"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
The well-known German writer Günter Kunert turned 80 this year. Born in Berlin, he was denied a grammar school education as his mother was Jewish (she would later die in a concentration camp). After the war, he remained in the GDR and studied at the Academy of Applied Arts between 1946-1949. Increasing dissatisfaction with the vagaries of ‘real-existing Socialism’ marked his work from the 1960s onwards though he would only come to settle in West Germany in 1979 after his SED membership was revoked in the wake of the Biermann affair.
A versatile writer whose prolific output includes literary criticism, short stories, film scripts, and television plays, he is probably best known for his lyrical poetry. The widely damaged Berlin of the postwar years came to feature heavily in his poetry and the deceptive simplicity of his poems became a tool for not only rewriting the city in poetic form but also for rehearsing what Theodor Adorno once described as the “social nature of lyrical poetry” (2000: 215). “The lyric poem,” writes Adorno, “is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism” (2000: 219). For Kunert, Berlin became a key topos through which subjective expression and social standpoint were fused. It it is perhaps therefore not surprising that his latest collection of lyrical poems (Als das Leben umsonst war) begins with another Berlin poem entitled “Eingedenken.” I can’t think right now of a more suitable and thoughtful distillation of the author’s longstanding relationship with the city:
Berlin, Berlin ein fernes Licht
und Spiegel meinem Angesicht.
Nachts Stille und auch morgens Früh’
nach allem Dasein schewerer Müh’.
Die ganze stadt umfängt den Raum,
darin ich war: Als wie ein Traum.