THE RED BOOK

By Anna-Christina Schmidl

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The Montréal Review, March 2024

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Image: Gideon Rubin

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My parents bought the Red Book in the German Democratic Republic, alongside the collected works of Lenin and Gorky. You had to spend all the East German mark that you’d exchanged, they told me, you couldn’t take it back to West Germany. And since nothing cost much – food, souvenirs – and one wasn’t allowed to give money to the people there, we spent what we had left on books, books being the only commodity that was sold in abundance. Naturally, those were only books of a certain proclivity, and one would have looked in vain for, say, The Power of the Powerless. In any case, for as long as I can remember, there’s been this eclectic collection of Communist literature in my family’s basement, stashed unironically between classics of the sort that would have been unobjectionable even to the DDR authorities – Molière, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, whose physical proximity I interpreted as a silent, 600-page protest.

When I was a toddler, my favorite color was red, and my parents bought me red shoes and a red hat that I wore constantly. Much of the time, I exhausted them running around the house and absconding to hidden places, usually closely followed by my twin brother: in the dishwasher, next to the vacuum cleaner behind the curtain in the basement, behind the sofa in my father’s office, behind a row of coats and jackets in an open wardrobe. I do not recall if it was then that I came across the Red Book, or if my parents, knowing about my color preferences, gave it to me for their own entertainment. The book was a German original, and its cover featured, in golden letters, the title Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei surrounded by rays of the sun. The symbolism, as a class on political aesthetics would teach me later, would have been the collected wisdom illuminating the cerebral darkness of the world. Or that the authors were saints, God-like figures, who freed the exploited from oppression. Such deeper meanings were wholly lost on me, since I could not read or write, let alone had I heard of Marxism. I was just delighted at having gained possession of an object that was both small and red – my two favorite qualities – and much to my parents’ amusement, I carried the book with me wherever I went. I don’t remember this, but I was later told that sometimes I clutched it to my chest like a particularly devout worshipper.

I do not know what happened to the Red Book. I must have lost it somewhere, somehow, around the time I started elementary school. I have not seen it since, despite numerous attempts to locate it in the basement, in my room, on various bookshelves around the house. I also do not remember when exactly my parents told me about its true meaning – that it was the Communist Manifesto – except that I felt mortified and conflicted at the same time, for the book had brought me much joy. Perhaps it is gathering dust somewhere – in the space between the wall and the bookshelf; in the loose drawers under the bed; in one of the cluttered cabinets in the living room.

Many years later, after I finished university, I travelled to Cuba with a friend. This was a time when the thought of a seven-hour flight didn’t yet fill me with dread. We were there in the days before the US embassy in Havana reopened for the first time since its closure in the 1960s, and the whole city seemed to burst with anticipation. We walked along the Malecón by the ocean and visited a bar once frequented by Hemingway, his photograph plastered on the walls. We listened to Guantanamera and Pablo Milanés. Towards the end of the trip, I bought a booklet in blue, red, and white – the colors of the Cuban flag – commemorating 50 years since the revolution. It featured pictures of Fidel and Che and Camilo Cienfuegos, as well as some well-known slogans. I took the booklet to my parents’ house when I visited them that summer, hauling my suitcase up the stairs in the July heat. One afternoon, I descended the steps to the basement, went up to the overflowing bookshelves, and carefully placed the booklet on the row next to Lenin and Gorky, Molière and Tolstoy, and – a bit apart from the others, as if holding out for something – Solzhenitsyn.

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Anna-Christina Schmidl is an international lawyer and writer currently based in Germany. 

 

 

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