I was born in the final decade of communism’s flailing grasp on the Eastern Bloc, and so what I know of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism has long been relegated to what I learned from middle school textbooks, and teachers who had to explain to us why those maps we were so diligently studying were made obsolete overnight. The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain has aided in filling in that gap in my education through its poignant words and images that have left an indelible impression upon me long after I turned the last page. For me, the globe I keep on top of my bookcase from the early 1980s is a quirky relic, but for those whose contributions make up this extraordinary book, those lines and colors that have been redrawn in the past two decades were once ‘home’.
With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall coming up—it takes place next week on November 9th—this tremendous, and at times wrenching compilation of stories and images is a truly revelatory experience for any reader, no matter what country or decade they were born into.
This book is also a prime example of the quality anthologies that Words Without Borders has put out into the marketplace over the past several years. (Other publications include Literature from the Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations, New Press, September 2006, and Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers, Anchor Books, March 2007).
The Wall in My Head: Words and Images from the Fall of the Iron Curtain is an exceptional anthology that is jointly published by Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books. It contains stories written by the greats whose names are immediately recognizable—Milan Kundera, Vladimir Sorokin, Peter Esterhazy, as well as those who may be lesser-known in the United States (for now), but are nonetheless astonishingly talented writers and artists.
The strength of the collection lies in its diversity—writers from all corners of Eastern Europe share their wide-ranging experiences in varying narrative form—from the epistolary in Mihaly Kornis’s “Petition” to Eugen Jebeleanu’s “Poems from Secret Weapon_”, _The Wall in My Head features a unique collection of fiction, nonfiction, photos, and images of historical documents that all together contribute to a distinctive book that sheds light on what life was, and has been for several generations of writers, activists, and artists who witnessed the collapse of Communism first-hand.
Wladimir Kaminer’s “Paris Lost” illustrates both the ridiculousness as well as the paranoia that gripped communist countries to such an extent that Kazakhstan found itself constructing its own fake Paris and London, only to later tear it down when the government’s fear that the people would discover the truth precipitated the need. In “Moving House” by Pawel Huelle a dining table comes between a marriage, until the day when its legs are (literally) cut down from underneath it:
My father, so handy at repairs, couldn’t fix Mr. Polaske’s table, or rather, couldn’t fix its uneven legs. After each cut, it would turn out that one of the legs was a little shorter than the others. Possessed by the fury of perfection, or maybe the German methodicalness, my father refused to admit defeat: he shortened and shortened the legs, until at last an extraordinary sight presented itself. On the floor, beside heaps of sawn-off bits of wood and a sea of sawdust, lay the top of Mr. Polaske’s table, legless, like a great brown shield. My mother’s eyes glittered with emotion, my father’s look was black as thunder, but nothing could stop him from finishing what he’d begun. The snarling saw began to rip into the tabletop. My father puffed and panted, and my mother held her breath, until at long last she cried: “Well, finally!”
The Wall wasn’t just an architectural structure separating the East from the West. Its physical presence was a catalyst for the symbolic and mental state that also divided granddaughters from grandmothers (“My Grandmother the Censor”), brothers from sisters, (“Brother and Sister”), as well as parting lovers (“Nabokov in Brasov”). While some of the writers in The Wall in My Head embrace the past and pursue their desire to peel back the layers of their history and pasts, others clearly demarcate the wall in their head as a place where they are either unable, or unwilling to remember communism’s lingering legacy. Says Dorota Maslowska in “Faraway, So Gross”:
Do I remember Communism? But I have to remember something, right? Drag some nugget of the swirling muck of memory, strip it of superfluous detail, snap a shot of the heroes’ faces and let them march across the table, funny or forlorn, in rain slickers and stupid old boots that say “Relax” on their tags, with mesh shopping bags hanging low from the greenish, budding potatoes rumbling around inside. . . . In fact, I don’t remember anything in particular from that time, barely any event at all, barely any feeling, just this sort of grayness and nausea raised to the highest degree, such that it was almost the idea of grayness. . . . Memory is shush, a muddy puddle in which the little ships of things now sink, now surface triumphantly. I remember Communism exclusively as a style and an aesthetic category.
While there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of weighty academic tomes, dissertations, and other narratives analyzing communism and its aftereffects in the two decades since the Wall came down, The Wall in My Head offers the reader a remarkably one-of-a-kind reading experience through its variety and superiority in content, writers, and prose. Words Without Borders and Open Letter Books have really hit the mark with this brilliant collection.
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