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.

That afternoon in the lounge I could not know how many evenings, how many hours, I would spend in the coming years on the never-ending conversation we called the “Stasi debate.” The state of our respective files. Whether a suspicion had been confirmed or defused. In the public media, two letters of the alphabet were all-powerful: IM. An informeller Mitarbeiter — “informal collaborator” — was the Stasi term for an informer, someone not an employee of the organization who filed a report. Anyone those letters were attached to, or seemed to be attached to, was condemned, irrespective of how much or how little the letters actually said about them.

The woman helping me, I told Francesco, who of course knew what was in my files, warned me on two different mornings that I was probably going to get an unpleasant surprise that day. And? Francesco asked. Did you get an unpleasant surprise?

I did indeed: detailed reports by a friend about everything you were doing. Since you knew this friend well, this would be the first time you had the chance to ask for an explanation of how they got him to spy on you. They had had him in their clutches, it wasn’t his fault. But why hadn’t he given you a wink and a nod to warn you? Reading that report, I told Francesco, I felt like I was going to throw up, I couldn’t help thinking about all the people who had read these pages before me and how many would read them later. I asked myself if it should be allowed, and I developed an obsessive idea of a giant fire being lit in the courtyard of this desolate square of buildings and me getting all the files out of the sea chest and throwing them into the fire, handful by handful. Unread. What relief I would feel.

I can imagine, Francesco said.

Instead, I said, I had to hunt down code names in the files that I wanted to make copies of — a whole trunk of copies. I had to fill out forms requesting the copies, and other forms asking to be told the real names of the people who had spied on me. Then, a couple days later, there they were in front of me, black on white, although what I mostly did was skim them, because it was too embarrassing for me. More often than not the name confirmed a suspicion, but sometimes I was painfully surprised, and then, strangely, I quickly forgot them again.

At lunch you walked — to get out of that room with all the silent people reading, each one sunk in his or her own problems and apparently unable to talk to anyone else about their problems; a particular variety of shame prevented any of you from exchanging more than a quick greeting with the others — at lunch you walked across the courtyard into one of the other buildings, ate there in a kind of canteen that had clearly been set up for the employees of this organization, a meal prepared with no love; you surveyed the other people eating and wondered how many of them had been working there three or four years ago too, and whether they’d had to deny what they had earlier thought and done to get their present position. Or whether, on the other hand, they had formerly suppressed their real thoughts and now felt free. They sure didn’t look free, I told Francesco. But what does that prove.

I described for him how you became more and more depressed every day and longed for the moment when you could finally hand back the files and call it a day. And how, when you drove home down the familiar strange streets, you had the feeling that a process of wilting and fading had set in and made rapid progress on both sides of the street: the façades of the buildings seemed to have aged years in only a few days; the people on the sidewalks seemed shriveled, even though they were hauling their new purchases home in the plastic bags with brightly colored new logos on them, the new things they had wanted so badly; even the new brands of car that showed up more and more often among the old cars didn’t spread the joy they had been expected to spread, back when they were objects of longing on television. My own judgment might have been biased, I said to Francesco — maybe I was living through another one of those historical moments I was unable to celebrate the way other people celebrated them. I had to admit that my desires and most other people’s didn’t point in the same direction. And that that was the cause of many of my mistakes. Sometimes, driving back home, you had to stop, step inside one or another of the new shops, and buy a blouse or some other article of clothing that you then never wore. When you got back home you had to take a shower right away and change all your clothes.

Looking into these files completely undermined and defiled the past, you know, and poisoned the present along with it. Francesco said he didn’t entirely understand that. Facts suddenly bursting in on you can have a destructive effect too, I said, which made Francesco angry. Facts? he barked at me. Did I really think that what I found in those files was the truth about any facts?

That’s what the public was made to think, I said.

Exactly, Francesco said. Ask yourself why.

I have thought about that a lot, I said. I asked myself many times, when I got back from that place where the damage was documented but was also spread and deepened, whether that kind of knowledge could lead to the healing of any wounds.

Yes, of course, we knew we were under observation, I said. The cars parked in front of the house for weeks. The broken mirror in the bathroom. The footprints in the hall. The obviously opened and resealed letters. The many bad connections over the phone, the constant crackling. Of course. That was how the organizations responsible for these things functioned normally.

Weren’t you afraid? Francesco asked. Of course we were. We had the normal fear you have about any enemy with more effective methods at its disposal than yours. And it helped that you could call it “enemy” without qualification: the relationship was clear. That had taken some time.  — I know, Francesco said, I know all about that.  — As for the categories they had pigeonholed you in, you got that from the files, too: feindlich-negativ, “hostile-negative.” Well, really, you could have thought that up yourself.

You are a PUT and a PID, the woman helping with your files told you — Underground Political Activity and Political-Ideological Subversiveness. But what was the insidious poison you breathed in from these files that left you so paralyzed? You couldn’t put it into words at the time, but now I know: it was the brutal way they took your lives and made them trite, over hundreds and hundreds of pages. How comfortably these people fit your lives into their own way of seeing the world. Even if the facts that the observers reported on and a senior official occasionally summarized were true — which was by no means always the case; they had to be tailored to fit the interests and expectations of the people giving the assignments — even then, not one of them matched how I felt. If there’s anything I learned in reading those reports, I said, it’s what language can do to the truth. Those files were in the language of the secret police, completely incapable of capturing real life. An insect collector who wants to pin his find has to kill it first; the tunnel vision of the informer unavoidably manipulates what it finds, and he soils it with his miserable language. Yes, I told Francesco, that was what I felt: soiled.

Francesco again suggested a break. We got ourselves some more tea; it had grown dark, and we went over to the big window and saw the last glimmers of light on the ocean. Does that make sense? I asked Francesco. It wasn’t the mass of material, not the huge number of IMs assigned to us, not even their unmasking with their real names — none of that was what plunged me into a depression and gave me the feeling that I could not let myself go any deeper into these files or I would be pinned to a board by the demon pouring out of them. No, not pinned: infested. I could not allow them to triumph over us after the fact. Which is then what happened in the media after all.

So you would have liked it better if you’d had intelligent, sensitive informers spying on you? Francesco said.

“Liked” or “preferred” are words that truly do not belong in this context, I said. They never showed up in the reports either, of course. These informers must have laughed up their sleeves when they saw how seriously people were taking these often sloppy and careless documents of theirs, how people were combing through them for incriminating material, giving them evidentiary power again, and using them to decide people’s fates. How people used these reports to deprive others of their livelihoods or keep them out of jobs that they themselves wanted. No one can open Pandora’s box and go unpunished, I said.

Francesco said it made him feel sick to imagine what would happen if all the secret files were ever opened to the public in Italy.

Not all of them, I said. Only from part of the country: only the northern files, for example, or the southern files.

It’s inconceivable! Francesco said.

I laughed. Night had fallen, I could see that Francesco had had enough, he wanted to leave, but I had to keep him there. Now I was getting to what I really had to tell him — the whole long story so far had just been the necessary background. The last day in the agency’s building, finally. You had more or less thoroughly read through the forty-two volumes of files, learned the informers’ real names and forgotten them again, you thought it was over, thought it was behind you, and then the woman helping you, with whom you had become almost friendly and who knew your files better than you did yourself, cleared her throat: There was something else. A feeling of looming disaster instantly came over you, without your having any idea of what there might still be in store, but you had to find out, right away. She hesitated. She was not allowed to show you your “Perpetrator File” — for the first time, this term! She had sworn not to. You insisted. Finally she got you to promise that you would never tell anyone she had broken the rule.

Then she left the room where you and she had been sitting alone, since it was after closing time, and came back a moment later with a thin green file folder that she put on the table in front of you. Even then you didn’t understand. She stood behind you and paged through the file for several minutes, during which she constantly looked around to make sure that no one would catch her in this forbidden act. It’s your handwriting, isn’t it, she asked you, quietly, as though worried, and it was my handwriting, I said to Francesco, and that was when I learned that hair standing up on the back of your neck is not just an empty phrase, it really happens. But you didn’t sign anything, no official agreement, nothing, the woman said. It would look very different if you had.

You didn’t have time, you couldn’t read anything carefully, just skim a couple pages: A clearly harmless report on a colleague, in your handwriting; reports from two contacts about three or four “meets” with you; and the fact that they had managed you under a code name. These were what made this folder a “Perpetrator File” and what hurled you, without warning, into another category of human being.

The woman helping you, who hastily took the file away again, said: It was all more than thirty years ago, practically nothing happened, and there are meters and meters of “Victim Files,” surely everyone will realize how insignificant this ancient history is, but still, she had not wanted to let me fall completely unprepared into the trap that was about to open up under my feet. She read the newspapers too. Any journalist who asked her would get access to this file — as the law ordered! In her opinion, it was just a matter of time before someone received a tip and was on my tracks.

As for me, I said to Francesco, I heard myself say for the first time: I had forgotten all about that. And I noticed myself how implausible it sounded. The woman sighed: We hear that here a lot! And she rushed to take the file back out of the room.

Francesco said: Shit. Then, after a while: What are you going to do?

I said: I’m going to publish it all.

Think it over first, Francesco said. I read your German newspapers too. You need to ask yourself whether you can stand up to what’s going to happen.

I have no choice, I said. In any case, I couldn’t speak publicly about this file without causing problems for the woman who broke the rules by showing it to me. But I’ve just heard that she has died, very young, of cancer. So now I can talk about it.

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