They Divided the Sky
A Novel by Christa Wolf
Publication Year: 2013
The story is set in 1960 and 1961, a moment of high political cold war tension between the East Bloc and the West, a time when many thousands of people were leaving the young German Democratic Republic (the GDR) every day in order to seek better lives in West Germany, or escape the political ideology of the new country that promoted the "farmer and peasant" state over a state run by intellectuals or capitalists. The construction of the Wall put an end to this hemorrhaging of human capital, but separated families, friends, and lovers, for thirty years.
The conflicts of the time permeate the relations between characters in the book at every level, and strongly affect the relationships that Rita, the protagonist, has not only with colleagues at work and at the teacher's college she attends, but also with her partner Manfred (an intellectual and academic) and his family. They also lead to an accident/attempted suicide that send her to hospital in a coma, and that provide the backdrop for the flashbacks that make up the narrative.
Wolf's first full-length novel, published when she was thirty-five years old, was both a great literary success and a political scandal. Accused of having a 'decadent' attitude with regard to the new socialist Germany and deliberately misrepresenting the workers who are the foundation of this new state, Wolf survived a wave of political and other attacks after its publication. She went on to create a screenplay from the novel and participate in making the film version. More importantly, she went on to become the best-known East German writer of her generation, a writer who established an international reputation and never stopped working toward improving the socialist reality of the GDR.
Published by: University of Ottawa Press
Series: Literary Translation
Title Page, Copyright
Another Time, Another Text
In the late 1980s, during the years in which the East Bloc was heading into collapse along with East Germany, I spent several long periods in East Berlin, officially attending courses for Germanists at Humboldt University, unofficially getting to know the many different oppositional movements that were gathering strength there: among them the Initiative Frieden und Menschenrechte and the people who assembled...
In those last August days of the year 1961 the girl called Rita Seidel awoke in a small hospital room. She had not been asleep, she’d been unconscious. As she opens her eyes it is evening and the clean white wall, the thing she sees first, is in shadow. This is the first time she...
When he arrived in our village two years ago, I noticed him right away. Manfred Herrfurth. He was staying at a relative’s place and she wasn’t one to keep secrets. So I soon found out, as did everybody else, that the young man was a chemist and that he wanted to spend some time in the village to rest before writing his doctoral thesis,...
Since the age of five Rita has known that you have to expect sudden changes in life. She vaguely remembers her early childhood in a bluegreen hilly land, her father’s face behind the magnifying glass, ...
That was how he was: arrogant to the very end and hard to take. Once, on one of the few Sundays they spent together, she asked, “I’m not the first woman you’ve liked, am I?”...
Manfred knew exactly: there is a kind of efficiency that leaves the efficient person cold. Only now that he couldn’t stay cold any longer, he wondered what was actually wrong with him. When did it all start, this indifference I felt toward everything? he asked himself. Why did ...
Did the smiles stay? Weren’t they just too precarious? Would they be
sacrificed to shrill laughter, the sign of unconquerable solitude?
The smiles stayed, for a long time, even behind a light veil of tears. A wonderful secret signal held fast between us: Are you there? And ...
Overnight the weather changed its mind. The wind came from the
east, grew into a gale, and in the morning it looked like frost.
It was Rita’s first day in the factory. “Tally-ho!” Manfred called, as she pulled the door shut. He kept making fun of her but she insisted on keeping the promise she’d made to Schwarzenbach (“these days ...
“Visitor for you,” the nurse says one afternoon. “An exception, outside
Startled, Rita looks up and watches in disbelief as Rolf Meternagel comes in, looks around, ducks his head as though he is afraid the ...
“Rolf Meternagel isn’t all that important,” Manfred said. “I don’t
know him at all. So if you tell me he’s a good man, I’ll take your word
“Last year he was still a foreman in your plant. He didn’t tell you that, eh? He was apparently pegged for further promotion. But it was...
Today she knows: that night she had the first, still unutterable premonition of danger. She kept her sense of helplessness to herself; it was her unconscious way of being brave, a way that didn’t hurt Manfred’s feelings. She had exactly the kind of courage he needed....
Rita will always connect the memory of those weeks with dark smoke
rising before fiery red sunrises, with sinister, dissatisfied days and
strange ideas reaching right into her dreams.
She was not alone. Everyone seemed to have the feeling that all kinds of things depended on what was happening at the plant, which ...
Imperceptibly, amid all the other events, Rita had not stayed “the new girl.” She now knew which tram to take in the morning to meet acquaintances, and in the evenings she walked home with Rolf Meternagel, who took the same route. They would talk about work and plans for the upcoming Sunday before they went their separate ...
September has gone by. One night, unexpectedly, the autumn rains set in, grey-shimmering drapes that cascade down the windows of the sanatorium and don’t lift for days and nights. The trees, stained black from the damp summer, drop their last leaves. The soggy park lies abandoned....
As twilight fell, they walked back through the town, tired and still. Sentence fragments were enough, or the weight of a hand. Rita was proud of the dark red paper rose that Manfred had won for her at a shooting stand. It gleamed brightly as the daylight grew weaker....
Nobody could have imagined that the first hot days of summer that year would bring on many more weeks of a malevolent, scorching sun. An unearthly being spewed its searing breath over the land. They got out of their beds exhausted, and over the course of the day,...
Nine months later the boat had gone under. They stood on opposite
shores. Had no one answered their signals or seen their distress?
Rita has been working hard on herself during the pallid, repetitive weeks in hospital, and she keeps returning to the same question: Did she not see the danger in time? Instinctively, and because time is not...
There was no third winter together.
The memory of the leaves again changing colour in the square little attic window during the last quarter of the year—from garish and...
One morning—it is her fourth week at the sanatorium—Rita is out on the balcony that runs along the entire southern front of the building, and suddenly everything is different. Quite abruptly, without warning....
The year has been moving on. Time is no longer slipping away; that flow has stopped. Long nights, filled to the brim with dreamless sleep and short days scheduled according to the doctor’s orders—that’s the...
Time has not left the professor’s evening parties untouched. While politic get-togethers may be attractive, the attraction wanes when the politics change. New wishes and yearnings develop much less quickly than huge factories built on sand....
Rita slept the whole day and the entire next night. The church bells ringing on Sunday morning woke her up. She’d forgotten nothing, but she knew she’d made the right decision in coming. The high, lightly veiled vault of the sky, the most important feature of this landscape, unspoiled by apartment blocks and chimneys, was...
These days Rita smiles when she looks at the painting of the meadow.
She will miss it, she thinks.
Then she gets the letter. Two letters actually, in one envelope, with Martin Jung’s handwriting on it. But this one is the one that counts. She can feel herself grow cold and heavy. It’s a letter written ...
Shortly after Manfred took up his work at the institute again, healthy and outwardly almost unchanged, Wendland phoned. He was inviting them both, Rita and Manfred, to a test run of their new lightweight train car. Manfred hesitated. He’s inviting ...
May was cold that year. The people, who longed for warmth, felt cheated and grumpily kept stoking their stoves; the fruit trees in the gardens blossomed in vain. The wind swept the snowy petals into the gutters. But still, all this—the cold, the sadly swirling useless blooms, and the penetrating wind—should not have been reason enough to...
She had another two or three weeks. No matter how hard she tries to remember, those weeks have been deleted from her memory. The days must have gone by, they must have talked to each other, they must have lived—she doesn’t remember a thing. Manfred left, just for a few days, to attend a chemistry conference in Berlin; she doesn’t ...
That July the sun shone equally on the just and the unjust. When it
shone. It was a rainy summer.
August started well: hot and dry, with high open skies, though people hardly noticed, except when they looked up at the planes, more numerous than usual, that were flying over the country. “Let...
She shut her eyes for a moment to have the whole picture in front of
her, the way she’d seen it on the big city map, neat and clear.
Turn right first. Cross the wide street, where (and the map does not show this) you have to wait for minutes before the impeccably trained policeman executes the elegant arm movements that stop the stream ...
“Am I supposed to spend the whole winter here?” Rita asks the doctor
on his daily visit. October has passed and a dismal, cold November
is setting in.
“Not at all!” the doctor says, “You’re free to go. Wherever you like.” ...
In the glassed-in veranda, the silence and the rain are ticking on the
windowpanes. “It’s letting up,” Schwarzenbach says. “I can go now.”
But they both stay where they are. After a while, Rita says, “Sometimes I wonder: can the world even be measured by our...
The day Rita returns to the sooty city is cool and indifferent. A typical early November day, equidistant from the last heavyhearted days of autumn and the translucent brightness of winter. Hardly changed by her two-month absence, she returns, formally, to her old room, as though to renew an old resolution or assert it forever....
Literary Translation Collection