Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens

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What a strange cast of characters… We first have Rose, the Red Mayor of Sunnyside Gardens, wife of Albert the German Communist immigrant who returns to East Germany and ends up re-writing historical events, such as the attack on Guernica, to the disgust of their daughter Miriam, college dropout turned activist who marries Tommy, a sad Irish folk-singer, while cousin Lenny (Lenin) lusts after her. Miriam and Tommy bring into the world son Sergius, and bring him up in a Greenwich Village commune but leave him orphaned at eight when they are killed while visiting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (what for?), and cause him to later on search for his family’s history by looking up the son of his grand-mother Rose’s former lover, Cicero Lookins, now an English professor in a remote Maine college. And who holds the key to who you have become and the place you have in life, if any?

Lethem’s depiction of characters, places and events are so vivid and incisive that it makes this book a joy to read. It did take me the first half to really buy into it, but in the second half I could barely put it down and I am certainly curious to read more of his work.

I first thought that the title referred directly to Sunnyside Gardens because Rose lived there and carried out some of her Communist activities in the locality. However, there is another location which is called Dissident Gardens, and we find this out in a letter from Albert to Miriam found in the Stasi files. He describes his place of work, an “institute” where he pursues his passion for history:

This institute, where one comes to be debriefed after a border crossing so unorthodox as my own, and in which one is typically expected to dwell for several months of orientation and preparation for a fully integrated life in the East, has in my case become a permanent home. It was my fate not only to discover my avocation here but to choose to stay and impart it to others. This place, pleasantly located on the eastern outskirts of Dresden, is an old campus, its ground comprised of elegant eighteenth-century buildings, a rare instance of those spared, by dint of the countryside locale, during the firebombing. The Werkhofinstitut Rosa Luxemburg, though it goes among those of use here by a nickname, Gärten der Dissidenz, which I suppose one might translate as “Dissident Gardens,” however droll this may sound to you. (Part III, Chapter 2)

Albert works in place that rehabilitates returning dissidents. And had to be “processed” there when he returned from the US, although he was a Communist cell member there, married to an avowed Communist, but maybe not attached to quite the right brand of socialism espoused by the East German state. Dissident Gardens is where they cultivate dissidents, or where they are plowed back into the fertile soil of East German socialist thought; just as long as they are not literally plowed back into the earth.

Miriam is disgusted with some of the revisionist history she hears from her father, especially his reinterpretation of Guernica as a military target and she repeatedly sends him postcards of Picasso’s Guernica bought at MOMA. Meanwhile, she also has a troubled yet close relationship with her mother. In the end though, we find out that she had written on of her friends from the commune while she was in Nicaragua and mentioned that if anything should happen to her and Tommy, that her mother should not get her hands on her son. As a result, Sergius grows up at a Quaker boarding school after Miriam’s death, in spite of Rose’s attempt to get custody. One thinks that this separation from the family’s tendency for rebellion, dissidence, and protest would result in that particular character trait’s lack of development in Sergius. However, that is without counting on events to trigger it. A particular interview in a security-crazed airport leads him to act “as if” rather than comply… and he does miss his plane in Portland, Maine.

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