Readings — From the March 2013 issue

So Who Could I Tell the Story To

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By Christa Wolf, from City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud, published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Wolf, who spent most of her life in East Germany, was the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, including Cassandra and The Quest for Christa T. She died in 2011. Translated from the German by Damion Searls.

 — the story that now needed to be told, even though it wasn’t a story at all? The principle of chance would have to decide for me: Who would sit next to me in the lounge for afternoon tea? It was Francesco. Alone. Not bad, as random choices go. I put the faxed newspaper article on the table in front of him, the one where my name appeared in the headline in the context of two letters of the alphabet that for months now had meant in the German media the highest degree of guilt, and I started talking, I talked the whole afternoon through, no one interrupted us, it got late, the sun set, unnoticed by us, and then I finally got to the end, and Francesco said: Shit.

Francesco had sat down by himself on that quiet, rainy Sunday, behind his newspaper, planning to complain again about the news from Italy. They’ve destroyed the country, he said. Our political class has destroyed the country, and we just sat and watched. That’s how it always goes, I said, and since he looked up, paid attention, and seemed interested, I could put the faxed article on the table in front of him, and since he folded his newspaper and looked inquisitively at me, I could talk. Some people found Francesco insensitive, he was inclined to angry outbursts, but he listened the right way, and I told him about the week, nine months before, that for me existed outside of time.

About your trip, every morning for ten days, to the part of East Berlin you knew least well. About the street that had just become famous, infamous, because it housed the offices of the agency that, of all the evils the crumbling state had stood for, was the most evil, the most demonic, contaminating everyone it touched. I tried to describe to Francesco the feeling you had when you turned into that courtyard surrounded by a square of monotonous five-story office buildings. He knew buildings like that, he said, and how could he not, as an architectural historian. The fleeting thought that this kind of agency could only be headquartered in buildings like that. Whenever you looked for a spot in the giant parking lot that was always full you were overcome with a feeling of suffocating anxiety, like you were in the wrong place. You already knew which entrance you needed to head toward, and you held your I.D. ready. The fact that the guard on duty gradually got to recognize you made it paradoxically easier for you to go inside. Obviously he had to write down your I.D. number again every time, and the different guards who had worked there before must have done the same thing, you thought as you walked upstairs, and you were well aware how much more apprehensive you would have been if you had been summoned to this building in the old days, three or four years ago, before the age had “turned.” Not that you even knew whether outsiders — suspects? — were ever summoned to this building, or whether it was only employees of the organization who set foot here. Now its deepest secrets were spread out before almost everyone’s eyes, a national legacy — before my eyes, too, insofar as they concerned me, I told Francesco. Can you understand, I asked him, what it took to force myself to go back there every morning, to sign in with the woman — a nice, modest, and unassuming woman, by the way — who managed the minuscule portion of the enormous mass of material that concerned you and G., which she kept in a big green wooden box you called a “sea chest,” bringing out, every day, the portion of files you were to work on that day and laying them on the table in front of you in the visitors’ room where others were sitting with their own stacks of files at other tables.

It was very quiet in that room. The woman handling your files told you the rules, including that she had read through every word of the files before you, but, she promised you, she was sworn never to speak about their contents.

Listen, Francesco said, you don’t have to tell me any more. Yes I do, I have to, I said. There were a lot more files than you had expected. Forty-two volumes, later some additional ones too, including telephone-surveillance transcriptions. You had been under observation since very early on. And the files from the Eighties were not there, except for a single index card that indicated their contents. Destroyed. Or in any case, unlocatable.

And? Francesco asked. Would you have lived your lives differently if you had known?

I’ve thought about that a lot since then, I said. You and many of your friends had reckoned with the possibility that you were being watched. But not from such an early date. Not so uninterruptedly. You had told one another jokes on the phone, had even expressed your opinions pretty fully, just not naming names. You had to take at least that precaution. But you didn’t want to take everything so seriously and make yourself paranoid. It’s hard to describe, this state we lived in of simultaneous knowing and repressing, I told Francesco. Would we have lived our lives differently if we had known everything? I don’t know.

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