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Muecke, Matthias Friedrich: Niemandsland

A youth in East Berlin without whitewashing:
Matthias Friedrich Muecke's debut "No Man's Land"

By Thomas Fischer (2020)

What was it like growing up in East Berlin close to the world's most secure border at the time? The Berlin painter and graphic artist Matthias Friedrich Muecke (born 1965), who has not yet appeared as a children's or youth author, sets out to answer this question in an autobiographically inspired book, presumably.

The first-person narrator M. Findig, only called "naked ass" after a failed jump from the diving platform, describes in a series of short episodes his everyday life in Pankow/Berlin of the Cold War. He and his friends - Fischkopp, Torti and the others - are suffering under the strict regiment in the Polytechnic School, mix up run-down factories in "free-lance" work placements, mess with the border troops, ride motorcycles in the school corridors instead of scrubbing them - and of course are experiencing their first great love.

A special place in M.'s life is taken by his best friend Frank, whom he considers a replacement for his twin brother who died at birth. The wire of the children's telephones connecting their two bedrooms can be interpreted as a somewhat desperate symbol of the umbilical cord. Their holidays together on Lake Scharmützelsee in the "Druzhba" youth hostel are a ray of hope in an often brutal daily life marked by domestic violence, school bullying and sexual abuse by a western uncle. Finally, a catastrophy occurs when Frank is shot during an illegal border crossing and M. loses his twin brother for the second time...

The volume lives from the balance of  text and drawings, which oscillate between caricature and comic, and reinforce the message of the text through their simultaneously documentary, precise and bizarre appearance. Just to mention the unspeakable "triangular bathing trunks" is a convincing symbol of the narrowness and parochialism of the GDR, which is playing itself out as the spearhead of progress. It should be critically noted, however, that Muecke's narrative talent does not quite keep pace with his graphic talent; the rhapsodic, fragmentary juxtaposition of anecdotes and puns ("El Friede muss bewaffnet sein!") seems here less a trick than an embarrassing solution.

Many objects of everyday culture today need to be explained in a separate glossary, not only to the "Westerner": From the "Pierre Brice of the East" Gojko Mitic to the "Pay Box of Trust" (a rudimentary ticket machine) to the "Palace of Tears", where the Eastern kinship had to part with its Western visit. This shows how far that strange wall state called GDR has (fortunately) moved away from us today. But it is important to keep the memory of it alive as the same efforts must apply against left-wing dictatorship as to the preoccupation with the Third Reich: Never again!

This volume is a late addition to the wave of "Ostalgie" literature that flourished especially in the nineties, above all with bestsellers like "Zonenkinder" by Jana Hensel and Thomas Brussig's "Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee". The successful film "Goodbye Lenin" should also be mentioned here. However, the preoccupation of children's and youth literature with topics of the recent German past will certainly continue for a long time and will be necessary.