Dance by the CanalKerstin Hensel
A tragicomic satire from the heart of East Germany.
Gabriela grows up in the East German town of Leibnitz. Her father is a famous surgeon, her mother a respected society hostess. The girl, however, struggles to fulfil their expectations. She shows no talent as a violinist and, worse, she fails to choose the right friends at school. When her father falls out of favour with the communists, Gabriela drops out of school. Eventually she ends up living beneath a canal bridge. Then the Wall falls. Can Gabriela seize a second chance in the new, united, Germany?
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
When I pass homeless women, I look into their faces and wonder: why her and not me? I sense that maybe our differences are not as great as I would like to believe. Dance by the Canal tells the story of a woman who fails to find her place in society – neither in communist GDR nor in the capitalist West. Her refusal to conform to the patriarchal structures of both societies forces her into ever-increasing isolation. This book will make you think.
Written by Kerstin Hensel.
Translated from the German by Jen Calleja.
East and West series
120pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Kerstin Hensel was born in 1961 in Karl-Marx Stadt in former East Germany and studied in Leipzig. She has published over 30 books: novels, short story collections, poetry and plays. She has won numerous prizes, including the Anna-Seghers prize as well as the Lessing prize for her entire body of work.
Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German, editor and musician. She has translated book-length works for Fitzcarraldo Editions and Bloomsbury, as well as short fiction, essays, articles and poetry. Her debut poetry collection Serious Justice was published by Test Centre. She is columnist for literature in translation for The Quietus and translator in residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. She is also acting editor of New Books in German and editor of Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt.
‘Hensel’s process of holding up for scrutiny, as though with forceps, the past and present of East and West, of a unified Germany, is highly original, dismissing categories, easy judgement or any naturalness in the transition.’ Mika Provata-Carlone, Bookanista
‘An intense story… grotesque, macabre, poetic.’ Neues Deutschland
‘Hensel’s writing is often striking – Gabriela’s mother’s grief is ‘a siren [which] wailed from inside her’ – and her characters vividly realised.’ Susan Osborne, A Life in Books
‘30 years of East German history narrated with laconic irony.’ Die Zeit
‘This is another extraordinarily powerful tale from the Peirene fountain: a somewhat uncomfortable read, but full of food for thought.’ Alison Burns, Bookoxygen
Now that I’m sitting down here by the left pillar of the bridge with this large, smooth sheet of packing paper at my feet, I feel joy for the first time in years. It’s no coincidence that fate has brought me this paper – I’ve been chosen to write. I’ve been put on this earth for no other purpose than to tell the story of my life, and today I will begin.
Up on the bridge it’s hot, a once-in-a-century July day. Air shimmers over the asphalt. Squinting up, I see silver and grey, car tyres, women’s legs, men’s legs, children, dogs. Up on the bridge life is sweating, the city is baking. Here, where I’m sitting, it’s cool. The canal drifts serenely by. It’s so hot that from time to time the water stops flowing, or changes direction, or becomes a thick mush. But it’s cool under my bridge. I squat against the damp stone wall, my hair sticking to the back of my neck, water from the bridge soaking into my shirt. Dripstones and moss lurk in the dark vaults above me. Drops quiver on the tips of stalactites and don’t fall for a long, long time, and then they splash onto the stony embankment, or onto my knees. Sometimes it can take days for a drop to fall from the deck of the bridge. The bridge is always damp, water is constantly seeping from its old stones. It’s a good thing that I don’t have to sweat like the people up in the city, it’s a good thing that I’m not radiating heat like a car tyre, or having to rush to work, or hurry home thirsty.
I found a big sheet of blue packing paper and stole a dozen wooden pencils. It’s pleasantly shady here, on this once-in-a-century July day in 1994 in the city of Leibnitz, where I’ll begin to write the story of my life. A task I once hated and was coerced into doing has now become a need.
This desire to write has come from sitting under my bridge, the last free bridge in Leibnitz, the bridge I conquered. It’s a desire that comes from having a place of my own. I make myself comfortable. My old jeans are protected by the three sheets of honeycomb board I’m sitting on. I don’t have anything else, and this is as good a place as any to begin.
I’m writing under my real name: Gabriela von Haßlau. They used to call me Binka when they thought I was being stupid or silly, and Ehlchen when I was being a good girl. Gabriela only when they hated me. My earliest memory is of a violin case. I got it for my fifth birthday. Brown leather on the outside, green silk on the inside. I opened it and looked at the instrument and I thought it was an animal, an enchanted dachshund. I began to wail and my father pulled my braids.
– It’s a violin!
Uncle Schorsch was visiting us from Saxony. He laughed.
– What a silly little Binka your daughter is!
Mother blushed. Father chanted in my face:
– Repeat after me! Vi-o-lin! Vi-o-lin!
I cried over the bewitched dachshund. Mother took it out of its case and placed it in my hands.
– Careful! said Father, and the violin bow stroked the dachshund’s fur, which Father called strings.
– Repeat after me! Str-ings! he said.
As the dachshund whimpered, I cried like never before. Uncle Schorsch roared with laughter and sloshed cognac over his shirt.
– Let Ernst be earnest! Mother pleaded, trying to hush her brother.
Uncle Schorsch snorted behind his handkerchief.
On the evening of my fifth birthday, I held the violin in my left hand and the bow in my right. I scratched away and the violin made the sound of a cat screeching.
– F sharp! Father commanded, and: D sharp!
I curtsied, just like I’d been taught to. There was goose liver pâté on the table and Mozart on the record player. The villa rang out with music and smelled of birthdays. Uncle Schorsch was laughing and spilling whatever he could find on the dinner table down his shirt: cognac and Russian sparkling wine, pâté and salad. I learned to tell the difference between a dachshund and a violin. My father was a vascular surgeon. And even though it was my birthday, he still talked about varicosis. It was his favourite word, and I listened carefully whenever he pronounced it. I loved this word because I never had to repeat it. Va-ri-co-sis! was never asked of me.
It was my father’s word. Mine were words like violin, pâté, Mozart. Uncle Schorsch’s words were mine too: beddy-byes, stroppy madam, in a huff. Father forbade Uncle Schorsch’s words.
– It’s bad German, he said, and really, unless Uncle Schorsch can find something better than being deputy director of the Consumers’ Cooperative Union in Grimma soon, then…
Mother tried to soothe her husband:
– Well, you can’t choose your family.
– You can! Father said, and: Diction matters. Repeat after me, diction, Christiane!
Uncle Schorsch would leave of his own accord once his supply of laughter and jokes had run out. It was usually after the Sandman show. We owned a television and the time with the Sandman was mine. Ten minutes, and then I had sleeping sand in my eyes and Uncle Schorsch declared:
– Your peepers are teeny and your doggy is sleepy.
– Violin! Father shouted.
Uncle Schorsch said goodbye.
For Reading Groups
Get your brain in gear with our reading group questions:
1. During a portion of Dance by The Canal Gabriela is homeless and lives under a canal bridge. Does this seem real in the context of the story?
2. Does the novel give an accurate representation of what it was like to live under the German Democratic Republic, in the Soviet Union?
3. What comparisons might be drawn between Gabriela and the Socialist society she lives in? Does she personify East Berlin, or rail against it? If she rails against it, does another character represent society instead?
4. How does the dynamic between Gabriela and Frau Popiol contrast with Gabriela’s relationship with her father?
5. Is Frau Popiol erratic nature the result other characters’ perceptions in the novel, or is she genuinely removed from reality?
6. Is Gabriela’s misbehaviour a result of mistreatment she receives from those around her? If not, what other causes might there be?
7. What is the significance of the term ‘binka’, which is used throughout the novel?
8. Do Gabriela’s actions throughout the novel draw us to her as a character, or push us away?
9. How does Gabriela’s outlook towards society evolve throughout the novel? If there is an evolution, how does it affect our reading of her as a character?
10. What makes Gabriela’s journey comic, and how is her development ironic?
11. How is Gabriela a tragic character, and how does tragedy effect those around her? Is she instrumental in their tragedies, or are the tragedies incidental?
12. What antagonism does Gabriela experience, and is it actual or perceived?
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