Reiner Kunze

I met Reiner Kunze in 1976 while I was on a sabbatical leave, living in Vienna and working on a project that would culminate in a three-volume book on GDR literature in the 1970s. In January 1976, I wrote to Kunze and asked him to participate in my project by permitting me to interview him and publish one or more of his recent texts in my book. His response came on a postcard dated January 23, 1976, which happened to be my 33rd birthday. Kunze indicated that he would be pleased to meet with me on March 22 and sent me his private telephone number. Before I describe that memorable encounter, let me provide some important background information on Kunze.

Kunze was a dissident writer, although he was not fond of the “dissident” label; he was a person of principle who stood up to the GDR’s power elite and was harshly punished for doing so. To understand his unfortunate situation, one needs to know that in 1961 and 1962 he was living in Czechoslovakia, where he learned the Czech language, married a Czech medical doctor, and became friends with several Prague writers. His major confrontation with the GDR authorities was precipitated by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, which he protested publicly and vociferously. Thereafter, his writings—with the exception of one anthology—were no longer published in the GDR, and he was not allowed to read from his works or speak in public. This severe form of censorial repression, imposed and enforced by the government, was just a step away from incarceration; the purpose was not only to discipline Kunze for his oppositional behavior and silence him, but also to prevent him from earning a living. Fortunately, his wife Elisabeth had a full-time job.

On the afternoon of March 22, 1976, I visited Kunze at his home in Greiz, a small city in Thuringia. My recollection of that visit is sketchy after all these years, but I do recall Kunze’s passion, intensity, frustration, and anger as we discussed the Prague Spring and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, human rights issues in the GDR, and the ban on his publications and public appearances in his homeland. He also told me about the suffering of his Czech wife who worked at a nearby hospital and the mistreatment of his teen-age daughter at her school, due to his persistent opposition to repressive state policies and practices. As we conversed and while I tape recorded the interview, Kunze mentioned that he was certain the secret police had bugged his house. Every so often he would make a comment he knew the state authorities and secret police would find offensive if they heard it, then he would look at a place in the living room where a bug might have been planted and say in a loud, defiant voice: “What do you think of that?!” Kunze answered all fifteen of my questions and, after an unforgettable visit that lasted several hours, I departed with the taped interview in hand. That interview, which appears in volume III of my book, DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw), reveals above all Kunze’s deep concern as a writer for human welfare, values, and dignity.

On March 23, 1976, the day after my visit with him, Kunze sent a note to me at my Vienna address, along with copies of the six short poems he had selected for publication in my book:

Dear Mr. Zipser,
six—so as not to push oneself forward, but also not to make oneself scarce,
agreed? And then you mentioned a photo: as the situation requires.
Hopefully, all is well with you. Our greetings to your wife and warm
regards to you from my wife and me.
Yours, Reiner Kunze
Greiz, 3. 23. 76
PS: Confirmation of receipt requested, on account of restful sleep. . .

In the fall of 1976, following the unauthorized publication in West Germany of his controversial book of short prose, The Wonderful Years (Die wunderbaren Jahre), Kunze expected to be arrested. Instead, the GDR authorities expelled him from the Writers’ Union, impounded his passport, and in April 1977 forced him into exile. He resettled with his family in West Germany, in Obernzell-Erlau, Bavaria, a municipality located close to the border of Czechoslovakia.

The Wonderful Years is a marvelous book, my favorite of Kunze’s prose works. Cultural critic John Leonard reviewed the English edition of the book, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, for The New York Times on April 21, 1977. I want to share some passages from this insightful review with readers of this snapshot, so they will have a sense of Kunze’s style of writing and the power of his words. Leonard begins by stating: “It will take you no more than an hour and a half to read this book the first time. The second time will take longer. The third time, you will probably pause at certain passages, having already memorized them, and look around for an ear into which to quote. For instance:

On the morning of August 22, 1968, my wife nearly tripped: A bouquet of
gladiolus lay at our door. An elderly couple of the neighborhood had
a garden and would sometimes bring us flowers. ‘They probably
didn’t want to disturb us last night,’ said my wife.

That afternoon, she came with three bouquets in her arms. ‘These are only
some of them,’ she said. They had been left for her at the hospital
where she works, and nobody but my wife was surprised. Everyone
knows she’s from Czechoslovkia.”

“That’s it,” Leonard exclaims, “the whole of a two-paragraph story—vignette, anecdote, haiku?—called ‘Behind the Front.’ Nothing flashy, no rhetorical fatty tissue, just bone words. It helps to know, of course, that husband and wife are living in East Germany and that on Aug. 20, 1968, at night, East German, Bulgarian, Polish, Hungarian and Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia and got rid of Alexander Dubcek because ‘he hadn’t shown the necessary severity toward the class enemy.’”

Leonard also comments on Kunze’s unusual literary style, marveling at his ability to craft powerful stories with ever so few words. “This book is more than economical: it is minimalist prose, moral pointillisme. By comparison, Hemingway was a chatterbox.” Noting that Heinrich Böll had called this book ‘the fist that weeps,’ Leonard observes: “Astonishingly, it is also a fist that laughs. Yes, it reports on the politics, schools, stupidity and repression of East Germany the day before yesterday. But it also reports on raising a teen-age daughter in such an asylum.”

Leonard elaborates:

Love of children—their logic, passion, curiosity and impatience—is the
watermark and signature of this slim book about a system,
anti-Semitic even now, that would turn them into obedient zombies;
that would demand they wear “optimistic colors” in the classroom,
that would label Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn “scoundrels”; that would
outlaw a rock-music group because it hadn’t caused a
disturbance—“manipulations by the adversary”—and arrest and fine
a boy for “Disturbance of Socialist Cooperation” (playing a guitar) and
kick someone out of high school for “Theses unsettling to fellow

Nothing, we are told, is invented here. At what point has a society—in
which the only organ is the state, for which even Bach is
dangerous—lied to itself so crudely and systematically that to tell the
truth is to appear satirical, that to record the quotidian is to be
subversive? “Do you write what’s in the newspaper,” asks a drunken
neighbor, “or what’s in real life?” No wonder they had to get him out
of there.

“The years may not have been wonderful,” Leonard declares as he concludes, “but the book is.” It certainly is!

Although Reiner Kunze’s most famous book is The Wonderful Years, which contains critical insights into life behind the Iron Curtain, his literary output since the mid-1950s consists mostly of poetry. He is also an essayist, a translator of Czech poetry and prose, and the author of a book of children’s stories. In this final section of my piece on Kunze, I would like to comment on his poetry.

Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese unrhymed verse, emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. These are also characteristics of Kunze’s poetic works, along with brevity and sensitivity. But he is not a haiku poet; he is a minimalist who manages to create powerful and often beautiful poetic images with few words. Take, for example, this poem which is about how a writer (presumably Kunze) sometimes has to wait patiently for inspiration and ideas:


You in the garage again!
(my daughter, looking at the abandoned desk)

of the long distances, child 

Because of the distances
between one word and the other

Kunze’s most famous poem is rudern zwei (two rowing), which he wrote in 1956. It is a love poem that over the years has been popularized in the German-speaking world and is frequently read or recited on special occasions, such as marriage ceremonies and wedding anniversaries. Below is my translation of this poetic gem, which metaphorically presents a couple living and working together harmoniously, sharing important responsibilities, and thereby moving forward in life despite the trials and tribulations that are part of any romantic union:


Two rowing
a boat.
knows about stars,
the other one
knows about storms.
When one
navigates by the stars,
the other one
navigates through the storms.
And at the end, at the very end,
they will remember the sea
was blue.

In May 2013, I received a message from Andreas W. Mytze, editor-in-chief of a London-based literary magazine, europäische ideen (european ideas), which has literature and politics as its central focus. Mytze told me he was planning to commemorate Reiner Kunze’s 80th birthday, upcoming on August 16, 2013, by publishing a special issue of his journal with short messages by friends of Kunze and other well-wishers, around twenty persons altogether. He invited me to contribute something (an anecdote, perhaps) and I readily accepted. The title of my contribution to Issue 155, Reiner Kunze 80, is “My Visit with Dissident East German Writer Reiner Kunze, Way Back Then.”

Kunze received Issue 155 of Mytze’s publication with an assortment of congratulatory messages in the second week of August. A week after his birthday, a mail packet from his home address arrived at my office at the University of Delaware. Inside I discovered a slim booklet with three short poems by Kunze printed on separate pages, a limited edition of 700 copies for booklovers, each numbered and signed by the author. Mine is number 410, and on the first inside page there is a nice message from the author: “Dear Mr. Zipser, Reiner Kunze thanks you very much, in August 2013.” Reiner and his wife Elisabeth had this special booklet made to commemorate their 80th birthdays. The last page has a photo of the two of them, who had been together at that time for about fifty years. As I viewed the photo of them again while working on this piece, the love poem two rowing came instantly to mind.

reiner kunze
photo: Klaus Pester