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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Brigitte Reimann

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To purchase Siblings

Title: Siblings
Author: Brigitte Reimann
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Siblings - US
Siblings - UK
Siblings - Canada
Die Geschwister - Deutschland
Los hermanos - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • German title: Die Geschwister
  • Translated by Lucy Jones

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Our Assessment:

B+ : somewhat simplistic, but still remarkably rich

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 10/2/2023 Franklin Nelson
The Guardian . 11/2/2023 Alexander Wells
London Rev. of Books . 2/3/2023 Michael Hofmann
New Statesman . 24/1/2023 E.Peirson-Hagger
The New Yorker . 3/4/2023 Joanna Biggs
The Observer . 19/2/2023 John Self
Sunday Times . 29/1/2023 Johanna Thomas-Corr
TLS . 17/2/2023 Kevin Brazil

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although Siblings is decidedly a realist novel, some moments feel more modernist (.....) (T)he reader’s understanding of who is being spoken for, and from what temporal standpoint, frequently shifts, which feels apt for a novel that invites us to reflect on ideology’s relationship to the individual and the limits of any one perspective." - Franklin Nelson, Financial Times

  • "Beneath the emigration drama bubbles a vital subplot: Elisabeth developing her own artistic vision, and deciding to fight for it within GDR institutions. Here one senses that Reimann, too, is thinking through how she might reconcile her socialist commitments with her drive to make literature that genuinely explores the self. (...) Reimann’s own literary style is an attempt to find space for subjectivity. Lucy Jones’s translation excellently captures the dry wit, expressionistic boldness and seductively odd rhythms that make the original German so charismatic. Elisabeth is spiky and appealingly flawed (.....) There is something intoxicating about Reimann’s dense, jagged prose." - Alexander Wells, The Guardian

  • "Siblings is an almost cool, static, geometrical spider’s web of a book (.....) Siblings is like a book from a lost civilisation. It comes with four pages of endnotes, which these days is unheard of in fiction. (...) Siblings is a generational book. Like Gen X-ers or Gen Z-ers, Reimann looked about her to see that the markers of life and society had been put in place by people alien to her." - Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books

  • "Her depiction of the complexities of nationhood are remarkably modern, and her portrayal of the sibling bond unnerving and tender (.....) Uli's threatened departure stirs in her resentment entangled with longing for a life she will not allow herself to even imagine." - Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman

  • "Reading Siblings, one can feel nostalgic for a society that believed art mattered. Within the three-day frame of Siblings, Reimann brings the past so close that it barely feels past. (...) Among so many losses -- a brother, a future, an ideology -- Reimann’s Siblings has somehow survived, an unlikely patch of political, personal, and aesthetic freedom." - Joanna Biggs, The New Yorker

  • "(V)ivid and intriguing (.....) Siblings is given new life in this translation by Lucy Jones, who also provides useful context-setting endnotes. And when the final pages of the book circle back to the opening scene (“I’ll never forgive you”), there’s another unexpected development in store, which reminds us that, east or west, there is nothing so strange or surprising as families." - John Self, The Observer

  • "There is certainly more than ideology at stake in Elisabeth’s desire to prevent Uli from leaving. Jones’s translation ably captures the frankness of Elisabeth’s voice: the fast transitions, sensual visual imagery and careful ironic distance. At its best the prose evokes a kind of flickering street photography (.....) Only in the novel’s latter half (...) does Reimann slip into the clichés of socialist realism (.....) Siblings is too good a novel to be read merely for the way in which it reflects on the limited political horizons of our era; but if you are looking to imagine your way beyond them, it gestures to a picture of a future that never was." - Kevin Brazil, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Siblings, set in the German Democratic Republic of the early 1960s, is narrated by Elisabeth, the youngest of the three Arendt children. She is a painter, working as a kind of in-house artist at an industrial complex. She is not a Party member, but is convinced that a better future is being built here in the GDR and that she wants to be part of it. (The 'Party' is the ruling SED -- the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany).) She is not uncritical of the system, but she wants to work within it; indeed, she can not imagine otherwise.
       Her brother Konrad is five years older than her, but they were never that close. He abandoned the GDR and fled to the West, and has been successful in building up a life and career there; as their brother Uli says: "If there was ever a man cut out to be a West German citizen, it's Konrad" -- and Elisabeth despises Konrad for his choice and the life he has embraced, and for his abandoning the GDR. For her, the move from East to West Germany is one that is, in every way, in the wrong direction, making her allegiances entirely clear:

(B)y stepping over the border, you're stepping into the past. You're not swapping one Germany for another. You're leaving our world ... my world.
       That past of course includes the recent Nazi past, which still casts its dark shadow over much of this present -- and colors the differing visions of the future that she sees these two countries following.
       Brother Uli is only a year older than Elisabeth, and they are exceptionally close, often mistaken for lovers. They adore each other -- with Uli saying, for example, only half jokingly, about why he hasn't settled down with someone yet: "I still have the ridiculous hope that I'll meet a girl like you".
       The novel opens with the two arguing, but Elisabeth takes her time in revealing what has led to this confrontation, going back and forth in her story, revealing bits from their past, including the difficult years right after the end of the war when they were small children as well as their parents' defensiveness about not standing up sufficiently against the Nazis -- and, for example, their father's return as a changed man after his time as a prisoner of war. Eventually, however, the cat is out of the bag -- and Uli's plan is, for Elisabeth, the worst sort of betrayal. The novel circles back to the opening confrontation and continues with it, Elisabeth trying to make her brother see the light (which is so obvious to her).
       Elizabeth recounts a variety of experiences, from both these days leading up to Uli revealing to her what he plans to do as well as further back, such as visits to (West) Berlin -- including meeting Konrad there -- as well as her experiences at her workplace.
       Uli has great ambitions to work in shipbuilding, and a stellar academic record that should facilitate that, but he struggles within the system:
I feel like a prisoner trapped behind bars, just stupidity and bureaucracy everywhere. I don't enjoy my work and don't enjoy any of the things we got up to as students. I find life in general repulsive.
       The career path that should be open to him has been thwarted by an assessment "written by the Party group in his year at university"; he is tainted, unfairly, by association. Elisabeth, too, has come up against a system in which she struggles to prove herself: facing authorities, she laments: "I'm not credible in your eyes -- I don't wear a Party badge". But she is able to prove herself, her experience suggesting that if one stands up for oneself and has the truth behind one, the system will allow for the correct outcome.
       Uli is no fan of the West German system -- he is no Konrad, who thrives in it -- but believes he might be able to change it from within. He even suggests to his sister that he might join the recently banned Communist Party there. But Elisabeth is convinced the only way forward is within the system in which they are already living, and that it is this that must be strengthened.
       Parts of Siblings do tend towards the didactic-simplistic: Elisabeth's tale of her workplace issues and confrontation with a painter from another generation, Ohm Heiners, is presented well but also resolved rather easily, and one suspects in real life things would not work out quite as smoothly. So, too, the novel's conclusion, a happy end that also in its presentation ensures that Siblings conveys the (ideologically) correct message (as, of course, it had to if it were to have any hopes of being published in the GDR (as it was) in 1963).
       Siblings is not blindly approving of East Germany and its political system. Reimann offers a number of characters to whom the western alternative seems to be or is a better one, as well as East Germans who, in one way or another, are taking advantage of the system and their position in it -- abusing it, to their own selfish ends. Weaknesses of the system are acknowledged and brought up. Nevertheless, the good guys -- not all of whom she immediately recognizes as such -- in the novel are all on board and the idealist Elisabeth's unwavering conviction is hard to resist. (Reimann plays this well: Elisabeth has and displays the hot passion of the starry-eyed, but she isn't a simple naïf, and her understanding and assessments are realistically grounded.)
       It is the ebullient and deep-feeling character and voice of Elisabeth that really carries the novel -- and carries it fairly high. One of her work colleagues suggests that: "Maybe -- maybe the way you act sticks out too much ?" but of course it is this irrepressibility and willingness to speak her mind, wearing her heart on her sleeve, that makes her such a powerful character -- and all the more effective in a novel dealing with the issues of a society and system so identified with conformity. (Unsurprisingly, much here -- as in most of Reimann's writings -- is based on her own experiences, and her diaries certainly suggest her own character was similar to Elisabeth's.)
       Siblings ultimately feels a bit programmatic and just a bit too simple, but it's still a very fine -- and, at times, remarkable -- piece of work. The personal -- especially Elisabeth's feelings towards others, both those she is closest to and those whom she only fleetingly mentions -- is particularly well-handled throughout. If not entirely even-handed, it is also a fascinating look at the experiences of Reimann and Elisabeth's generation, both in dealing with the recent German past and the possible paths forward at that juncture. There are also some remarkable snapshots, both of present-day scenes as well as from earlier times, such as Elisabeth reminiscing of trekking, barefoot, the long way to the next village with her brother every Sunday "in that summer of hunger after the war" in the always dashed hopes of obtaining some milk.
       A surprisingly rich work, Siblings is still -- and again -- worth reading..

       [Note: Reviewing off a galley, I'm hesitant about remarking on some of the translation choices, but they appear to be in the (already published) final Penguin edition, so I nitpickingly note a few odd little missteps. One that seems significant is the early description, when Elisabeth recalls events from May 1945 and: "a foreign soldier turned up next door" -- and he then leaves having changed into one of Elisabeth's father's suits that her mother gives him. In the original German he is: "ein fremder Soldat", whereby 'fremder Soldat' can be either foreign soldier or an unknown soldier (as in: 'a stranger'). Obviously, this private is a German soldier (and simply someone unknown to the family), desperate to get out and rid of his German uniform as the Russians close in -- ditching uniforms was, naturally, widespread at the time -- , but referring to him as a 'foreign soldier' surely misleadingly suggests a soldier fighting for a foreign (enemy) power.
       Then there's the person Elisabeth remembers only as having: "played outside left in the school football team" -- surely not how one refers to the position ('Linksaußen') which Jones translates literally; 'left wing' or 'left winger' is more like it. (The original German is: "Ich wußte nur noch, daß er der Linksaußen in unserer Schulmannschaft gewesen war".)
       Finally, kudos, on the one hand, for the endnote to the reference: "he reminds me of a photo of Kish", Jones impressively coming up with: "Kish: This probably refers to Leslie Kish, a Hungarian émigré who fought in the Spanish Civil War" -- a plausible-sounding attribution, based on the name and context. The easier (and surely correct) identification is another, however. (I feel confident in saying that Brigitte Reimann never in her life heard of Leslie Kish.) The problem is a simple transcription error: the German text (I checked two edition, both Aufbau and dtv, just to make sure) has the name as the much more obvious 'Kisch' (tip-off: 'sh' is vanishingly rare in German, 'sch' commonplace) and the reference is of course surely to huge-in-the-GDR legend Egon Erwin Kisch, 'der rasende Reporter' himself.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2023

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Siblings: Reviews: Brigitte Reimann: Other books by Brigitte Reimann under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       East German author Brigitte Reimann lived 1933 to 1973.

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© 2023 the complete review

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