In the Flesh by Christa Wolf

In the Flesh by Christa Wolf

A Book Review of In the Flesh by Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf’s, the most prominent writer from East Germany. Born in 1929, she grew up under the Nazis and published the majority of her books under the post-war Communist government. Her autobiographical novel A Model Childhood (1976) is a bitter reflection on the Germany of her childhood and an explicit injunction to remember and to learn.

“What is past is not dead; it is not even past”, the first line insists. “We cut ourselves from it; we pretend to be strangers.” It proceeds to make sure that its readers do not remain strangers. The inspiration for her latest novel In the Flesh is more or less the same, only this time the reconnection is to the old German Democratic Republic.

At least, that’s what we’re told. The book’s blurb says the novel is set in the final hours of the GDR in 1989 but, without this information, a reader would otherwise remain in the dark.

An unnamed woman is in an ambulance on the way to hospital. She slips in and out of consciousness, sometimes communicating with medical staff, sometimes slipping towards a wordless abyss. She undergoes feverish reveries where memories and nightmares collide. She hears her dead mother’s response to the Soviet army marching into Prague in 1968.

She talks to a friend about the fate of a movie project as it faces the censors. Once in hospital, noises invade her reveries, a “hellish screeching and shrieking and yelling … that goes beyond the boundaries of pain.”

She claims it reminds her of the world’s “history of pain and torture”, and should anyone be unaware of this history, a list is provided: “The atrocities of the conquistadores, the crusaders, the princes after the peasants’ revolt. The woman battered, floating in the Landwehr Canal.”

The last is a reference to the revolutionary and writer Rosa Luxemburg murdered by the German Freikorps in 1919, and perhaps also an allusion to herself, another female body exposed to the violence of change.

Actually we were primed to make the connection a few pages before: “My runaway body. Metaphorically”, she says to herself lying in her bedbefore a quotation from Goethe’s Faust pops into her head (conveniently pointed out by the translator John S. Barrett): “All that’s transitory is just a metaphor.”

So it seems we’re supposed to regard the woman’s body floating between life and death as a metaphor for the body politic of the GDR in limbo at the end of history. But it’s not only a metaphor. Just as the Hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s tale of the same name really is dead and alive at the same time, so Wolf’s narrator really is trapped in a place where “temporality has sunk away into timelessness.”

It’s a condition endured by many ordinary East Germans if Anna Funder’s pioneering book, Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, is anything to go by. As far as In the Flesh goes, however, timelessness means lack of movement. While the patient admits that “nothing can be narrated without time”, one begins to wonder.

This particular narrative is interminable. Where Funder introduces us to remarkable characters and their lives, In the Flesh filters them through a literary fever. You might seek distraction by trying to spot unaided the quotations from German literature that Wolf packs into the 123 pages. If you do, you won’t find one direct mention of Kafka (perhaps because he was banned in the GDR) or anything like his lightness of touch.

When a nurse makes a witty remark, Wolf has to tell us she is “not without a sense of humour”. Worse are the innumerable clichés and glib observations on life. Apparently religion “tries to convince us that the cause of every misfortune is guilt” and the self is a “tottering, blurred concept”.

In mitigation, Wolf does at least build the latter idea into the narration by shifting between the first, second and third person; the woman speaks for herself, speaks to herself and speaks of herself as another. At first this evokes rather well the pressures on the patient’s identity and agency.

Yet after a while it becomes too strong an agent itself and the novel becomes overdetermined. It’s a problem that reminds me of WG Sebald’s criticism of a post-war German novel which used allegory to confront the national trauma of the Allied airwar. He said that despite its rare and worthy intention to portray what happened in all its complexity, the real horrors of the time disappear through artifice and abstraction.

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