It’s a real pleasure today to welcome Fiona Rintoul to Being Anne. Her book, The Leipzig Affair, isn’t new – it was published in 2014 by Aurora Metro Books – but I doubt anyone would argue with Fiona’s assertion that now is a good time to revisit the themes of a divided Europe and how politics affects people’s lives. The book is a literary thriller set between 1980s’ communist East Germany and turn-of-the-millennium London, telling the story of a doomed love affair between a Scottish research student and a disillusioned young East German woman desperate to flee the GDR.
The year is 1985. East Germany is in the grip of communism. Magda, a brilliant but disillusioned young linguist, is desperate to flee to the West. When a black market deal brings her into contact with Robert, a young Scot studying at Leipzig University, she sees a way to realise her escape plans. But as Robert falls in love with her, he stumbles into a complex world of shifting half-truths – one that will undo them both.
Many years later, long after the Berlin Wall has been torn down, Robert returns to Leipzig in search of answers. Can he track down the elusive Magda?
And will the past give up its secrets?
You may see other blog posts from Fiona – she’s running a short tour to coincide with the anniversary of major events in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and today has a particular relevance. I’m delighted to feature her post about writing in the second person, and why it felt so right…
When I was writing The Leipzig Affair, it took me a long time to find the right voice for Magda, the main female character. What finally got me inside her head was using the second person ‘you’ voice.
It’s a disputed voice that writers are often advised not to use. Many people – including a number of literary agents – suggested I ditch it. But it felt right. When I wrote in the second person, Magda’s story flowed on to the page, and that was what mattered.
Recently, I’ve been wondering why the second person felt so right for Magda, who is a spirited but damaged young East German woman bent on the ‘fleeing the Republic’ – a serious crime under East German law. Perhaps it’s because throughout the book she is under surveillance.
In The Leipzig Affair, Magda is being watched by the Stasi – the dreaded East German secret service. Using so-called unofficial collaborators, they have penetrated much more deeply into her private life than she realises.
Even after the Berlin Wall is torn down, she is still being watched. Ex-Stasi officers follow her career as a photographer and try to stop her telling the story of her wrongful imprisonment.
This kind of harassment was quite common in the years after East Germany collapsed. The hunter doesn’t like to see his prey escape. And sometimes victims of surveillance struggle to take their freedom when they can, because they have lost all sense of themselves.
The Stasi took control of people’s biographies so that they didn’t know who they were anymore, destroying their reputations and their private relationships. This technique was called ‘Zersetzung’, which roughly translates as decomposition. It meant taking people apart from the inside to neutralise them. Very often – too often – it worked. People didn’t have bruises on the outside. But inside they were mush and they ceased to resist.
I didn’t think about this consciously when I was writing The Leipzig Affair but I now think that using the second person helped me to convey what it’s like to have your biography hijacked in this way. It’s as if Magda is being told what her story is rather than telling it herself. You did this. You did that.
We’re all getting a little taste of that these days with tailored adverts on the Internet. Companies such as Google and Facebook know a frightening amount about us and use that information to tell us what our story is. You might like this. You might want to be friends with that person.
This October marks the 28th anniversary of the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig that brought down the East German regime. On 16 October 1989, 120,000 people took the streets and faced down military units in a peaceful demonstration. Less than a month later, the Berlin Wall fell.
During those Monday demonstrations, East Germans found their voice. They decided to dictate their own story rather than have it dictated to them. In many ways, that’s when they became full citizens of their country, which was so soon to disappear.
That’s another reason why the second person was the perfect voice for Magda. She is a second-class citizen in her own country, deprived of liberty and fearful of the authorities. The second person voice helps to make her experience of being controlled by others resonate.
Sadly, after reunification, many East Germans still felt like second-class citizens, because of the way their country was engulfed by West Germany. Magda is no exception.
‘In the new Germany, the East Germans are the ugly ones with their thick accents, poor English and badly cut clothes,’ she says.
It was perhaps this feeling of being a refugee in their own land that prompted so many in the East to vote for extremist parties in the recent German election. But it is sad to see metaphorical refugees turning on actual refugees.
Magda, I’m sure, would not have done this. She would’ve agreed with the East German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck that ‘how you see someone defined as a stranger defines who you are’.
On this 28th anniversary, the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and the East German story feel more relevant than ever. They offer a blueprint of civil courage that we desperately need.
It’s the blueprint the NFL footballers are following when they take the knee. It’s the blueprint Magda follows in The Leipzig Affair when she finds the courage to confront her own story and become the first person. It’s what we all need to do if we want to be free.
Fiona, thank you – a timely and appropriate reminder, and a quite wonderful guest post.
With thanks to Fiona, I’m delighted to be able to offer one lucky reader the chance to win a signed paperback copy of The Leipzig Affair. Here’s the rafflecopter for entry:
About the author
Fiona Rintoul is a writer, journalist and translator. The Leipzig Affair, which is her first novel, was shortlisted in the 2015 Saltire awards and serialised on BBC R4’s Book at Bedtime. Fiona is also the author of Whisky Island, a celebration of the Isle of Islay and its eight whisky distilleries in poetry and prose, which was shortlisted in the 2017 Fortnum & Mason food and drink awards, and translator of Erziehung vor Verdun (Outside Verdun), Arnold Zweig’s masterpiece of the first world war. She is a graduate of the Glasgow University creative writing programme and a past winner of the Gillian Purvis new writing award and the Sceptre prize. She lives in Glasgow and on the Isle of Harris.