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Dissident or Informant? The Murky Memory of Christa Wolf

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Christa Wolf, the exemplary writer and dissident from the expired dictatorship of East Germany, was living in Santa Monica in 1992-93, aged 64, working on a novel and conducting a characteristically “ruthless self-examination” about holding onto a belief in the unrealized possibilities of East Germany. She could not help thinking that somehow the country, though not the dictatorship, still deserved to exist—even if “the quest for paradise has always and everywhere led to the creation of hell on earth.” That year of self-examination became the book that has just recently been published in English: City of Angels; or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud, a memoiristic reflection on her past, the history of East Germany, and the nature of memory.

For Wolf, East Germany and its blind spots were gravely personal, as the Nazi regime had been differently personal for Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, T. W. Adorno, and the other German émigrés who had posted themselves on the west side of Los Angeles during World War II. In fact, Wolf’s biography, as she recounts it in this book, might have been staged by Brecht. Born in 1929 in what is now Poland, Wolf was old enough to be enrolled in the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth, and then, not insanely, to conclude that the way to live down the not-so-remote Nazi past was to become a Marxist-Leninist true believer. In the mid-’60s-, she would become a high-flyer in East Germany’s Communist Party, until the apparatchiks launched one of many attacks on decadent culture. Then, in a decades-long cascade of disillusion and rethinking, she would grow into East Germany’s chief rebel-writer. Still, even as she “had to admit that my desires and most other people’s didn’t aim in the same direction,” she never ceased to believe there must be a higher human calling than the acquisition of consumer goods.

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German writer and dissident Christa Wolf at a book presentation in 2010.

More than previous German visitors to the fleshpots of L.A., Wolf was German inwardness incarnate. The light by which she conducted her life-long, intense, and ambivalent self-scrutiny was the light cast by the bonfire of her own vanities. Yet she was no self-abnegating troglodyte. No one forced her to take refuge in Southern California, and she knew that distraction “doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves.” At least in the novelized version of her year of reflection and semi-exile, she hung out with colleagues, tried to fathom L.A. in all its glitz and kitsch, watched Star Trek reruns, read the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön for stoical counsel, visited a Korean acupuncturist, bought a fire-engine red car, reopened old wounds, worked on the biography of a dead friend, commiserated with living friends on their personal troubles, read Weekly World News, visited San Simeon, Navaho and Hopi country, and Las Vegas, and went insomniac.

Mostly, though, she accused herself of dereliction of conscience, or intelligence, or some combination of the two. For on a trip back to Berlin, she read the 42 volumes of surveillance files on her that the Stasi maintained. The real shocker was an additional “perpetrator file.” Here was incontrovertible testimony that, in 1959-62, while in her early thirties, she had sat down with secret police and answered their questions about some suspect writers. A file had been opened on her, a code name assigned. In the spirit of the German genius for classification, she had been catalogued as an “informal collaborator.”

Wolf was crushed, paralyzed, and, not least, astounded by this revelation, for she claimed she had almost no memory of the conversations she had conducted with the Stasi agents. Here was yet one more turn of the screw for the long-running, long-twisting story of her disillusion and the West’s suspicion that it was insufficient. (For many years, she had been anointed in the West as an outspoken heroine of dissent. Then, after 1989, she refused to celebrate the end of the German Democratic Republic, still hoping that it might turn into an autonomous outpost of humanistic socialism.) And now, in 1993, all the worse: When news broke of the “informal collaborator” file, there was talk about expunging her name from the archives of German literature.

Wolf may not get the last word—is there any such thing?—but with City of Angels she surely gets the better of the sort of triumphalist enemies who give schadenfreude a bad name. Her subtle, associative book of personal excavation is true to her doubt and anguish. She is never smug. Rather, in deploying the artful arrangements and rearrangements that fiction affords, she offers up, against hatred, what can only be called honesty, even if the idea of an honest novel sounds like a category error.

When I interviewed Wolf in Santa Monica, in 1993, during the period covered by the novel, for a piece in The New York Times Book Review, she told me about the “informal collaborator” file, news of which had just broken in the German press. Her anguish and bewilderment were, to me, unmistakable. She lapsed into very long silences. In her younger days she had been, she told me unabashedly, “naïve,” “seduced,” trapped in "ideological dogmatism and pigheadedness." Yet at the same time she was disinterestedly curious about how she could possibly have informed, not doubting that she had met with the Stasi agents but claiming not to remember having composed a written report, and speaking of this loss of memory as “a case for Dr. Freud, a classic case of repression.” Even then, she acknowledged that she might have “repressed those details that are the most unpleasant.”

Some might think this partial denial altogether too convenient. It would seem outlandish, to say the least, to forget that one had filed a report with the secret police. It seemed that way to Wolf, too. Indeed, psychic repression is one of the central subjects of this book that she eventually distilled, in more than a decade of work, from her California year. Seventeen years later, in 2010, this novel, more raw and almost certainly more absorbing than the justifications or excuses that might have been mustered by a lesser writer, was published in Germany. What relation the published book bears to her furious scribblings of twenty years ago (she was already “writing,” she told me, “like a madwoman”) is unknowable, for she died on December 1, 2011. Death therefore becomes the final punctuation mark of her stream-of-conscience attempt to find some rest stop in the labyrinth of history—a history that, as Wolf knew well, is never done tossing around the most honorable of intentions.

Connoisseur of uncertainty, archeologist of delusion, Wolf asks herself, and her readers: “Where does this compulsion come from? The need to cling to people and ideas and things that destroy us?” Why did she open up to the Stasi spooks? “You wanted the authorities to love you too,” a confidant tells her. She admits—without suing for absolution—that illusions may be just as necessary as they are dangerous. Here she turns the tables on History with a capital H, long her chief interlocutor, even if the very idea of History with a vector seems quaint. The phantom of socialism, once her redeemer, is now stripped of its Hegelian grandeur. The dreadful parody of socialism that was centered in East Berlin concealed a chimera and a delusion, even if she was sure that her “informal collaboration” had not resulted in any damage to the subjects of the Stasi’s curiosity—besides herself. "The point now is not to justify or to excuse, but to explain this to myself," she told me.

Explaining without accusing, City of Angels is a profound book, even a heroic one. Knowing that “every line I write … will be used against me,” she refuses to take her blind spots for granted. Perhaps she has learned, in the end, that it is blind spots that make history. In any event, blind spots are her true subject, and her struggle with them, and against them, is formidable, moving, rare, and inevitably incomplete, for blind spots do not disappear in embarrassment, on cue, once they are denounced. She knows that tone is everything, that tenderness counts, that denunciation is the harbinger of war. Wolf is that rarity in the political literature of the twentieth century: one better acquainted with charity than with malice.