There have been many moments over the last few weeks when I’ve longed to settle down and write here, but a succession of translation deadlines have demanded my full attention. Now, finally, I have a moment to reflect and kick off 2012. Given the belated nature of my first post of the year, I sincerely hope I haven’t started as I mean to go on.
When it comes to German literature in the UK though, I very much hope it has started as it means to go on. I was delighted to find out last week that Harvill Secker have bought the English language rights to Simon Urban’s Plan D. It’s an incredible story and I hope it finds all the readers it deserves once it’s published in the UK next year. I’ll certainly be doing some more drum-rolling when the time comes.
But for now, here’s a little preview. In Plan D, it’s 2011 and the world is pretty much the way we know it to be. Digital media, iPhones, all the usual suspects. But not everything is the same. In this novel’s alternate reality, history took a different turn after the events of 1989 and the Berlin Wall is still standing. Which means that the East German dictatorship remains. The novel follows Martin Wegener, an East German detective, as he investigates the killing of a man found hanging from a pipeline in the forest. While initial clues at the crime scene point to the Stasi, it quickly becomes clear that things aren’t so cut and dry. Just a few weeks away from important energy talks with the West German chancellor, the GDR has a lot to lose if the West finds out about an alleged Stasi killing. After the story is leaked, a West German investigator is called in to join the investigation, leading to fractious, amusing and even touching interactions between the two detectives.
Interwoven with these investigations are Wegener’s lingering regrets over the breakdown of his relationship with his ex, an employee of the Energy Ministry. The reasons for the end of their relationship are gradually revealed, along with details of their continuing betrayal of one another. Their reciprocal distrust presents the human face of life in a dictatorship, one where the number of unofficial informers far outnumbered those actually officially employed by the Stasi.
In my opinion, although the depiction of the modern-day East German dictatorship is fascinating by itself, one of the most compelling features of Plan D is the way it questions the world we live in. Nothing is sacred, nothing is presented as an ideal solution, nothing is black and white. It also raises comparisons between the Stasi’s surveillance of the GDR citizens and the constant visibility of ‘private’ life in the West caused by increased technology usage and security surveillance.
It’s a genuinely funny novel too. One scene depicts the East German security guards posing against the West German investigator’s flash car, taking photos of each other on their mobile phones. And yet this combination of historical detail with contemporary life doesn’t feel at all contrived. Relics of life in the GDR alongside iPhones may seem a little strange, but once you read it, you’ll find the idea that reunification faltered to be very real and plausible indeed. Roll on 2013, when, thanks to Harvill Secker, English language readers will be able to get their hands on this magnificent novel!