Heroes Like Us

Overview

Klaus Uhltzscht has always tried his best to serve his nation - and to please his parents. Born in 1968 in East Germany, as Soviet tanks roll into Czechoslovakia, Klaus grows up across the street from the Ministry of State Security and is inspired early on to do his share to win the Cold War. Naturally, he joins the secret police, but his glorious career as an international agent never materializes. Instead, he spends countless hours keeping his fellow citizens under close surveillance - never quite sure what he ...
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Overview

Klaus Uhltzscht has always tried his best to serve his nation - and to please his parents. Born in 1968 in East Germany, as Soviet tanks roll into Czechoslovakia, Klaus grows up across the street from the Ministry of State Security and is inspired early on to do his share to win the Cold War. Naturally, he joins the secret police, but his glorious career as an international agent never materializes. Instead, he spends countless hours keeping his fellow citizens under close surveillance - never quite sure what he is looking for. His mother, the goddess of hygiene, and his father, who might also work for the Stasi, do their best to keep his bodily functions and especially his sexual urges under equally close observation and control. Frustrated on all fronts, Klaus discovers an exciting new identity when a strange accident dramatically alters the size of his penis in the fall of 1989. A bestseller in Germany, Heroes Like Us is the first novel to comment on the downfall of the former East Germany written by someone who grew up with the Berlin Wall. Provocative and hilarious, it challenges good citizens everywhere to examine their relationship to their country.
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Editorial Reviews

Maud Casey

From the start of Heroes Like Us, our hero, Klaus Uhltzscht, lets you know what you're in for: "You must not mind," he says, "if my recollections become a trifle dick-heavy at times." German author Thomas Brussig's satiric second novel is the story of how this dizzyingly neurotic narrator's penis played a throbbingly decisive, if semi-accidental, role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Brussig uses the conceit of an interview as the book's structure -- each chapter is another tape reel as Uhltzscht, not yet 20, tells his life story to a New York Times reporter. The resulting narrative has the rambling, conversational feel of a megalomaniac given free reign with a microphone. And that seems to be Brussig's intention -- to let Uhltzscht, equal parts lover of socialism and Western lingerie models, crash into an occasional deep truth while being, for the most part, engaging and revealing.

Where Uhltzscht succeeds in being entertaining is when he is being the most dick-heavy. The sexual obsessions of this late adolescent paired with his recruitment into the Stasi -- the Stasi, sex and masturbation have similar veils of secrecy -- leads to "jerking off for socialism," intercourse with roasted chickens in order to better understand the enemy, fear that an STD will be sold as a state secret and homemade sex toys. The semi-parody of the secret police itself is filled with witty non-speak like "the negation of negation" and "post-post-structuralism." And, from time to time, Uhltzscht skids into profundity. Totalitarianism, for instance, is "a pygmy confronted by a giant who stands there gazing at some distant prospect visible only to him."

But there are times when you just want to turn that tape recorder off. While it's part of his charm, Uhltzscht is still arrogant and quiveringly insecure, a self-described Nobel Laureate manqué who talks endlessly, à la Portnoy, about his own penis. This is a wacky glimpse from behind the scenes -- a German bestseller that is one of the first novels to address the fall of the Berlin Wall by an author who grew up with it. Every couple of reels, though, you find yourself longing for some anti-comic relief. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Imagine Alexander Portnoy reborn as an East German police officer and you'll have some idea of the amusing but ultimately disappointing satirical novel from Brussig. Beset by adolescent lust, Klaus Uhltzsch (his last name is as unpronounceable in German as in English) rebels inwardly against his mother, a hygiene inspector, and his disdainful, Stasi-connected father, indulging in cycles of orgiastic imaginings and guiltall of which he relives during a confessional interview conducted by an offstage New York Times reporter. To American readers, who have seen this routine endlessly repeated since Portnoy first stretched himself out on a psychiatrist's couch, the sex (with the corollary themes of Mother-as-Bitch and Dad-as-Monster) comes as something less than a shock, although it does provide Brussig with a pretext for a few amusing riffs. Just as his adolescent angst begins to cloy, the novel takes a political turn, when Klaus joins the Stasi himself. Brussig portrays the secret police at the end of the 1980s as a bunch of pretzel-chewing morons (the tragedies of postwar Germany replayed as Hogan's Heroes). But Brussig undermines his satire by putting into Klaus's mouth various editorial opinions, (e.g., a lengthy attack on the writer Christa Wolf). Klaus's transformation into a porno star after he single-handedly topples the Berlin Wall rounds out this political farce with predictable and slightly wearisome, silliness. (Nov.)
Library Journal
If this novel is as funny in the original (it was a best seller in Germany), it's pretty funny, and bravo to translator Brownjohn. It's the story of Klaus Uhlzscht, who even as a child sees himself destined to greatness, even a Nobel prizeall evidence to the contrary. It's about coming of age, his moribund, mysterious father, overly-hygienic mother, summer camp, apprenticeship in the Stasi, but most of all it's about his preoccupation with his (euphemism alert!) memberits uses and abuses, ascensions and dimensions, its promises and purposes. The whole is in the form of an interview with a New York Times reporter, the cause of the interview being Klaus's instrumentality in the fall of the Berlin Wall (see Nobel prize, above), through demonstration of his (euphemism alert!) member, grown through surgical error to gigantic proportion, to awed border guards. Book and characters are funny, but it's the diction (and Brussig would appreciate the two puns above), as in Nabokov, that is hilarious. Recommended but far out. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/97.]Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
Casey
From the start of Heroes Like Us, our hero, Klaus Uhltzscht, lets you know what you're in for: "You must not mind," he says, "if my recollections become a trifle dick-heavy at times." German author Thomas Brussig's satiric second novel is the story of how this dizzyingly neurotic narrator's penis played a throbbingly decisive, if semi-accidental, role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Brussig uses the conceit of an interview as the book's structure -- each chapter is another tape reel as Uhltzscht, not yet 20, tells his life story to a New York Times reporter. The resulting narrative has the rambling, conversational feel of a megalomaniac given free reign with a microphone. And that seems to be Brussig's intention -- to let Uhltzscht, equal parts lover of socialism and Western lingerie models, crash into an occasional deep truth while being, for the most part, engaging and revealing.

Where Uhltzscht succeeds in being entertaining is when he is being the most dick-heavy. The sexual obsessions of this late adolescent paired with his recruitment into the Stasi -- the Stasi, sex and masturbation have similar veils of secrecy -- leads to "jerking off for socialism," intercourse with roasted chickens in order to better understand the enemy, fear that an STD will be sold as a state secret and homemade sex toys. The semi-parody of the secret police itself is filled with witty non-speak like "the negation of negation" and "post-post-structuralism." And, from time to time, Uhltzscht skids into profundity. Totalitarianism, for instance, is "a pygmy confronted by a giant who stands there gazing at some distant prospect visible only to him."

But there are times when you just want to turn that tape recorder off. While it's part of his charm, Uhltzscht is still arrogant and quiveringly insecure, a self-described Nobel Laureate manqué who talks endlessly, à la Portnoy, about his own penis. This is a wacky glimpse from behind the scenes -- a German bestseller that is one of the first novels to address the fall of the Berlin Wall by an author who grew up with it. Every couple of reels, though, you find yourself longing for some anti-comic relief. --SALON

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374527600
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 12/28/1996
  • Pages: 262
  • Sales rank: 827,639
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Read an Excerpt

TAPE 1

KITZELSTEIN

I could claim to have been brought into the world by an entire armored regiment. Lumbering in the direction of Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20, 1968. Soviet tanks passed a small hotel in the village of Brunn, where my mother, then more than nine months pregnant, was spending her maternity leave. Engines roared, tank tracks jingled on asphalt. Panic-stricken, I pierced the amniotic sac, slithered down the birth canal, and landed on a living room table. Darkness and pandemonium reined, tanks rumbled past, and there I was. An evil stench filled the trembling air, and the world into which I emerged was a political world.

You see, Mr. Kitzelstein? I'm so fully aware of my historic responsibilities that I've already begun to write the story or my life, though I have to confess that two whole years of endeavor have failed to get me further than the first paragraph. What I had in mind was an autobiography in which, while treating my person with due reverence, I would present a firsthand account of recent events in Europe that put me in the running for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize (to acquaint you right away with one of my salient characteristics: megalomania). Who knows how much longer I might have toiled at my autobiography if you hadn't called me to request an interview on behalf of The New York Times?

How did I manage to topple the Berlin Wall? It's a long story. First, however, let met dispel a few misapprehensions.

I had hoped that my role in the events of that night would remain unrecognized a while longer, but I underestimated the persistence of American investigative reporters. When the Wall was suddenly no more, people rubbed their eyes and came to the conclusion that they themselves must have demolished it. That myth would not endure for long, I knew. They had to be somewhat, these people who had breached the Wall, but where? More realistic observers came to the conclusion that no such people existed. So who was responsible?

At this stage, recollections of Gunther Schabowski's press conference surfaced. The myth that Schabowski had proclaimed the Wall open suited me admirably because it discouraged inquiries in my direction and enabled me, firmly intent on the Nobel Prize that was my due, to press on with my autobiography in peace. Besides, I always knew that if I confessed, I could dispose of the press conference myth with relative ease. One has only to listen closely to what Schabowski said at the time. When confronted by journalists and bombarded with questions about the flood of defectors, he granted the latter right of direct passage into the Federal Republic, probably because it irked him that the rest of the world should be gloating over television pictures of miles-long lines of cars at the Czech-West German border. His sole concern was to render the exodus less sensational. Although it's true that one hour later the West German Bundestag deputies interrupted a debate to rise and sing "Deutschland uber Alles," nothing had happened as yet at the Wall itself--except that a large crowd of curious, expectant onlookers gathered there. And then I appeared on the scene. You told me on the phone that you'd stumbled upon me while analyzing some videotaped material. Why should I deny it?

Yes, it's true, it was me: I toppled the Berlin Wall. Ah, but if that were all, as it would seem from the effusions of historians and journalists: "The end of divided Germany," "The end of the European postwar era," "The end of the twentieth century, "The end of the modern age," The end of the Gold War," "The end of ideologies," "The end of history." They're like the brave little tailor--seven at a stroke--but shall I tell you what really happened? The world is entitled to my story, especially since it makes sense.

The story of the Wall's end is the story of my penis, but how to embody such a statement in a book conceived as a Nobel Prize-worthy cross between David Copperfield and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? I've spent two years vainly seeking a solution to that problem. Now do you see why I find your appearance so timely? I mean, if I can't write about my dick, I'll talk about it. My remarks won't be youthful rodomontades, either, but pieces in a mosaic of historical truth, and if you don't want to leave any loose ends you must not mind if my recollections become a trifle dick-heavy at times.

That I should be recounting the story of my dick to you, of all people, is a tribute less to your investigative flair than to your business card. How many people get the chance to unbosom themselves to a New York Times correspondent, and where, I wonder, will you feature someone with my claim to fame--"The end of the modern age," "The end of history," etc.? On Page one, of course, where else? What a prospect: I, the terminator of history, on page one of The New York Times, the mouthpiece of the world's liberal conscience (I'm never at a loss for such verbal gems).

It will, in fact, be my second page one appearance. Why? Because the NBI, or Neue Berliner Illustrierte, East Germany's best-selling weekly magazine, featured me on its front cover at the age of nine. That was in my third year of school, when we acquired a new principal who considered leisure activities worthwhile only if pursued on a team basis, and, since participation in team activities was statistically recorded, made it his objective that one hundred percent of his pupils should engage in them.

My purely emotional inclination was to join the Sailing Club, but my mother ("I know what conditions are like afloat !") didn't want me going anywhere where I could get my fingers crushed or ripped by splinters. I was well aware that wounds inflicted by wood splinters could result in blood poisoning, amputation--even death. It was routine procedure at home to feat the worst and issue solicitous warnings about it, and my mother was never more profoundly solicitous than when telling me something for my own good. My upright, authoritarian father was uninterested in trivialities. He very seldom addressed me, and then as succinctly as possible, for example, "Tuck your shirt in!" or "Quiet!" or "Hurry up!" For the rest, he was a man who spent his evenings vegetating in front of the TV set, the legs of his sweatsuit rolled up and his feet in a bowl of cold water.

"Do what you like, but You're not going sailing!" So sailing was out; instead, I joined the Young Scientists' Club. It was customary to unload the tedious job of running such clubs on the youngest teacher in any specialty, so the Young Scientists were supervised by a twenty-seven-year-old physics teacher name Kufer, whose sizable bald patch had, he claimed, been occasioned by "excessive brainwork." I had no idea what physics was and vaguely surmised that youthful scientists kept guinea pigs or hamsters. Herr Kufer, who didn't know what else to do with us, enlivened our meetings by projecting educational films on the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War in reverse. The effect was unforgettable, for instance when mounds of rubble suddenly became puffballs of dust and transmuted themselves into buildings, or when aircraft, seemingly fitted with magnets, collected the bombs that came floating up toward them from below... (Kufer was fired a few years later, one of the grounds for his dismissal being that he had bred pacifist sentiments by running war films backwards."

Then I saw a TV documentary in which particularly noisy streets were flanked with three-foot concrete walls to form baffles. Because the world "physics" occurred twice in the program, I asked Herr Kufer how baffles functioned. Gratefully seizing upon my suggestion, he proceeded to expound the theory of acoustics. Within a few weeks the Young Scientists' Club had developed an "experimental acoustics set" and displayed it at the local Masters of Tomorrow Exhibition. But it didn't end there: we won a place at the district level and were thereafter chosen to participate in the regional exhibition--and I was appointed to run our stand! A third-year student versed in experimental acoustics! What would my father say to that--a father who thought so little of me that he couldn't even muster the energy to complete a scathing sentence like "Pah, that boy will never amount to anything!"? He merely made a dismissive gesture whenever he got to "Pah, that boy ...." nor did he ever utter my name aloud. It's a fact: I never once heard my name on his lips! Although no boy should be saddled with a name like Klaus (rhymes with "mouse" and "house"--cute, yes?), I was somehow hurt that he completely eschewed it. I now resolved to call at his office so that, duly chastened, he could introduce me to his colleagues with some such words as "This is my son, who tells me that he just been appointed to run an exhibition stand devoted to some scientific subjects of which I, alas, am entirely ignorant..."

I had never visited my father at his office--he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Trade--but the city map indicated that it was twenty minutes away by U-Bahn--our subway. The security guard looked up the number of my father's office in several different directories. My first name is bad enough, but my surname--Uhltzscht--is a downright disaster: it always has to be spelled out and is quite unpronounceable, certainly at the first attempt (I've won bets with it). I still recall the guard's moist enunciation of the name: he showered the glass partition with spittle every time he uttered it. "No," he said, "no Uhltzscht. We don't have any Uhltzscht here." That was his initial response, and he stuck to it: he'd never heard the name and couldn't find it listed anywhere. Thoroughly disconcerted, I went home.

When I asked my father at supper where he worked, he muttered something about a "branch office." I retired to my room feeling dismayed, if not shocked. A branch office... of course! At last I had a solid reason for my father's continual ill temper: shunted off to a branch office, he'd been denied a great and glittering career. An outsider sentenced to work in a ministerial outpost, he must be inwardly as lonesome as a lighthouse keeper and eaten up with disappointment at the malevolence of those who had callously banished him to such a backwater, but that was the biggest shit I'd ever met, admittedly, but that was no reason to think ill of him. "Aha! Who forgot to draw the curtain again?" It could only have been me, but which curtain did he mean? I merged from my room to find him dramatically pointing, with an imperious expression, at the undrawn curtain of the shoe closet. Ah well, now that I knew he'd just come home from a branch office, I saw him in quite another light. I drew the curtain, he removed his shoes, opened the curtain, put his shoes on the shelf, drew he curtain again, and regarded me with scorn: It's a simple as that! When I finally told him that the Young Scientists' experimental setup had been nominated for the regional exhibition--when I at last announced proudly that I, a nine-year-old, had been appointed to run the exhibition stand--do you know how he responded? He tweaked the front of my shirt and said, "Let's hope you've learned by then to do all your buttons up."

Forget it. The exhibition was scheduled to open with a tour of the stands by sundry "important government representatives," and ours was on their official itinerary. I was prepared for the occasion by my principal and some people I didn't know, who kept impressing on me how honored and privileged I was. You may be sure, Mr. Kitzelstein, that my shirt was correctly buttoned when the time came. Of the event itself I remember only that my stand was visited by a gaggle of fat, perspiring men. I didn't get far with my presentation, which I'd learned by heart, because one of the men, presumably the most important, cracked a joke--one that I didn't understand and recognized as humorous only because the members of his retinue vied to see who could produce the most ingratiating laugh. A brace of press photographers clicked and flashed; the joker patted me on the back and said, "Carry on." The whole performance had lasted two minutes at most.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS
Tape 1: Kitzelstein 3
Tape 2: The Last of the Dog-Paddlers 15
Tape 3: On the Verge of Renal Failure 48
Tape 4: Sex and Drugs and Rock `n' Roll 47
Tape 5: Fem. pers. emrgd. st. 0834 118
Tape 6: Trumpeter. Trumpeter 194
Tape 7: The Final Chapter 225
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