Katja Oskamp, Marzahn, Mon Amour

Jenny Farrell, 20 May 2023

THE shortlist for the annual International Dublin Literary Award for 2023 was published in late March.

Among the six novels on the list is a book by the East German writer Katja Oskamp, Marzahn, Mon Amour.

The title stands out for East Berliners in particular, who immediately recognise Marzahn as the GDR’s once most ambitious and largest social housing programme, providing homes for over 270, 000 people.

Marzahn, Mon Amour was nominated by Stadtbüchereien Düsseldorf, Germany.

The book surprisingly made it past the establishment publishers who generally discourage voices from the ordinary people about ordinary lives, and especially if they write about not-so-cool places.

In addition, Oskamp’s book is about ordinary East Berliners, most of these pensioners, most of them women, ageing.

In all these respects, Oskamp’s book had the cards stacked against it.

The book is firmly rooted in a GDR literary tradition – that of truly valuing the ordinary, everyday lives of people, inseparably linked to the world of work.

Perhaps the most famous example in GDR literature is Maxi Wander’s Guten Morgen du Schöne (1977, Good Morning, Beautiful).

It presents interviews with nineteen women aged between sixteen and ninety-two, talking about their lives.

A similarly themed book of interviews with men by Christine Müller, Männer-Protokolle (1985), was later followed by Christa Wolf’s diary style publication Ein Tag im Jahr (2003, One Day a Year), where she records her own reflections on the same date every year, 27 September, 1960-2000.

The same interest in the everyday lives of ordinary people is reflected in the documentary by GDR filmmakers Winfried and Barbara Junge, whose epic series Die Kinder von Golzow (The Children of Golzow) began in 1961 and continued until 2007.

It follows the lives of eighteen people born between 1953 and 1955.

This grassroots emphasis was directly linked to the GDR’s state cultural policy of making the arts directly relevant to the vast majority of the working population and to encourage them to participate in the arts.

Katja Oskamp, Author

The preservation of memory, as a fightback to the complete rewriting of history that took place after the annexation of the GDR by West Germany, became more important than ever.

In contrast to some novels that bowed to the diktat of this New Order post 1990, the documentary style recording of ordinary people’s ordinary lives that has claimed its own space.

Katja Oskamp’s novel Marzahn, mon Amour is a book about ageing, among other things, the search to give meaning to life at its every stage, and some new beginnings.

Aged forty-four, the author-narrator retrains as a chiropodist.

She finds a job in a friend’s salon in Marzahn.

This book is about her customers and her colleagues. Most of her customers are elderly.

Work is an important theme in the book.

To some these stories may not seem very spectacular, others will recognise in them the stuff of life.

Oskamp writes with compassion, with the sense of solidarity and community that was a feature of GDR society.

The characters in the book all support each other through life and through the difficulties of growing older and old.

Taken as a whole, the individual portraits depict a community of equals.

Herein lies a specifically East German collective memory.

The International Dublin Literary Award for this, or one of the other five books on the shortlist, will be announced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Caroline Conroy, on Thursday 25th May, as part of the city’s International Literature Festival.

· Editor’s Note: This article appeared in Unity on May 20th, 2023. Marzahn, Mon Amour actually won the International Dublin Literary Award.

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