not surprised to discover that Rintoul was herself a student for a term at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig in 1985 – very place and time in which the book itself is set.
The novel’s greatest success, however, is that its portrait of East Germany isn’t static but captures something of the dynamic of change sweeping through the country as it shakes off its repressive but comforting past and embraces the free, but paradoxically costly, present. Similarly with Bob and Magda and Marek: as the times change, they change too.
Credibly charting these transformations on both the private and national levels isn’t easy. But it’s the main reason that this brilliant Scottish debut novel, which came out at the fag-end of last year from a small English publisher, deserves all the praise that will doubtless come its way.
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