Dance by the Canal

Gabriela von Haβlau – the ‘true name’ she writes under on packing paper as the novel opens, homeless and alone – is a woman who has been unable to find her place since her childhood in Communist East Germany. Her confusion, in Kerstin Hensel’s 1994 novel Dance by the Canal recently translated by Jen Calleja, is immediately reflected in her two nicknames, one for when she is good, and one for when she isn’t. Her father’s position – first as a surgeon and later as Chief Medical Officer –marks her out, even in a supposedly classless society –

“I couldn’t go to kindergarten because Father was the chief vascular surgeon and Mother was a housewife. I couldn’t play in the street either because there wasn’t anything to do on our street.”

He insists that she learn to play violin despite her lack of talent:

“I was so unmusical that Frau Popiol gave up on me after a year of futile effort.”

Only the illicit kisses and caresses of her violin teacher bring an end to the lessons – “Frau Popiol is sick,” her Father tells her. At school she is also singled out, her aristocratic ‘von’ ill-suited to the Communist system – “a bourgeois relic,” according to her teacher:

“…there was a big red ‘I’ for ‘Intelligentsia’ next to my name in the register as a result of my Father’s occupation. Next to all; the others were ‘L’ for ‘Labourer’ or ‘C’ for ‘Clerk’.”

She responds by befriending the “smallest, fattest and dirtiest among the girls”, Katka. Together they torment their teacher, play truant, and steal sweets.

Where Gabriela is unable to decide who she is, her Father’s idea of his identity is being taken away from him. He insists on holding parties because he is a ‘somebody’ but remains unhappy: his perception of his own ‘prestige’ is at odds with the society around him and, increasingly, his only remedy is alcohol. Her Mother, meanwhile, finds escape, in the arms of a young actor, Samuel.

Gabriela’s adult life is no happier. When she leaves school she begins an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer where she is given the task of filing the edges off iron plates:

“After working on three plates I had blisters on my hands and my shoulders and back ached.”

She rebels again, assaulting her foreman and falling into the hands of, presumably, the secret police who encourage her to write, though by this time the narrative is increasingly incoherent, culminating in a concert which seems peopled with characters from her childhood. It is in the aftermath of this that she begins living outside of society, finding work on a farm.

Alongside the story of Gabriela’s past, which we are led to believe she is writing, we learn of her present, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As it begins, she remains without a place:

“This was the one thing I knew from my first day of homelessness back then: it was forbidden in doorways, gateways and under balconies. So I headed for the Green Bridge… but the Green Bridge was occupied too.”

Only her writing brings her satisfaction:

“By midday I’ll have filled the whole reverse side of the packing paper. I feel the momentum within me, a heaving, driving pleasure.”

Dance by the Canal tells the immediately recognisable story of childhood unhappiness and rebellion, but in a context where the freedom to define yourself is absent, and Gabriella must absent herself instead. Distant from both her mother and father, her discontent originates from the same place. She clings to transitory relationships with Frau Popial and Katka because they represent the only affection she has been shown. In her final rebellion, against the two policemen who have attempted to recruit her, she rejects the state, and is left rootless until the state itself changes; offering her a second chance. Hensel gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who reject totalitarianism for personal rather than political reasons in a novel which insists on the ability of writing to reclaim and reform our lives.

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5 Responses to “Dance by the Canal”

  1. banff1972 Says:

    You make all these Peirine titles sound so appealing!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve sort of fallen out of the habit of reading the Peirene titles over the last couple of years, mainly due to a bit of a shift in my reading habits towards British and American writers from the mid 20th century. Nevertheless, I have to agree with Dorian – you do make these books sound so interesting! Pereine have never been afraid of shying away from hard-hitting stories, and this new addition to their range appears to be no exception.

  3. GLM VIII: Author Index – Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] The Book Jumper 1 2 Glauser The Spoke 1 Groeger The Niebelung Saga 1 Hensel Dance By The Canal 1 Herrndorf Sand 1 Hesse Siddhartha 1 Hilbig The Females 1 The Tiding of the Trees 1 Johnson […]

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