Tanja Dückers was born on 25 September 1968 in West Berlin. After sitting the Abitur, the German equivalent of A-Levels, she spent some time in the United States before taking German, Dutch, North American Studies, and Art History at the Free University in Berlin and the University of Amsterdam. Her dissertation looked at Barnett Newman’s painting as an example of the aesthetic of the sublime in modern art. Her first two volumes of poetry were published during her degree, Morsezeichen (Morse Code, 1996) and Fireman (1996), the latter composed in English. Since graduating, Dückers has combined her literary career with journalism, writing columns for the Frankfurter Rundschau and Die Zeit on themes from art and literary criticism to contemporary social issues. Some of her articles are collected in the volume Morgen nach Utopia (The Day after Utopia, 2007). Through this work she has emerged as one of the most high-profile authors writing in Germany today. Indeed, in 2006, the German Historical Museum honoured her as one of the ten most important German authors under the age of 40. She is also one of the most versatile, having published poetry, short-stories, novels (in various genres, from pop literature to historical family narratives), and children’s books.
Her first novel Spielzone (Playground, 1999) is perhaps more accurately a series of interconnected short-stories which paint a picture of unified Berlin as seen through the eyes of its inhabitants. The novel is divided into two halves. The first, ‘Thomasstraße’, follows a variety of figures who live on this stretch of the then somewhat deprived area of Neukölln. The second half, ‘Sonnenburger Straße’, unfolds in Prenzlauer Berg, a former East German district which has become a playground for hip young people. One of characters linking both sections is the teenager Laura, the daughter of two former ’68 rebels, who loiters around the cemetery smoking joints with her friends. When they are busy with their boyfriends, she strikes up conversations with the other loners who while away the hours in this transitory space. In the second half of the novel she ambles around Prenzlauer Berg and its clubs with her older cousin, Ada, and her friends. Their lives are spent in the newest clubs, listening to the newest music, playing out rapidly changing, and largely interchangeable, sexual preferences. Spielzone is one of the stand-out works about Berlin to have been inspired by the fall of the wall. Like many of these other so-called Berlin novels, Dückers portrays Berlin, via her protagonists, as diverse and tolerant, increasingly dynamic but still searching for its identity.
Her fascination with urban life also finds expression in the poetry collection Luftpost (Airmail, 2001), which contrasts Berlin with Barcelona. This volume was followed by the CD Mehrsprachige Tomaten: Reisen im Kopf (Multilingual Tomatoes: Imaginary Journeys, 2004), in which several lyric fragments are woven together by music and sounds produced by Betram Denzel. The themes in this collection – loneliness, longing for home and others, estrangement, return – add depth to the sensations that Dückers had explored in Spielzone. Her collection of poetry Fundbüros und Verstecke (Lost Property and Hiding Places, 2012) continues this trend, exploring a series of opposites, near and far, rise and fall, found and lost, north and south, east and west, public and private. The melancholy that pervades this volume had first made an appearance in Dückers’s second novel, Café Brazil (Café Brazil, 2001), another series of interconnected character portraits.
Dückers’s date of birth inspires much of her writing, from her early forays into pop literature, Spielzone and Café Brazil, to her most historical novels, Himmelskörper (Celestial Bodies, 2003), Der längste Tag des Jahres (The Longest Day of the Year, 2006), and Hausers Zimmer (Hauser’s Room, 2011). Many of Dückers’s protagonists are, like her, the progeny of the 1968 generation. To varying degrees they are the products of nonconformist life-styles and an anti-authoritarian upbringing. While this background merely adds to the atmosphere of the pop novels, it gains emotional and social contours in the later novels. In Himmelskörper Dückers focalises family memory through women from three generations: the first-person narrator, Freia; her mother, Renate; and her grandmother, Jo. She effectively combines literary reflections on family memory with a coming-of-age story. In particular, the reciprocity of story-telling and gendered identity formation becomes a leitmotif of Himmelskörper, allowing Dückers to suggest how both memory and gendered identity are constructed performatively. For the narrator, deciphering and recording family history are exercises in re-assessing her relationship with her mother and making sense of her own impending motherhood. Freia reflects on the generational dynamics that have shaped her understanding of the past and of herself as a gendered subject.
The historical dimension of the novel revolves around the question of repressed guilt. Like many more recent family narratives, Himmelskörper offsets a nuanced discussion of German guilt with a treatment of the controversial theme of German wartime suffering. While Jo and her husband had been fervent supporters of National Socialism, the stories that they tell about the past are tales of suffering: Max’s hardships as a soldier, and Jo’s flight from Gotenhafen. Jo is particularly obsessed by what could have been. Had they not secured the last places on board a minesweeper, thanks to their status as ‘Nazis of the first hour’, they would have been forced to travel on board the fated Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed as it carried over 10,000 refugees and military personnel away from the German East. The treatment of the Gustloff has led to numerous comparisons between Himmelskörper and Im Krebsgang (Crabwalk, 2002) by Günter Grass. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung (22 March 2003), however, Dückers maintains, ‘I think that my version is the right one, I find it more historically accurate. I can say this confidently, I did enough research to bring me to this conclusion. Grass is biased.' Perhaps unfairly, she accuses Grass of depicting the sinking of the Gustloff as the great German tragedy. Dückers argues that she more consistently reflects on the link between German wartime suffering and the crimes committed by Germans.
Moreover, Jo’s tales of suffering do not correspond to the political and fact-based history that Freia initially learns at school. The novel explores the implications of this disparity between historical-pedagogical and family memory on the historical consciousness of the third post-war generation. The failings of Renate and Peter as parents and educators contains an implicit re-evaluation of the 1968 generation. Dückers develops this theme in Der längste Tag des Jahres, in which she explores how five siblings react to the death of their father. Born in 1941, the patriarch is a typical member of the post-war generation. His business, a pet shop, symbolises the energies that this generation invested in the rebuilding of Germany, while his hobby suggests his provincialism. He keeps exotic animals, but never ventures abroad. His children react in different ways to his way of life. Dückers interweaves their individual stories to create a portrait of the generation. Most radically, the youngest son breaks away from the family, starting a new life in the American desert. He ends up living out the dreams that his father was too scared to pursue. As in Himmelskörper, Dückers explores the question of identity from the perspective of family influence.
Dückers’s 2011 novel combines the themes of Spielzone with those prominent in Der längste Tag des Jahres. Like the former, the city is the hidden protagonist of Hausers Zimmer, which looks back to life in pre-unification West Berlin. The rats that scurry across the streets and the pages of Dückers’s novel symbolise the stagnation of the city, on the one hand, but also its resilience. Dückers tries to capture the mood of the 1980s, namely the constant threat of atomic warfare in a time of ostensible peace. She probes the effect of this charged political atmosphere on her young protagonist, Julika, who lives with her parents and brothers in Charlottenburg. An interesting counterpoint to this youthful perspective comes in the form of the disillusionment of the parent generation, former student activists, whose political hopes had been dashed when the protest movements had given way to terrorism and when the conservative government had regained power in 1982 under Helmut Kohl. As Dückers reflects, ‘There was a lot of disorientation in the early 1980s. Former idols had stepped down, the new ones held little appeal for middle-class people on the left. It was the time of Reagan, Thatcher and the young Kohl, there was a paradigm change. It interested me to describe how this development was reflected in West Berlin’ (Hilker, 6 May 2011). This novel is part of Dückers’s ongoing literary engagement with the 1968 generation as parents, especially their contradictions. Julika’s rebellion against the political correctness and intellectualism of her parents takes the form of voyeuristic daydreams about their neighbour, Hauser, who is their exact opposite. He is a complete philistine, lazing around at home, drinking beer, eating crisps and watching trash TV. Julika constructs her own utopian vision around his joie-de-vivre.
Compiled by Katie Stone (Cambridge)
Morsezeichen [poetry] (Berlin: Bonsai, 1996)
Spielzone [novel] (Berlin: Aufbau, 1999)
Café Brazil [short-stories] (Berlin: Aufbau, 2001)
Luftpost [poetry] (Cologne: Tropen, 2001)
Himmelskörper [novel] (Berlin: Aufbau, 2003)
Stadt.land.krieg [short-stories] ed. by Tanja Dückers and Verena Carl (Berlin: Aufbau, 2004)
Mehrsprachige Tomaten: Reisen im Kopf [poetry] (Berlin: Sankt Oberholz, 2004)
Der längste Tag des Jahres [novel] (Berlin: Aufbau, 2006)
‘Portola Drive: Zwei Erzählungen’ [short-stories] in Schöner Lesen 52 (Berlin: SuKuLTuR Verlag, 2006)
Morgen nach Utopia: Essays (Berlin: Aufbau, 2007)
Jonas und die Nachtgespenster [children’s book] (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2008)
Über das Erinnern [essay] (Düsseldorf: Literaturbüro NRW und Stadtwerke AG, 2008)
Ächtler, Norman: ‘Topography of a Family Memory: Poland as an area of Toward Memory in Tanja Duckers’ Novel Celestial bodies’ (Seminar 45.3, 2009, pp. 276-298).
Cohen-Pfister, Laurel: ‘An Aesthetics of Memory for Third-Generation Germans: Tanja Dückers’s Himmelskörper’ in German Literature in a New Century: Trends, Traditions, Transitions, Transformations ed. by Katharina Gerstenberger and Patricia Herminghouse (Oxford: Berghahn, 2008, pp. 119-134).
Eigler, Friederike: ‘Beyond the Victims Debate: Flight and Expulsion in Recent Novels by Authors from the Second and Third Generation (Christoph Hein, Reinhard Jirgl, Kathrin Schmidt, and Tanja Dückers)’ in Generational Shifts in Contemporary German Culture ed. by Laurel Cohen-Pfister and Susanne Vees-Gulani (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010, pp. 77-95).
—: Heimat, Space, Narrative: Toward a Transnational Approach to Flight and Expulsion (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)
Fuchs, Anne: Phantoms of War in Contemporary German Literature, Films, and Discourse: The Politics of Memory (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
Gerstenberger, Katharina: Writing the New Berlin: The German Capital in Post-Wall Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2008).
Gwyer, Kirstin: ‘Beyond Lateness? “Postmemory” and the Late(st) German-Language Family Novel’ (New German Critique 42.2, 2015, pp. 137-153)