The Tower

On one of my visits to Berlin in the mid 1990s I was making my way through a street market in the Museum Island area. Many of the stalls were offering memorabilia from the era of the German Democratic Republic. Nostalgia for a lost time had already set in, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Germans themselves refer to this as “Ostalgie”. ( The attainment of freedom from communist rule had already led to insecurities and the bracing challenges of a free market economy. There were some winners and plenty of losers. The GDR was notoriously secretive, and its secret police service, the ‘Stasi’ ( was so pervasive that every item of washing that appeared on one’s back lawn washing line was meticulously recorded. It was the ultimate surveillance state. Well, until ubiquitous CCTV in the UK and the online world emerged, that is. Should you be intrigued by this world, and would like to immerse yourself in a fictional presentation of it, the best choice is The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country by Uwe Tellkamp ( The setting is Dresden.

Tellkamp’s mammoth saga of middle-class family life in the German Democratic Republic was a winner of the German Book Prize. It is a chronicle of a medical and literary family in 1980s Dresden and does for the professional elite of Saxony what Thomas Mann did for the merchant class of Lubeck with his Buddenbrooks family. We meet a vividly-drawn crowd of relatives, friends and colleagues. There is surgeon Richard Hoffmann, his wife Anne (a nurse), her brother Meno (a publisher), and the Hoffmanns’ rebel son Christian. Between 1982 and 1989, the Party ‘gerontocracy’ slowly loses the plot, while the ‘chemical empire’ of the GDR chokes on its industrial toxins. Stage by stage, the city’s elite shift from whispered cynicism to outspoken dissent: from Brezhnev’s unlamented death via the nuclear nervousness of 1983, that ‘year of the apocalypse’, through post-Chernobyl environmental calamities and the growth of organised opposition. Beyond his flair for densely textured realism, Tellkamp’s inner monologues and close-up chamber dramas also owe a debt to the sort of ‘decadent’ writers Meno and his fellow literati love to read but fear to praise – Joyce, Proust, Musil. This cornucopian novel also finds space for social comedy, marital upheaval, and teenage rebellion. Time passes, seasons change, and the ‘music of the river’ Elbe endures, for all the noxious filth dumped into it. Tellkamp excels at edgy set-pieces, from the 50th birthday party at which Richard and his chums say that ‘Reagan’s got the right idea’ (and then worry who might report them) to the trial that sentences Christian – now an army draftee – for public defamation of ‘this shitty state’. A surgeon by training, the author observes Richard’s operations (often impaired by power-cuts) with the same close-up zest he devotes to Meno’s literary wrangles with censors, Party hacks and diehard Communist idealists. A love of music unites this cultivated, conservative middle-class, stranded under communism. For eccentric GP Niklas, ‘the present seemed to be one possibility among others in which one could live, and not the most pleasant’. Grumblers, dreamers, nostalgists, practitioners of ‘inner emigration’, Tellkamp’s men occupy centre-stage. Yet their womenfolk take the most decisive steps towards change. Like dissenter Regine, they seek to escape the bureaucratic prison of the GDR; like Josta, Richard’s mistress, they end an affair that confines them in other ways; like Anne herself, they move from passive complaint to public protest. In the manner of some super-intelligent soap, The Tower puts a small group of related characters under the microscope. Not coincidentally, Meno is a keen zoologist. It also zooms out to dramatise the wider forces that will gather to drown this ‘island’ of bourgeois life within a dying system. If this domestic epic calls for stamina (at 1024 pages), its rapid shifts of voice and viewpoint banish monotony. It is a fully immersive read.

Enquire at your local library or consult  for further bibliographic detail.


1024 pages in Allen Lane

First published 2014

ISBN 978-0241004579



Image result for uwe tellkamp

Uwe Tellkamp

Scroll to Top