Peirene’s novellas come with a brief foreword from Meike Ziervogel, a short personal comment explaining why this particular book caught her eye. The one prefacing Kerstin Hensel’s Dance by the Canal ends ‘This book will make you think’. I’ve yet to read anything published by Peirene which hasn’t done that. Hensel’s book is the story of how Gabriela von Haßlau became homeless, fitting neither into the old GDR nor the new unified Germany.
Gabriela is the daughter of a surgeon, a man who reached the heady heights of Chief Medical Officer in an East German town only to lose his reputation to drink and a vocal disillusionment with the state. Her mother sacrificed her own career for her husband’s, frantically cleaning their mansion-like villa until he hires some illicit help. These two embark on hosting raucous parties packed with artists and the more exciting of Ernst’s colleagues but never the obedient plodders. When Ernst rumbles his wife’s affair with one of the actors he’s so delighted with, he divorces her and takes to drink with an even greater vengeance. On top of all this, his daughter is a disappointment to him, failing at her violin lessons, cavorting with the grubby Katka and only keeping her place at school thanks to his influence and the red ‘I’ on her records denoting a child of the intelligentsia. By the time she leaves school, university places are reserved for the children of workers. Instead, she finds herself assigned an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer at which she fails dismally. When she pushes her boss into the canal, two mysterious men arrive eager to help her fulfil her dreams of becoming a writer. In the summer of 1994, Gabriela scratches out her story under the bridge across the canal she and Katka once danced naked alongside. She determinedly separates herself from the filthier vagrants but as the winter sets in survival becomes harder. Then things take an unexpected turn.
Henshel’s novella begins with a vividly drawn word picture as Gabriela delights in acquiring a blank piece of paper on which she can write her story. From her disappointed father to the two be-suited individuals, nefariously intent on employing her writing skills, we learn that the men she meets either want to contain or exploit her but Gabriela refuses to play ball. Henshel’s writing is often striking – Gabriela’s mother’s grief is ‘a siren [which] wailed from inside her’ – and her characters vividly realised. Katka is a particular delight. There’s a good deal of humour in this novella but there are also moments of melancholy as winter drags Gabriela closer to ‘the last hole’. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the ending but the journey that led to it was certainly a rewarding one.