Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

dance_canal_2000px-568x900Fiction – print. Translated from the German by Jen Calleja. Peirene Press, 2017. Originally published in 1994. Purchased.

Born the daughter of a famous surgeon and a society hostess, Gabriela von Haßlau is expected to fulfill the high expectations of her parents and, later, the Communist leaders of the East German town of Leibnitz. But Gabriela finds herself unable to please either power structure in her life.

To her parents, she is a failure at the violin and at rubbing elbows with the elite. To the State, she carries a scarlet letter due to her father’s elitist occupation and the von in her last name, which limits her access to schooling and work in Leibnitz.

Gabriela drops out of school and then out of society, setting up a “home” beneath a canal bridge. But then the Berlin Wall falls, opening up Leibnitz to a new world of promise and pushing Gabriela out from under the bridge.

At the start of every novella from Peirene Press, the publisher Meike Ziervogel explains why the story was selected for translation to English and publication. At the start of this novella, Ziervogel says that she looked into the faces of homeless women when she passes by them on the street and wonders why her and not me.

“I sense that maybe our differences are not as great as I would like to believe. Dance by the Canaltells the story of a woman who fails to find her place in society – neither in communist GDR nor in the capitalist West. Her refusal to conform to the patriarchal structures of both societies forces her into ever-increasing isolation. This book will make you think.”

I started Hensel’s novella with this promise of a thought-provoking book at the forefront of my mind. Now, three days after finishing it in one sitting on a short flight home, I’m certainly still thinking about this novel. I just can’t promise those thoughts are all positive.

As wonderfully inventive and intrigued as I found the use of a homeless woman as the narrative, I found the alternation between past and present confusing. It was often difficult to assess what was real versus imaginary when it came to Gabriela’s life, especially the trauma she may have been subjected to as a child. And the abrupt ending was rather strange. I’m still not sure what happened there.

I also spent much of the novella trying to understand Ziervogel’s reading of this novella as one condemning patriarchal power structures in both the communist GDR and the capitalist, unified Germany.

Yes, Gabriela’s life was controlled by men, especially by her father during her younger years. His refusal to allow Gabriela to participate in Communist youth organizations out of a hatred for the Communist government and the loss of the old, hierarchical society that he ranked highly in increased Gabriela’s isolation and limited her future dramatically.

But I read the situation as more of condemnation of how the obsession with hierarchy – classist or communist or gender-based – damages a person’s psyche, setting them up to be labeled as “other” and fostering their further isolation from society. And, once the person has been otherized, it is difficult for them to reintegrate into society, especially if the rules of society of adeptly upended the way they were in East Germany after the collapse of the communist government.

As such, I wish I went into this novel without another person’s reading of the story in mind. I might have found it more powerful or intriguing if expectations hadn’t been set in such a particular way.

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