Monday 4 November 2013

'Was bleibt' ('What Remains') by Christa Wolf (Review)

German Literature Month is in full swing, and as it's still Ladies' Week, I have another review of a book by a female writer for you.  It's actually quite a short work, one you can zip through in an hour or so - its importance though goes far beyond its pages...

Christa Wolf's Was bleibt (What Remains)*** is a novella set in the late 1970s in East Berlin.  A female writer has recently become aware of a disturbing development, where several men are constantly parked outside her house.  Every morning when she opens her curtains, they are there, patiently sitting the day away, not really doing anything, just reminding the writer that Big Brother is watching.

The novella records one day in this period of her life, from waking up to going to bed, an attempt to imprint the events in her mind for the time, far in the future, when she will be able to find the words to document the events clearly.  It's very tempting for the reader to read things into this idea - unsurprising when you consider that the book was written in 1979 but didn't appear until 1990...

It's a story of a society in stasis, a country where life is slowly ebbing away.  Both the writer and the city seem cold and grey.  A fire has died out inside, and as far as the eye can see, it's cold, drab and pitiless.  As the writer goes about her day, we see her looking for warmth and signs of life: she gets involved in a conversation with a woman at the bottle shop; she receives a visit from a young writer who has just been released from prison; and she gets several letters, some more welcome than others.

The observation, while a fairly unobtrusive one for the most part, is intended to wear the writer down mentally:
"Einschüchterung nenne man das, sagte ein Bekannter, der genau Bescheid zu wissen vorgab, aber waren wir eingeschüchtert?"
p.25 (Suhrkamp, 2012)

"Intimidation is what that's called, said an acquaintance of mine, who claimed to know about these things, but were we intimidated?"
(my translation)
The answer, of course, is yes.  The effects of the observation are clear as the writer is obviously stressed and suffering from nightmares.  She's even finding it difficult to write, too busy worrying about what might happen.  A pointless break-in which leaves a bathroom mirror shattered shows that she is right to be concerned...

The writer spends much of her day involved in dialogues in her head - monologues, as she says are pointless.  She finds herself talking and arguing with those who are oppressing her, even if she realises that it's pointless to talk to an unknown entity:
"Und wie anders als kindlich, kindisch, sollte man die unaufhörlichen Gedankenmonologen nennen, auf denen ich mich ertappte und die allzuoft in der absurden Frage endeten: Was wollt ihr eigentlich?  Wieviel ich noch zu lernen hatte!  Eine Institution anreden als sei sie ein Mensch!" (p.18)

"And how, other than childlike, childish, can you describe the constant internal monologues in which I caught myself and which all too often ended in the absurd question: What do you want?  I still had so much to learn!  Talking to an institution as if it were a person!"
Still, you can understand her frustration.  With no real face to her enemy (her observers are very much faceless), she is destined to continually torment herself with thoughts of how to change the unchangeable, to escape the inescapable.

The end of the novella though gives her hope for a brighter future, and it comes, naturally, in the form of the young, the students who talk to her after her reading.  She goes to bed confident that while today is grey and depressing, tomorrow (or the day after that) might just be a little sunnier, a little brighter...

Was bleibt is an interesting little piece, but it's not really one of Wolf's major works.  However, it has a cultural significance which goes far beyond its ninety pages.  Its real importance is to do with the (to use a beloved neo-Germanism) 'shitstorm' which erupted on its publication - this was a book which really shook up the German literary establishment.

Why?  Well, Wolf waited until after reunification to bring it to public attention, despite having written it back in 1979, and many writers and critics saw this as opportunism, even cowardice.  If the book had been released back in the 1970s, some claimed, it may have had a major impact on the way the Stasi carried out their observations.  Instead, they argued, Wolf sat on it to protect her own comfort...

I won't go into all that here, but the German Wikipedia page for Was bleibt goes into the debate in detail.  As a book, Was bleibt is fairly average and of only minor interest.  However, as a document of writing under Communism - and of the culture wars that followed its demise - it's well worth reading :)

***An English-language version (What Remains and Other Stories, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian) was available from Virago Press - you may have to look for a second-hand copy though.