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RICHARD EDER

Dance of the Marionettes : WHAT REMAINS And Other Stories, By Christa Wolf Translated from the German by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 295 pp.)

April 25, 1993|RICHARD EDER

It seems impossible right now to write about Christa Wolf's "What Remains" without writing about Christa Wolf. The author of such luminous accounts of the human spirit as "Cassandra" and "The Quest for Christa T" admitted earlier this year that for three years, three decades ago, she was an informant for the East German security police. She gave them her impressions of the political postures of various fellow-writers and other information about her literary world.

Nothing she told them could have been truly harmful, she says, and by 1962 she had stopped and begun to distance herself from the regime. It is not the business of this review to doubt it. Nor is it a matter, here, of judging an author's work by the author's private life--or more exactly, her private public life--as with T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism or whether Primo Levi's suicide invalidated his writings.

But with Wolf, it is the work itself that is marked by the moral ambiguity of borderlines. While there was still an East and a West, she placed herself on the frontier, telling of the blight that blew across from both sides. Her writing, which can be powerful and delicate, has always had a complicated integrity. Its choreography is painful and constrained. Were those actual strings doing the constraining? Strings, after all, were one of her great subjects: that is, the dehumanization of lives by social and political structures. We may wonder not just how to tell the dancer from the dance but, if the dance is about being jerked around politically and metaphysically, how to tell the dancer from the puppet.

"What Remains," the principal piece in this collection, recounts a day in the life of an author who is largely Wolf herself. She has an apartment and a car, lives in a certain comfort and celebrity and can, at times, travel abroad. The system tolerates her writings, partly because of her international eminence, partly because it can accept half of her plague-on-both-your-houses theme, and partly because, though not veiled, she writes too "deep" to be an open threat. She is a storm at sea 500 fathoms down; the regime's sea-level gunboats are not at risk of swamping.

But she is under police surveillance. A car, usually a white one, is always parked in front of her window. The three beefy young men inside go for coffee and sausages, but only one by one. They are not unamiable--one night when she couldn't stand it, she waved from the window and they blinked their lights three times--but then neither are most zoo visitors. She is well-treated, in other words, and for her though not for others, the zoo is cageless. She goes in and out: to shop, to visit her husband in the hospital and, in the evening, to address, in the spirit of dissidence, a literary meeting.

With these materials, Wolf has drawn a powerful and desolate picture of oppression. There is no air in her apartment, she can't settle down to write, she jabs at the phone as if it were an infected tooth. It is; it is tapped. She and a friend drop heavy hints about an assignation and stress the words coffee and tea as if they were a code. They are baiting the phone-tappers, a sour game that leaves them feeling worse.

She has several emblematic encounters. She catches sight of Gunther M., a literary colleague who once confessed, while drunk, that he had been reporting on her. "I was afraid," he said when she asked him why. She writes with a derisiveness that now will seem dubious. More complex and intriguing is her reaction to a letter from a dear friend. Others have suggested that he too may be an informant--this may be disinformation, of course--and she debates with herself. Perhaps he hasn't told her because it would mean they could not see each other; and perhaps he is protecting her by giving the authorities only innocuous information.

"We are all trapeze artists," she muses. "But in that case I don't want him for a friend." That, too, stands out in light of what we have learned--does she want herself as a friend? And yet it comes across not as dissembling but as nine-tenths of a confession. The difference with her account of Gunther M. may seem invisible, but in the white desert that Wolf finds herself in, it stands out.

Like the title piece, the other stories in this collection represent injured writing, but less effectively. If "What Remains" records a walk through a moral minefield--quailing, bravery, damage and all--the others tend to represent something else about minefields: their ability to enforce standstill. Political repression has produced extraordinary literature, and some of it has been Wolf's. But it also represses, and beyond that, it numbs and exhausts. Several of the pieces--a tired account of a woman's day spent caring for her child and then attending a tedious factory meeting, and a long, choked dream account of a woman arraigning a former lover--are almost entirely inert.

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