A journalist has published an unusual fairytale that recounts the story of two children who experience adventure, tribulation and love before the wall separating the two parts of a divided country falls. Sound familiar?
Love conquers all, even the Berlin Wall in a new retelling of the German reunification story.
“Once upon a time there was a country called Bärenburg. It was divided, straight down the middle, like a brightly colored tablecloth that someone had cut in two in a fit of rage. In this divided country there ruled two kings, called Dederow and Bundislaus. The two kings had two children: Daniel and Beatrice.”
So begins Torsten Harmsen’s tale of separation and longing, love and the secret police called “The King’s Children of Bärenburg.”
The fairy tale recounts the very real story of the division of Germany and its eventual reunification. The Berlin-based journalist wrote the book to explain his country’s recent history to his daughter, who was born on November 9, 1989, the very day that the Berlin Wall fell.
Fables not far from reality
The two parts of the country of Bärenburg that Harmsen presents in his opening paragraph are both ruled by kings. In the east, the ruler is called Dederow, not far from the German initials for East Germany, DDR. The western ruler’s name also reveals his origins. Bundislaus is a play on the Federal Republic, or Bundesrepublik. Behind the two rulers are the men with the real power, since they lead the armies: General Genny in the west, the Red Marshall on the other side.
Underneath this scaffolding of power politics are the children from the book’s title and the story’s protagonists. Beatrice and Daniel hail from two sides of the divided land. She makes her home in the west; he comes from the east. Once on a trip into the forbidden county on the other side of the border, Daniel meets Beatrice and, as in all good fairy tales, falls madly in love.
It is then that the game of intrigue and secret maneuvering begins as Daniel tries to communicate with his beloved who, thanks to political decisions made before either was born, is kept from him. But Daniel’s love is stronger than any governmental policy or the jail time that awaits him when it is discovered he is trying to communicate with the enemy.
While the romance and characters of Harmsen’s tale put it squarely in fairytale land, the author does paint a fairly accurate picture of life in the divided German state.
He casts a critical eye on features of both sides of the border: King Bundislaus and his wealthy butter factory background, as well as the east’s King Dederow, who once worked as a carpenter and whose dream of a better, more just world turned into tragedy.
Harmsen also makes successful use of the fairy tale form to explore the absurdities and inexplicable characteristics of life in a divided country—how life on both sides of the wall was possible and at the same time, impossible, especially when viewed from the outside or after the fact.
Critics have so far been impressed by the reporter's effort, commenting that Harmsen stays faithful to historical events while putting them in a context and with characters that children can understand.
The Berliner Zeitung's journalist never gets heavy handed with his subject matter and recounts even the darker parts of his story in an entertaining way, without dumbing the subject matter down.
While written for younger people, adults might also find the story to their liking, since it presents a complex contemporary history in bright, but faithful, colors. And of course, it has a happy ending.