What is the brutal truth about pilots

New novel by Jonathan Lethem: Brutally Alive

A hell of a trip through one's own family history and that of the American left: A conversation with Jonathan Lethem about “The Garden of Dissidents”.

In “Time Pilot” from 1982 there are points for shooting: Lethem's hero in the novel has turned the video game into a pacifist demonstration. Image: promo

Sergius dodges all biplanes in World War I with his plane, dives under all fighter planes in World War II and also escapes all fighter jets and enemy flying objects on the other levels without pressing the red button on his joystick.

In the video game "Time Pilot", however, there is no reward for mere survival. Points are only awarded for shooting and killing. With a score of zero, Sergius is a loser. But he's also a winner in the new novel by the writer Jonathan Lethem: He turned a game that was designed as a massacre into a pacifist demonstration.

"The garden of dissidents" is the name of this novel, which is now published in German. Sergius not only plays the role of the time pilot in the video game. He is the time pilot with whom we travel through the novel. A novel that is nothing less than a trip through the European-American 20th century.

Jonathan Lethem: "The garden of dissidents". From the American by Ulrich Blumenbach. Tropen / Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2014, 476 pages, 24.95 euros.

A hell of a trip in search of the truth behind the harshness of the Jewish grandmother, who had to flee the Nazis to New York with her family from Poland, and the harshness of the Jewish mother from New York, whose father and his family from Lübeck had to escape the Nazis fled to York. Both grandmother and mother committed their whole life to their revolutionary political ideals - and abandoned their grandson and son for it.

The genealogy of New York

Jonathan Lethem doesn't know the truth about his Jewish grandmother either. What he knows: She was an opera singer from Lübeck who fled the Nazis to New York with her family. When he was a teenager, she died. So Sergius is Lethem's alter ego.

The American bestselling author has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin-Wannsee since January. Sitting on the couch in the living room of the chauffeur house, despite the early hour, he talks enthusiastically and with sparkling eyes about the personal background.

“I wanted to understand why my grandmother was the way she was, so headstrong and tough, so unconditionally about city life, books, freedom, defending America and so mercilessly despising all people who make life in the country better found and condemned anyone who did not think like them. And to do that, I had to go back to history, ”says the Brooklyn-born author in 1964.

His ninth novel, however, is not just about coming to terms with his own family history. Based on three generations, Lethem provides the genealogy of New York, the “DNA” of the city, as Lethem calls it, and it is Jewish, European and revolutionary.

Betrayed again and again

With “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999) and “Fortress of Solitude” (2003) he gave his district the most beautiful declarations of love, and he has long been celebrated as a chronicler of New York's gentrification. Now Lethem is following in the footsteps of great American storytellers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, who turned the struggle for self-assertion and identity of secular Jews in post-war New York into world literature.

But Lethem does it skillfully, he easily steps aside from the footprints. With the rise of the generations, he also lets the failed forms of revolutionary utopias of the American left parade past the reader: from the Communist Party, of which Grandmother Rose was a member, to the hippie movement, to which mother Miriam belongs, to the Occupy movement, which is grandson Sergius connects.

And yet: why did he dedicate himself to the story of all things, about which so much has been told, the story of Jewish New Yorkers? “It is an American legend that we have overcome European history. But in fact we just pushed them out. She is still among us, doing something to us, whether we want it or not. In 1974 the Holocaust still seemed like an ancient myth to me. In 2014 he seems closer to me than many other things, ”he says.

Lethem is currently one of the most important American authors. As the successor to David Foster Wallace, he teaches creative writing at Pomona College, California. It is a coincidence that he is now living in Berlin for a few months of all times. He could walk to the house of the Wannsee Conference, to where the extermination of European Jews was planned.

Fighting relentlessly

He only hesitantly replies when asked how he thinks about Berlin. He doesn't want to sound insulting and apologizes several times before saying: “Berlin is incomplete. The present of the past is here is so alive. Brutally alive. I feel it constantly under the skin of everyday life. "

Brutally alive. There is no better way to describe Rose Zimmer, the grandmother and main character in The Garden of Dissidents. Always disappointed and betrayed by the story - she was expelled from the Communist Party because of an affair with a black police officer, she lost her German husband to the GDR, her daughter to the Nicaraguan Revolution - she replaced Yahweh first with Stalin and then with Lincoln and ends up as the dreaded block attendant of her Jewish housing estate.

Fighting relentlessly against authorities and hierarchies, she is herself authoritarian to the bone. Whirled through life by the historical wind, she holds up against it with her weapons, her sharp intelligence and her ardor for justice.

But in doing so she not only tears up propaganda newspaper articles in the air, she also destroys all of her love relationships and family and neighborly relationships at the same time. "Okay, you are surrounded by enemies, but you have slippers," Cicero, her only grateful student, tries to appease her at the end of her life. Of course, she cannot admit that it would have been very good for her life to occasionally enjoy her slippers instead of just enjoying her enemies.

In love with these characters

Rose is a mother you can only leave, a neighbor you definitely don't want to meet, a friend you are afraid of, and yet: you want to shake her while reading this novel and then hug her tightly so that she releases the gentleness and love that she has buried deep within herself. You can't get rid of this rose so quickly. Because it's not the plot that creates the rush of Lethem reading.

It is his fantastically inventive language images and his winding choreography with which every corner of his staff is so eagerly illuminated that you fall in love with these people, even though they actually don't allow you to find them sympathetic at all.

Sergius won't know the truth about Rose and his mother. Because it is always a chain of coincidences, impulsive actions and emotionally nested decisions that ultimately lead to all the characters in this novel being left alone, Rose in the retirement home in Queens, Sergius in the Quaker boarding school in the province of Pennsylvania.

“When I first went to the cinema, I learned that you can only lift veil after veil to get closer to the truth. It was ’Yellow Submarine’. I didn't see the real Beatles here, just cartoon characters.

Every revolutionary attempt fails

So I listened to the records and discovered that the real Beatles were from the early 60s. But my mother kept the Beatles after ’Sgt. Pepper ‘for the real. Of course, we both never met the real Beatles, ”says Jonathan Lethem with a laugh on the sofa in Wannsee.

So there is no such thing as the truth behind the story, the truth behind the character. As well as? That every revolutionary attempt fails, like every project to get rid of the past and to do everything completely differently from the parents, is always due to a chain of events and decisions that one did not choose oneself.

The only thing that you can decide for yourself, that could be the message of the novel, is the aversion to disillusionment, the “self-chosen no!” As it is called in the novel. Like the time pilot Sergius, who simply plays the video game by his own rules. Even if it doesn't affect the story.