East Berlin before the fall of The Wall...
Alex is your average disaffected teenager. He dreams of being in a rock band, finds school boring and thinks everything is greener on the other side of the fence – or in Alex’s case: the other side of the Berlin Wall. Given a Led Zeplin record by his girlfriend, Sophie, he is elated but hides it carefully in his room, knowing that it is considered contraband.
Alex’s older sister is studying Photography at college: a significant achievement and proof of their family’s close association with the ruling Socialist Party. Encouraged by her teacher to express herself, she is outraged when he is quietly removed from the college and disappears. Her new teacher is scandalised by her photography and demands that she portray the glory of the Party.
It is only a matter of time before someone notices their dissident behaviour...
Sektion 20 is the name of a department within the secretive “Stasi” – East Berlin’s notorious secret police - and the department just got a new member: Khol; a former Nazi hiding within a stolen identity, a man full of anger, mistrust and a feverish need for power. And he just got handed a file with Alex and his sister’s names in it. He is authorised to attempt satisfactory re-assimilation; but when friendly coercion fails to thaw Alex’s frosty disdain of the ethos of the Party, Khol is determined to use whatever force is necessary to save the youth from himself - or mete out the deadly consequence.
Dowswell is increasingly well known for his detailed, thoughtful accounts of actual historic events and his enviable talent for presenting history in a fresh and accessible manner for his teenage audience. In Sektion 20, Dowswell recreates the stifling atmosphere within post-war East Berlin. The pervasive fear, as neighbour turns on neighbour, friend on friend in an effort to remove themselves from the microscopic scrutiny of the Stasi. It’s a world cut off from the rest of the world; popular music is prohibited, religion is frowned upon, outward shows of flamboyance or extravagance are shunned as examples of despised Capitalism. More terrifying is the insidiously subtle destruction of imagination, creativity and independent thought; with the education system itself acting as a purveyor of a sanitised curriculum centred on the Socialist Party and its beliefs.
Whilst Sektion 20 is an enjoyable read overall, the narrative struggles with a resistant dialogue that is overly clipped short and a general lack of full-bodied descriptive prose to add more depth to the main characters. Undoubtedly, bringing history to a teenager’s level influences the author’s decisions and it may well be that teenagers do not notice these minor annoyances. Worthy of note, however, is Dowswell’s inimitable finesse at striking a balance – and his treatment of the contentious matter of whether Capitalism (with all its apparent freedoms, but materialistic entrapment) or Socialism (with its assurance of equality and inevitable stripping of individualism) is better than the other is admirable.
We interview C J Daugherty about Night School
- 10 January 2012