The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura presents a unique East German socialist magical realism, perhaps a magical social realism. The structure is innovative and the content challenging, and Morgner has an unusual style, making extensive use of sentence fragments and long paragraphs. But none of that hinders enjoyment: Morgner is genuinely witty, intelligently funny, and highly entertaining.
Trobadora Beatrice is a montage novel, with many parts only loosely connected to the central story. The long "intermezzos" are portions of an earlier novel by Morgner (about Laura's husbands and their parents) and the "books" are made up of short chapters, many of which are pieces in their own right, some taken from other sources — poems, industrial "production-line" reports, and travelogues, along with science writings (on physics, artificial intelligence, nutrition, gerontology) and political speeches and announcements (on abortion, the Vietnam War). A sampling of book and chapter titles will give something of a feel for this:
"Flight on a dragon's back", followed by "Trobadora Beatrice's self-criticism above the Luther city, Wittenberg"
"Love legend by Laura Salman, which Beatrice de Dia passes off as her own work to thirteen male and seven female employees of the Berlin S-Bahn"
"Wherein the reader learns what the Beautiful Melusine copied from Irmtraud Morgner's novel Rumba for an Autumn into her 35th Melusinian book in 1964"
"The excerpts read by Beatrice from the communique from the Armed Liberation Forces of South Vietnam about the great victories of the offensive during the month of 30 March to 1 May 1972"It is as if Morgner had taken all her unpublished works, along with whatever other documents happened to be around at the time, and built a novel around them. That may not sound like either the recipe or the ingredients for great literature, but in this case it works superbly. The montage provides variety and changes in pacing, but doesn't endanger the coherence of the work (though a list of major characters at the beginning is helpful in following connections). And it allows Morgner to juxtapose different genres and to approach ideas from several directions: fantastic metaphors, indirect references, and allusions sit next to blunt statement, scientific prose, and political announcements.
Trobadora Beatrice is a feminist novel: it is about women and their relationships with one another, with men, with their children and parents, and with the state, society, housework, and history. It is also a reflexive novel, about writing, the relationship between writers (or perhaps different aspects of the individual writer), socialist aesthetics, and the creative process. And it is a political novel, grounded (fantastic elements notwithstanding) in the politics and history of East Germany, and to a lesser extent of France. (Trobadora Beatrice was a bestseller in the GDR, but one wonders how it passed the censors, since it's not always clear which parts are intended as parody.) For outsiders it offers fascinating windows onto East German social history; this translation comes with a glossary of terminology which they may find obscure. If it is chock-full of ideas, however, Trobadora Beatrice remains first and foremost a novel, centred on people.
Note: the original work is Leben und Abenteuer der Trobadora Beatriz nach Zeugnissen ihrer Spielfrau Laura, published in 1974.
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