Dance by the Canal

Tanz am Kanal; Dance by the Canal (1994)

This novella, set in ‘Leibnitz’ – the name merges ‘Leipzig’ and ‘Chemnitz’ – depicts the troubled life of Gabriela von Haßlau. Gabriela is descended from ‘Anhaltinian’ aristocracy, and her father, Ernst von Haßlau, is a leading vein surgeon. She thus represents a cultural anomaly in the supposedly egalitarian society of the GDR. The narrative switches between Gabriela’s childhood, and her present perspective as a homeless woman living under a canal bridge after German reunification. Gabriela’s marginal social position(s) and her great sensitivity for language give her a distanced, estranged perspective on both East and West before and after 1990.

Gabriela feels that she has been ‘chosen’ to write, and her writing certainly helps her to cope with her many traumatic experiences, which include sexual abuse by her violin teacher Frau Popiol, and later rape, police harassment, Stasi persecution and homelessness. Her rapists cut a ‘cross’, perhaps a swastika, into Gabriela’s forearm. When she shows this wound to the police, they call her a liar and insist that she mutilated herself, perhaps because it contradicts the official narrative of the GDR as an ‘anti-fascist state’.

Gabriela’s parents keep her isolated from her schoolmates, but she befriends a working class girl called Katka Lorenz who is determined to become an artist, and who defies the narrow conformity required at school. Gabriela is a failure in academic terms, and works briefly as an apprentice in a factory. Her repetitive job as a metal cutter contradicts the the idealistic clichés of dignified labour associated with Socialist Realism. Gabriela works for the Stasi for a brief period, before escaping to a farm in Mecklenburg. The Berlin wall falls, and she returns to her home town where she lives under a bridge. There, she is ‘discovered’ by two journalists from Mammilia, a West German women’s magazine. Finally, Gabriela has achieved a sense of agency. But her newfound success draws the attention of Paffrath, a corrupt policeman.

English Translation

Kerstin Hensel, Dance by the Canal, trans. by Jen Calleja (London: Pereine Press, 2017)

Further Reading in English

Jennifer Ruth Hosek, ‘Dancing the (Un)State(d): Narrative Ambiguity in Kerstin Hensel’s Tanz am Kanal’, in Kerstin Hensel, ed. by Beth Linklater and Birgit Dahlke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), pp. 107-19

Annie Ring, ‘Kerstin Hensel’s Insecure Borders: Shame and the Surface of Subject and City in Tanz am Kanal’, German Life and Letters 63:4 (2010), 504-20

Annie Ring, After the Stasi: Collaboration and the Struggle for Sovereign Subjectivity in the Writing of German Unification (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Reinhild Steingröver, ‘“Not Fate – Just History”: Stories and Histories in Tanz am Kanal and Gipshut’, in Kerstin Hensel, ed. by Beth Linklater and Birgit Dahlke (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), pp. 91-106

Further Reading in German

Tanja Nause, Inszenierung von Naivität: Tendenzen und Ausprägungen einer Erzählstrategie der Nachwendeliteratur (Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2002), Section 7, pp. 116-39 on Tanz am Kanal

Juliane Schöneich, ‘Wiederstand und Wiederholung – Kerstin Hensel’s Tanz am Kanal’, in Literatur ohne Land? Schreibstrategien einer DDR-Literatur im vereinten Deutschland, vol. 2, ed. by Mirjam Meuser and Janine Ludwig (Eschborn: Fördergemeinschaft wissenschaftlicher Publikationen von Frauen e.V., 2014), pp. 393-405

Daniel Sich, ‘Die DDR als Absurditätenshow -- Vom Schreiben nach der Wende’, Glossen: Eine internationale zweisprachige Publikation zu Literatur, Film, und Kunst in den Deutschsprachigen Ländern nach 1945, Vol. 21, (2005)