She sees this legacy reflected in present-day German horror films such as the Netflix hit series, Dark: “You can better understand those kinds of German scary movies, and their 1980s roots, if you read Gudrun Pausewang.”
Even Pausewang’s admirers concede that the books can be painful. “It was so overwhelming, this scenario, so huge, that I didn’t know how to cope with it, as a child,” says Rémi, recalling the effect of reading The Last Children of Schewenborn. Then again, she argues, it’s a realistic depiction of how children experience systemic meltdown. “Her texts encourage readers to engage with big questions: the environment, anti-nuclear issues, but also, especially in her later years, the Nazi era, Fascism, dictatorship and political radicalisation.” And by rejecting a heroic narrative, one in which the child might triumph through some individual act of bravery or cunning, Pausewang places the responsibility squarely on the adults, and the system they created. (She also had less subtle ways of getting that message across: In The Last Children of Schewenborn, the children scrawl “Cursed Parents!” on a wall, and one of them cries: “The bomb is your fault!”.)
Overall, Rémi says, the question that haunted Pausewang remains hugely relevant today, at a time of climate change and conflict: “What did we inherit from the past, and what are we passing on to the next generation?”
Given that I am a member of Generation Pausewang, re-reading The Cloud for this article did make me reflect on how her gloomy outlook shaped me. I devoured her books as a child and teenager, and admire her commitment to truth-telling. But I also wish she had, perhaps, broadened her view of human nature just a little, and allowed for the possibility that people do sometimes choose to be brave, hopeful, altruistic and forgiving – and thrive. Of course, Pausewang would have found that suggestion naïve, and worse, patronising. As she once said, at the age of seven she already disliked books with a happy ending, and felt the writers didn’t take her seriously. She promised herself: “If I’m ever going to become a writer, I will take my readers seriously, regardless of whether they are six, 16 or 60. And I did become a writer, and I do take my readers seriously.”
Sophie Hardach is a journalist and writer living in London. Her latest novel, Confession with Blue Horses, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.
Love books? Join BBC Culture Book Club on Facebook, a community for literature fanatics all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.