Monday, September 24, 2007

Christa Wolf / IN THE FLESH

If you enjoyed "The Lives of Others," the German film about domestic spying in Communist East Germany that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year, you might want to take a look at Christa Wolf's somewhat overlapping story involving a writer and the collapse of the GDR in her semi-autobiographical stream of consciousness novel. Although In the Flesh was a best-seller in Germany several years ago, it was not reviewed by the New York Times and received little notice in the U.S. But it was one of my best reads last year.

It's about a woman writer feverishly fighting for her life as she struggles in a hospital with a mysterious, virulent infection that won't let go. Her illness is also a metaphor for the illness of the East German body politic. That sounds as if it might lead to some pretty heavy-handed symbolism, but no -- Wolf's account is a riveting, hallucinatory description of the patient's thoughts, feelings, memories, all interwoven with literary allusions (since she is, after all, a writer). Wolf has a great ear, and her use of language to evoke the different mental states of serious illness, in which the narrator alternates between "I" as active subject and "she" as passive object to describe herself, is brilliant. It's a marvelous evocation of the dual states we experience when our body is helpless and bedridden.

Probably Communist East Germany's best-known novelist in the West, Wolf was born in 1929, grew up under the Third Reich and then went on to success as a writer in the GDR. During the Cold War, she traveled widely to the West, where she was seen as a brave, feminist dissident who somehow managed to stay out of major trouble with the authorities. She was probably best known in the West for Cassandra, her feminist reimagining of the Cassandra legend, with sly allusions to the GDR mixed in.

But after the wall fell, a period of disillusionment set in, when thousands of people's reputations were tarnished by the release of Stasi records. It turned out that Wolf's position in the GDR wasn't quite what people had thought. Not only had the Stasi spied on Wolf, but they had also recruited her to spy for them. This became a huge story in Germany. Wolf was reviled as a collaborator. Her accommodation with the regime -- such as it was -- was a vivid example of how the corrupt, totalitarian East German state tarnished everything and everyone it touched.

Eventually a sense of proportion returned to Germany. Wolf insisted on publishing her complete Stasi records, and it became clear that she never gave the Stasi any information of any importance. While the NYT apparently hasn't been able to forgive her, Wolf is once again a highly respected writer in her homeland, as the success of In the Flesh demonstrates. And with "The Lives of Others" winning an Academy Award, it's probably no coincidence that In the Flesh has been reissued in paperback here. Check it out.

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