It doesn’t take forty pages until you think about putting down this supposedly long-awaited novel by Uwe Tellkamp, annoyed, and not giving it the obligatory hundred pages to unfold. Tellkamp’s first-person narrator Fabian Hoffmann introduces the “Sea Mines Report”; after all, as the very incomplete register of persons states at the back, he lives in the “Republic of Sea Monsters”.
Hoffmann begins with the words: “Fleet Office, Petroleum Information Service, the raisin department in the Ministry of Economics with its hoverfly researchers, who have been waging paper wars with the Fleet Office for years and days, the Dorotheen Authority, the Arabian Nights Department and their lectureships: sometimes I wonder if we exist and if so yes, in what form.”
After further information, which can be understood as constitutive for the environment and the tasks of the novel character Fabian Hoffmann, comes the “map of the sea mines”, which only Tellkamp can read because he drew it himself. This chapter is about, among other things Oscillation mines, anti-invasion mines, ground mines or anchor mines, the latter “already used in the siege of Fort Richmond.”
That alone seems slightly crazy and yet, like so many other things, it is strangely quirky and part of a novel that becomes more and more tormenting as the reading progresses. “The Sleep in the Clocks”, as it is titled, primarily wants to tell about Germany shortly after reunification and about the year 2015, and it also revolves around the old Federal Republic and the former GDR.
The novel is the “continuation of the great novel ‘Der Turm’,” Suhrkamp Verlag announces on the back of the cover, without also providing the continuation with a praising “big” as usual.
Fourteen years ago, Uwe Tellkamp placed himself at the forefront of contemporary German literature with his “Turm”, a novel about the helpless and disoriented middle classes in Dresden from the 1980s until shortly before reunification. After that it had become quiet about him as a novelist.
Scattered published stories such as “The Carus Things”, “The Suspension Railway” and “The Studio” indicated that someone was not making any headway with his actual project, the “Turm” successor. But that it was never quiet about his person on the contrary: very loud, was because Tellkamp felt he had to express himself politically, that he turned more and more to right-wing circles.
In 2018, at a panel discussion with fellow writer Durs Grünbein, he said that 95 percent of all refugees only came to Germany to “immigrate to the social systems here.” And: “When I hear a word like someone seeking protection, I hesitate.” He had also identified “a corridor of attitudes between desired and tolerated opinions”.
To this day, Tellkamp’s political stance has not changed, as he believes: only a tolerated opinion. When he announced that he also wanted to take a literary look at what was happening in Germany in 2015 – with the almost one million mostly Syrian refugees who came to the country, with the welcoming culture in Germany, with the effects of all this – one suspected that the editing of this novel and its publication would be a delicate, difficult birth.
So now “The Sleep in the Clocks” has been published, a “fairy tale that creates reality”, as Tellkamp once described the novel. the present up to the year 2021, the connections to the time shortly after the fall of the Wall.
But there is much more that makes this “Turm” sequel almost fly apart and become a single hodgepodge: references to the 1950s, strings of advertising slogans from that time, like in a pop novel, where Tellkamp clearly has nothing to do with pop and superficial phenomena; Meditations not only on sea mines, but also on clocks, razor blades, screws, suction cups or sailing ships; Discussions about time itself with passages beyond politics and contemporary history.
With these, however, Tellkamp demonstrates what a good memory artist he can be. This is the case with the story that gave the novel its title and with which it won the Bachmann Prize in 2004. It is just as disconnected here as the chapter dealing with the work of a projectionist, which is also worth reading, reminding of Proust (who is mentioned two or three times here).
One can imagine the author and the publisher struggling to get a composition right, to lay a common thread, not to mention a plot. It fits into the confused overall picture that the conclusion is a journey by the narrator to the so-called Waldviertel, where “roofers”, “top dog”, “general” or “railway workers” are at home, i.e. the SED nomenklatura in Wandlitz, and the OV, so the operational process “vegetables” is processed (caution, satire!).
This ending could have been anywhere, it seems glued on. The whole thing could have ended with the arrest of the narrator’s parents by the Stasi a hundred pages earlier. But that’s how this novel, piled high with material, works with its erratic back and forth.
Two strands can be identified as the core: on the one hand, the murmuring, dark, fairytale-like story that the Stasi worked underground on the turning point and is still involved in the history of reunified Germany to this day. On the other hand, the conspiracy-saturated portrait of the “political media machinery”, the mutually supporting conglomerate of politics and “so-called mainstream media” (exactly: mainstream media).
The media critic Tellkamp knows: “The truth about the circumstances did not match the perceived truth about the circumstances.”
With all fictitious prudence – for example, making Treva out of Germany, an island, just like the GDR was the coal island with its state within the state, the state security – it does not seem skillful, but rather ridiculous how Tellkamp takes most of his real polit – and the media scene puts a thin cloak of fiction around them.
Anne Hoffmann is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who emerged from the GDR civil rights movement. For example, their accidental encounter with a refugee girl from Lebanon during a civil talk is told here.
Adenauer and Wehner also appear (Tellkamp has watched YouTube videos), Marcel Reich-Ranicki (with his first pseudonym Wiktor Hart) and Joachim Kaiser have appearances under other names, as do Rudolf and Jakob Augstein, Sascha Lobo or the “FAZ” – Culture editor and writer Dietmar Dath.
But also the author himself, as “Telramund” or “T.”, who said about the 95 percent who only come because of social benefits – and whose “right-wing national cheese” is being “disenchanted” by the “progressive forces”. It cannot be said that Tellkamp is caricaturing himself here or laughing at himself.
Because offended sentences immediately follow: “When someone talks like Pegida, it can’t be about right or wrong, if the pension pot is well filled, it has no effect on the refugee pot, and if the East flooded the West with social refugees in 1990 got upset about migrants, he needn’t be surprised at opposition.” Written off by progressive forces, poor Telramund.
Yes, one can dig bravely into this novel. You can try to decipher it in its nested principle of order – on the inside of the cover there are cards whose writing is difficult to decipher: the characters, the events of 1989/1990, the fictitious and non-fictitious places, their relationship to each other, exactly how that of the two main characters, the narrator and “Nemo” aka Meno Rhode, a lecturer, zoologist and employee of the “One Thousand and One Nights Department”.
But the reward for this is only small. The beautiful, sweeping sentences that Meno Rohde was once attested to are not Tellkamp’s thing. In this novel, the language is often jerky and jerky, the prose seems clumsy, just thrown on.
A large number of names and secondary characters appearing and reappearing makes it difficult to read through, and a large number of annoying metaphors, nautical, zoological, are intended to give the whole thing a literary glaze. “The guy wants to make art,” writes Hoffmann about Rohde.
“As if it mattered, I had written in the margin. What mattered was clarity, determination, a hot heart with a cool hand and a direct, unsophisticated manner in carrying out the tasks set.” That would have done this novel good in many places. Even fairy tales need clarity, especially those that want to create reality. But reality, the new social reality, got in the way of Tellkamp’s literature. That’s where he and his Arabian Nights department failed.