• Review
By – June 26, 2023

In Ves­per Stamper’s ambi­tious nov­el, twin broth­ers Rudi and Peter face intense con­flict, both in their fam­i­ly and in post­war East Ger­many at large. Grow­ing up in Berlin in 1961, right before the con­struc­tion of the wall that will divide the city, they live under an oppres­sive regime that rigid­ly con­trols their lives. Peter ques­tions the con­tra­dic­tions they are forced to accept, while Rudi is emo­tion­al­ly invest­ed in believ­ing that East Ger­many is an ide­al people’s democ­ra­cy, and West Ger­many, a fas­cist state. Their par­ents’ mar­riage is crum­bling — com­pro­mised, like the East Ger­man nation, by their dis­hon­esty about the past. The fif­teen-year-old boys are con­stant­ly remind­ed by their moth­er that, as twins, they should find sup­port in their spe­cial bond; but this repeat­ed advice only serves to high­light how much they have grown apart. The lev­el of com­pe­ti­tion between the broth­ers is near-bib­li­cal. Like Jacob and Esau, each is clos­er to one par­ent and often feels reject­ed by the oth­er. Giv­en the pow­er­ful struc­ture of lies that define the East Ger­man state, the only choic­es one has are com­pli­ance or rebellion.

Peter is a gift­ed actor, and his aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess seems effort­less. Rudi works hard and hopes for a future in the Com­mu­nist bureau­cra­cy. Their moth­er, Ilse, is emo­tion­al­ly unsta­ble, while their father, Rudolf — a frus­trat­ed musi­cian who earns a bare liv­ing tun­ing pianos — is a defeat­ed man who has failed to come to terms with his past. Oma, the boys’ great-grand­moth­er, is a cyn­i­cal old woman whose expe­ri­ence of Germany’s recent his­to­ry makes her skep­ti­cal of ide­al­ism. As Peter observes with frus­tra­tion, This fam­i­ly was clum­si­ly thrown togeth­er, like they’d each some­how stum­bled onto a stage and had to impro­vise a part.” Angu­lar black and white pic­tures enhance the text’s impact. Although the fam­i­ly is not Jew­ish, the geno­cide per­pe­trat­ed less than twen­ty years ear­li­er is con­stant­ly present in their minds. Watch­ing the Eich­mann tri­al on tele­vi­sion, they cau­tious­ly look back, avoid­ing the fact that the Nazi leader’s con­tort­ed defense reflects the atti­tude of ordi­nary Germans.

The offi­cial East Ger­man posi­tion is that their coun­try has no trace of Nazism for which to atone; only the West bears respon­si­bil­i­ty. Although there is obvi­ous evi­dence con­tra­dict­ing that posi­tion, Stam­per draws a clear pic­ture of how any chal­lenge to it car­ries tremen­dous risk. An inter­est­ing sec­ondary char­ac­ter is Charles, a Black Amer­i­can sol­dier who served in the war and is now sta­tioned in post­war West Ger­many. He becomes a friend to Rudolf and a pater­nal fig­ure to Rudi and Peter. His hon­esty about racism in the Unit­ed States, and the dan­gers of fail­ing to oppose cor­rupt author­i­ty, offer a dis­tinct perspective.

Set against a back­ground of sti­fling social con­di­tions, Rudi and Peter not only grap­ple with those ques­tions of iden­ti­ty that are brought on by ado­les­cence, but they also must make fun­da­men­tal deci­sions about integri­ty and truth. Rudi believed in words, that they meant what peo­ple told him they should mean,” Stam­per writes. Her nov­el is a con­vinc­ing por­trait of the con­flict cre­at­ed when words and their mean­ings are dra­mat­i­cal­ly at odds.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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