A German Jew fleeing Nazism to America; a soldier in the D-Day landings; a US citizen moving to the GDR for the socialist cause; a writer denounced by the Party; a Berliner politician in a newly reunified Germany: all sound like separate characters in a novel, yet all apply to Stefan Heym, the pseudonym of Helmut Flieg, whose strikingly under-celebrated life would appear to intercept a myriad of major twentieth century historical gradients.

Despite being written in the 1960s, The Architects comes to us posthumously following years of state suppression in the GDR – Erich Honecker’s attack on Heym during a Party conference prevented the novel from seeing the light of day – and rejection in the West. It is unsurprisingly saturated with the writer’s life and times,  depicting the earlier post-war world of East Germany in 1956, the very year in which Khrushchev catalysed the process of de-Stalinisation by denouncing his dictatorship and personality cult, which acts as the socio-political cornerstone for the novel.

Arnold Sundstrom is an architect who has abandoned his bourgeois Bauhaus ideals and risen to the lofty architectural heights of the Party alongside his young wife Julia, whose parents mysteriously vanished during her childhood at the height of the purges, leaving her to be brought up by her new father and future husband, Sundstrom. All seems well in his socialist paradise as his career, built on fawning to the whims of the Party elite, goes from strength to strength; he has been commissioned to work on the new World Peace Road. Yet his crowning achievement would appear to be the life he has constructed for himself with his model socialist wife and son, when so many of his former colleagues have disappeared. Enter Daniel Wollin, Sundstrom’s old colleague and comrade from their time together in Moscow, now released from the icy confines of the Siberian Gulag, as Stalin’s chilling effect on Party politics begins to thaw. Julia’s faith in her marriage and her political ideals wavers as she becomes tempted by youthful co-worker John Hiller and Wollin’s unnerving presence forces her to look into her past, her absent parents and the role her husband may have played in it all.

Despite this being an engaging plot to follow, Heym’s interests lay demonstratively in his over-arching critique of the Realpolitik of the East German regime.  His target is a society which seeks to envelop the individual within the socialist mass and communist cause, and his characters become lost within his aims. Often lacking in psychology or depth, they serve as continuous metaphors for the political concerns Heym seeks to analogise. With its love triangles and missing persons, the plot hints at a political detective story, but turns into more of a literary waiting game. We are made aware rather too soon of what probably happened, leaving ample time for Heym to spend the rest of novel dripping out the intrigue, constantly buttressed by occasionally verbose context on architecture and the communist state.

The real strength of the text lies in its post-1989 existence as a historical artefact, deftly and with expressive detail showing a world that once was and what it idealistically strove to be. Propelled by the political convulsions caused by Stalin’s death, we are quite literally taken into the corridors of power and witness the machinations that enable a culture of ideals to become state-run. Heym succeeds in painting an animatedly dull and conformist image of daily life within the GDR, from constant suspicion to state-owned shops, with recurring reminders of life on the capitalist side of the Curtain. The rather immediate Nazi legacy is palpable and he successfully constructs all of his analogies to elucidate his main point: that the idealism and concrete permanence of architecture is barely discernible from the legacy of political actions and convictions. Sundstrom, like Stalin, attempts to control and dictate his own socialist world, yet unlike Stalin, is still around when it all begins to fall apart. In this sense, The Architects today allows Heym finally to succeed in portraying the society which denounced him and quickly lost its ideals, but in doing so is somewhat lacking in its portrayal of the very people who inhabited it.

The Architects by Stefan Heym is published by Daunt Books £9.99

Tags: 20th Century, Communism, East Germany, Fiction, historical fiction