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Blindly working through the past

Has time stood still for former East German writer Christa Wolf? Her biographer Jörg Magenau reviews her autobiographical novel, "Stadt der Engel".

Las Vegas is not the first place you would associate with Christa Wolf. She doesn't stay long. She sets herself a 60 dollar limit at roulette and stops there. She throws a few joyless coins into the one-armed bandit before retiring wearily to bed, early. A welcome escape from gambling hell. As far as earthly pleasures go, she is not easily led into temptation.

This scene comes at the end of what her publishers somewhat boldly describe as her new "novel". "Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud" (city of angels or The Overcoat ...) is in fact memoirs couched in fiction and it is all about being seduced. It is only here, on the road to Navajo – and the Hopi Indians – that she finally manages to let go and show some interest in the things that come her way: the landscape, the people. It's no coincidence that her journey ends in Death Valley where she glides over into a dream vision. A pull "towards the end" is ever-present in this book. Death nears with old age; it is time to take stock.

In the months beforehand, between September 1992 and May 1993, when Christa Wolf was a guest at the Getty Center in Los Angeles – almost everything revolved around herself and her history, her life in the GDR, socialism, and most of all, the shock that she experienced in the summer of 1992, when the Gauck Authority (for the Stasi Archives -ed.) presented her with the 42 folders of so-called "Stasi victim files" and a slim portfolio that detailed her activities as an "IM", or informal cooperator, between 1959 and 1962.

The acronym "IM" was the mark of the devil in year two of a reunified Germany. The public had taken to the moral high ground and was in no position to make nuanced differentiations. And now the great moralist herself, Christa Wolf, had been caught red handed. In "Stadt der Engel" she describes how the newspaper articles come pouring out of her fax machine in LA, to her considerable distress. In a particularly drastic scene, she rescues herself by singing songs through the night: "Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust" (the miller's wanderlust), "Spaniens Himmel breitet seine Sterne" (Spain's sky spreads its stars), "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" (God is our fortress) and the verses which she must have sung in the "Bund deutscher Mädel", the Nazi girls' club, which she breaks off abruptly: "Was fragt ihr dumm, was fragt ihr klein, warum wir wohl marschieren" (why do you ask so stupidly, so faintheartedly, why we are marching).

Germany's entire history plays out in that night of songs, the emotional melting pot of a generation which emerged from a youth indoctrinated with Christianity and National Socialism to cry: "Never again!" - and then used this to justify the existence and legitimacy of the anti-fascist state. Socialism was the opposite of fascism, it was as simple as that. But now this state belonged to history too, as did those those convictions. Christa Wolf does not talk about the "Wende" (transition), she uses the word "Untergang" (downfall). Had it all been in vain? Doesn't a lifetime's dedication amount to anything?

Her doubts of course go deeper than this comparatively superficial "IM" episode. In this respect, the novel delivers nothing new. How could it? After all she had listed all the facts in 1993 when she answered [the politician and journalist] Günter Gaus' questions on the TV show "Zur Person", and she had published her "perpetrator files" in full in the book "Akteneinsicht Christa Wolf" (inspection of Christa Wolf's files). The question as to why she had talked to the Stasi fifty years ago and written a few reports for them, is easy to answer. She was young and naïve, the Stasi had yet to become the Stasi, and her own life as a writer – and for Christa Wolf this means self-explorer - had yet to begin. But this does not explain why she had to go to the trouble of writing this book. The trickier question is why she has managed to forget her "IM" episode so entirely. To say that it was marginal and not important is too simple and it would not satisfy her as an answer either. After all this act of forgetting puts a giant question mark over her oeuvre as one long protest against repression.

Thirty years ago, at the end of "Patterns of Childhood", she wrote: "Has memory done its duty? Or has it stooped to proving through deception, that it is impossible to escape the mortal sins of our time, because that would mean not wanting to know thyself?" There is no escaping the Christian overtones here, and the new book also contains much talk of guilt. Christa Wolf is a writer of internalised morals, or as she would say, "Prussian Protestantism".

Her sojourn in far off Los Angeles merely provides her with the framework for near uninterrupted stream of self-interrogation. The first-person narrator is trying to track down a certain L., who went into exile in America in the 1930s. Emma, a friend who has much in common with Anna Seghers, has given the narrator a stack of letters from this L. Reading these – as well as the diaries of Thomas Mann – Christa Wolf weaves exile as precursor to the GDR into her own life story. All these courageous women become reflections, possibilities, positions within the socialist world movement. Then there are Jewish women, an analyst, a philosopher, whom the narrator befriends in L.A. and for whom she represents the new Germany with its old history. This is no easy task in days when asylum homes are burning (more here) in the former East. But few people are so defenceless against guilt than Christa Wolf, who only has to look at a homeless person or open Art Spiegelman's Holocaust comic "Maus" to break into tears.

Los Angeles, the "Stadt der Engel" is interesting to Christa Wolf only as an historical location. Feuchtwanger, Brecht, Einstein, the Mann brothers – these are the people she identifies with. She shows almost no interest in Hollywood and the film industry. It would have been fascinating to see her hotwire the industrial production of illusions with her own illusions and the Utopias of socialism and Hollywood. But this never happens. When the narrator comes home in the evening and watches "Starship Enterprise" her enthusiasm is childishly naïve.

Many years have passed since 1992. Christa Wolf spent a long time looking for an appropriate form for her life story. Ultimately all these years have allowed her to introduce a second, distancing layer of time: the moment of protocol, the here and now, from which she can look back at her time in L.A. She first used this construction in 1976 with "Patterns of Childhood", and she now she has followed up with "patters of life" as she calls her new book. In the earlier novel she wrote about a journey to Landsberg an der Warthe, where she was born, and she used the multiple layers of time to clearly delineate the various grades of distance and saturation in the material. Telling stories she says now, makes it possible "to look back and forward through the layers of time". This is comparatively banal and yet beyond this, the layers of time in "Stadt der Engel" have no function. There is no difference between the narrator of the present and the one from 1992. They are so alike, it's as if time had stood still and Christa Wolf were still standing at the very beginning of her journey of self-interrogation. For all its subjective urgency, then, "Stadt der Engel" feels a little dated. Everything that has happened since - wars, earthquakes, power shifts and so on - only confirm and surpass, time and again, her dark visions of the future. Through Cassandra's eyes, the world has always been hopelessly lost. Only now, her own Utopia has also slipped through her fingers.

It is mostly her American friends who advise her not to take the Stasi business and her guilt so seriously. But Christa Wolf is not one to let go. She has resort to her most apocalyptic visions in order to take any pressure off herself. "The earth is in danger," she writes at the end, "and people like us worry that our souls will not recover". This sounds like Brecht and the conversation about the trees: even talking to yourself is almost a crime.

So it looks as if Wolf will need to have a major rethink about her efforts to remember. Perhaps there is something wrong with continued remembering? "Stadt der Engel" follows the old imperative from "Patterns of Childhood" of wanting to know thyself, as the reference to Freud in the title suggests. But is she not pursuing a biographical search ad absurdum, if, at the age of 80, she still searching for a "blind spot", and a central, hidden point in the ego which is still being tiptoed past? Perhaps this numinous centre, which is vaguely reminiscent of Kant's elusive Ding an sich, doesn't even exist. Is is not time, after her catastrophic failure to remember her Stasi past, for Christa Wolf to change her method ? Because it turns out that the will to remember does not protect you from the act of forgetting or repressing? What if it turns out that memories are nothing more than an arsenal of useful inventions?

But Wolf's morals are based on the integrity of remembering. Anti-fascism is the moral obligation to remember: to forget is to open the gates for a re-run. Psychoanalysis is also based on the credo that remembering and workng through is essential for "overcoming". America, the land of psychoanalysis, would have been the perfect place to expose this belief to some good hard doubting. Christa Wolf has done no such thing. Instead, she continues with her old methods of self-torture, as if nothing had happened: blindly working through the past . This is the only way her writing works. This is the very substance of her oeuvre. And she's not prepared to question it.


This article originally appeared in die taz on 26 June, 2010.

Jörg Magenau is a freelance journalist. In 2002, he published a biography of Christa Wolf with Kindler Verlag.

Christa Wolf's novel "Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud" was published by Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2010.

Translation: lp - let's talk european