The novel Star 111 takes its title from an iconic East German transistor radio, a device that awakened the protagonist Carl Bischoff to the world when he was a child and that was at the heart of one of his small family’s few rituals. The image of this portable radio captures the contrary energies that animate Seiler’s highly autobiographical work—the centrifugal force of historical upheaval and the centripetal force of introspection and artistic self-definition.

An expansive portrait of a poet as a young man, Star 111 captures the brief season of utopian anarchy in Berlin immediately following the collapse of the GDR. Through the adventures and misadventures of assorted idealists, artists, idlers, and eccentrics, this novel evokes the heady atmosphere of hope and disorientation, of revolutionary utopianism and opportunism that filled the dilapidated former capital in 1990. Seiler conveys the sense of liberation and possibility felt both by the East Germans who left for the West and by those who stayed behind, yet he resists sentimentalizing the experiences of either group. The result is an intimate study of political romanticism in a time of upheaval and the suffering it inevitably entails but often disregards.

In the three decades since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the capacious genre of the Wenderoman, novels dealing with the collapse of the GDR and the aftermath, has become firmly established in contemporary German literature. Seiler’s latest addition to this genre is unusual in that it narrows a broader historical view to an intent focus on the personal. By interweaving the éducation sentimental and the political awakening of the aspiring poet, Seiler has created an engaging hybrid Wenderoman and Bildungsroman. A parallel narrative strand follows Carl’s parents’ belated flight over the disintegrating border to face awakenings and disillusionments of their own, and offers a nuanced account of an older generation’s experience of the era.

One of Germany’s most prominent poets, Seiler established himself as a major novelist with his 2014 debut Kruso. That novel, set in the summer of 1989 on the Baltic island of Hiddensee, mirrors the downfall of the GDR through the dissolution of a group of outcasts and idealists making their various bids for freedom. A popular destination for dissidents, Hiddensee was not only an oasis of liberty, it was the launching point of a dangerous escape route for East Germans fleeing to Denmark. More than 5,600 East Germans attempted to cross the 40 kilometer channel between 1961 and 1989, but fewer than 1,000 made it. Focused on this small cosmos, Kruso records the real human cost of utopian dreams.

Seiler’s second novel, Star 111, forms a diptych with Kruso, portraying the East Berlin underground bar and squatter scenes in the months between the Fall of the Wall and reunification, a time that seemed filled with opportunities to establish social and economic systems other than actually existing socialism or capitalism. “The whole world is being redistributed these days,” the hapless Carl is told when he washes up in Berlin after his parents abruptly leave for the West. He is taken in by a group of dissidents, punks, artists, and revolutionaries gathered around Hoffi, a charismatic, messianic leader nicknamed the “Shepherd,” because he guards not only his flock of misfits but also his pet goat Dodo, the group’s mascot and source of milk. This group—Carl’s “pack,” part cult, part band of urban guerrillas—are united in following Hoffi’s principle that “each and every one is equal and equally worthy, although in the current situation, workers must receive special attention.” Their mission is to “sabotage the breeding ground of capital through immediate redistribution” by occupying hundreds of abandoned buildings—in their words “making them livable”—a mission they finance by stealing tools and material from West German construction sites, running unlicensed bars, and selling bits of the Wall, both real and counterfeit, to tourists and foreign speculators. Carl, a trained bricklayer, soon becomes an essential member of the pack and helps them build their figurative and literal bulwarks against the looming capitalist takeover.

At heart a loner, Carl gradually distances himself from them in order to pursue his dream of becoming a poet. He watches from the periphery as the tight-knit group begins to fray when jealousies, ambitions, and appetites take their toll. His personal liberation from expectations, from dominant ideologies and group think, and from self-doubt, is hard-won. Star 111 is the chronicle of an individual establishing a foothold in a time of upheaval and negotiating the pull of and disenchantment with new perspectives and ideologies. “It was as if the world had fallen into an extremely sensitive, uncertain state,” Carl muses, “as if you were only just beginning to exist.”

The novel’s primary setting is the Prenzlauer Berg and Kollwitzkiez districts, and the topography of East Berlin—the hastily abandoned apartments, the overgrown craters left by Allied bombs, the makeshift bars and restaurants established in derelict storefronts—forms a crucial backdrop to the political atmosphere engendered there in the year and a half following the Fall of the Wall. Indeed, a central theme in Star 111 is the transformation of the Berlin-Mitte cityscape and the way history is preserved or erased in private and public spaces. One of Lutz Seiler’s greatest gifts as a writer—and a major source of headaches for his translators—is his ability to capture the minutiae and texture of a vanished world in rhythmic, lyrical prose. Both Kruso and Star 111 are like time capsules that envelop the reader in sounds, smells, and sights, as well as social atmospheres and assumptions that are, for better or worse, things of the past.

In translating this novel, I tried to capture the many registers of Lutz Seiler’s prose: the differing tenors of East and West German bureaucratese; the idiolects of the individual characters or social groups; the changes rung on particular words with their multiple meanings; and most importantly the lines of poems by Hans Arp, Novalis, Elke Erb, Baudelaire, Yeats, Goethe, Barthes, and many others that rattle around in Carl’s head or echo through the narrative. In his prose as in his poetry, sound echoes and underpins sense.

Still, his dexterity in playing with sound and sense occasionally eluded my grasp. In several passages, Seiler both draws out multiple shadings of a word’s meaning and mines that word’s onomatopoeic potential to create an expansive atmosphere or sound symbol that can stretch over pages. One of the most engaging examples of this is in the opening of the chapter “From Another Star.” Carl has finally found his own territory, his “claim,” from which he can begin prospecting for an authentic, creative existence as a poet. The water tower on Knaack Strasse becomes both guardian and lighthouse of his imagined island. A key word in this extended maritime symbol is Rauschen, which in German covers a span of noises from roaring, murmuring, hissing, and rustling to whispering and soughing, but also a rush or sweep, not to mention intoxication—all of which are overtly or implicitly significant in each use of the word. Throughout the novel, the Rauschen of pine and chestnut trees as well as of the cobblestones communicates with Carl in a way that is central to his poetic development. However, while trees can make a rustling sound, cars driving over cobblestones do not. They rumble or murmur. Accordingly, I had to alternate in English between the word’s multiple meanings, sacrificing some of the novel’s internal echoes to the imagery.

Despite—or more likely because of—these difficulties, it was a joy to immerse myself in the rhythm of his sentences and refashion them in English and I hope readers will share this joy.

My translation has benefited enormously from Stefan Tobler’s patient and exacting editing, although any oversights or lapses are mine alone. I am grateful for Lutz Seiler’s generous answers to my many questions about historical particulars and stylistic choices that are crucial to the texture of the narrative. A residency at the American Academy in Berlin in the spring of 2022 allowed me to search for traces of Carl Bischoff’s haunts and research the city’s more ephemeral social and political history at the close of the twentieth century. No detail about Berlin or the GDR was too small or obscure for the Academy’s librarian, Ilya Oehring, to find and bring to light.

Tess Lewis

New York, March 2023

Translator’s afterword from the novel, Star 111. Out on 6 September 2023, Star 111 by Lutz Seiler is available to order on our website, UK  and from your local bookstores!

Lutz Seiler’s photo by Andreas Münstermann

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