They Divided the Sky was written in the years just before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 and at a time when the Cold War between the East and West was at its height.
Christa writes about the challenges facing a younger generation of Germans who are making big choices about whether they want to stay in the socialist state or go and live in the “freer” West Germany.
The main character is Rita, a young woman aged 20. She is a student teacher who is in a relationship with Manfred. The book begins with Rita in a sanatorium as she has had a mental and physical collapse and is looking back on her life.
There were some good ideas in the East German state for example Rita, like many students, has to go and work in a factory for the summer before starting her training as a teacher. What a good idea! She works in a mainly male workplace which makes train carriages. This experience changes her and she grows up. “In less than a year, the little greenhorn who has still smelled of the family nest has become a wide eyed young woman, learning to look life in the face, laboriously and for the long term, learning to grow older but not harder.”
Rita lives with her boyfriend, Manfred who is ten years older, and with his parents. Manfred is very angry with his father for his Nazi past and treatment of his mother. Through Manfred Christa shows the deepening gulf between the new generation of Germans who are disgusted by their parents’ involvement with the Nazis. Manfred recounts his feelings about the adults at the end of the Second World War. “”They had better watch their step! We said. We laughed out loud when we read posters saying , Now everything will be different. Different? Who with, exactly? The same people?”.
The politics of the Cold War and the division of Europe including Germany, dominated the lives of post war generations across Europe. Throughout the novel the repercussions of this division is discussed. From the pressures in the factory that Rita works in to achieve the targets for industrial production laid down by the State to the disappearance of whole families who overnight decide to leave and go to the West.
As Rita comes to terms with the turbulence around her she has also to face the growing divide between her and her partner Manfred. A successful chemist, he is slowly moving away from her and their life together.
I love the title of the book which I think sums up the way in which young people often feel about the lack of control they have over their lives. It is Manfred who says that at least they cannot divide the sky but Rita responds “ The sky? This enormous vault of hope and yearning, love and sorrow?”Yes, they can,” she said. “The sky is what divides first of all.”
When Christa wrote this book many people in Germany saw their lives go into lockdown as the Berlin Wall was thrown up: a visible symbol of the division both of ideology and of personal relationships.
The novel is dated by virtue of the fact that everything has completely changed, including the reunification of Germany. I enjoyed reading the book because it gave me an insight into why some German people, and particularly young people like Rita, felt that despite all the problems in the socialist state she would prefer living there. It is not a view that you will find in the histories of the Soviet bloc that are published in this country. But the novel does throw up many questions about how we live our lives today – particularly in a society that is dominated by the market which has delivered a very unfair and cruel society.
The translator Luisa von Flotow who produced this version in 2013 has written an excellent introduction that explains the background to the novel and the controversy surrounding its publication.
Christa’s novels are not easy to buy but I found this on Abe books.