In the Doghouse

Michael Hofmann

In the wall-month of November 1989 I translated two pieces from an anthology of East German writing for the magazine Granta, which in the end didn’t use either of them. (These things happen.) One of them was by Christa Wolf, an extract, I think, from her book Sommerstück. It was just two pages long, nothing more than a preamble and image, but of a Shakespearean power and amplitude. A group of adults and children (Wolf’s habitual, occasionally irritating, panti-social ‘we’), driving in rural East Germany, stop by a beautiful old farmhouse that is in the process of being vandalised by the local youth: doors and windows, furnishings, the massive Dutch stoves in the corners, everything senselessly in ruins. As they leave, a little girl in the party sees a birdcage toppled over in a nettle-patch and walks over to have a look. Then she sees it: the furry remains (what remains) of a cat, locked inside the bird-cage and left to starve and rot.

I thought: could there be a better, more terrible image for what was happening, and what would happen to the East German state? Doesn’t it fabulously contain everything: Honecker and his wife in Moscow, in the Chilean Embassy, stalked by reporters (that phrase, ‘embassy compound’); the ransacking of the Stasi offices in the cities (the runde Ecke in Leipzig – they knew how to bend space); the Politburo huntsmen (hunting being the great GDR perk and hobby, equivalent to golf for the Japanese) now behind bars (the great GDR sanction and raison d’être: detention) – all in that one grisly cat? And then I thought: does she know? Could she see East Germany not just (rather obviously) as the abandoned and desecrated house, but as the defunct prison-state which the birds have flown and where the gaolers are now interned? Did she appreciate – or even share – ‘the fury of disappearance’, in a phrase of Enzensberger’s? Was it her prophetic insight, or the construction put upon her words by the anthologist and reader? And could she see herself, even then, as the cat stuffed inside the empty bird-cage of her oeuvre, maybe in Santa Monica now and a guest of the Getty Foundation, but for all that still in the doghouse?

Reading the two books now published by Virago is a peculiar activity and leaves a strange taste. They are neither of them new – both cover the best part of thirty years – nor yet good. Christa Wolf isn’t a short story writer, or there would be more epiphanies like the one about the cat: her best books are tissues she weaves between people (The Quest for Christa T.), between themes (Accident: A Day’s News), between ages (No Place on Earth). She proceeds by indirection – the short story gives her no space. You know more than you usually know as a reader, and you are looking for still more, a tense and unhealthy looking, a looking for tragedy: you read for dramatic irony, for the Greek words, hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, catharsis; you follow a person of stature, someone associated with an idea, the representative of a society. You don’t know quite where you are – is it Act IV, or the second part of a trilogy, ‘Christa Wolf at Colonus’?

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