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The New York Sun: "It is remarkable, then, to have 'One Day a Year'...In a few long sittings, you can experience not only the sweep of history, but also the changing of a very particular mind."

Date: Mar 1 2007

The Quest for Christa Wolf

Just as "New York is Book Country," so was East Germany "Leserland DDR." Leserland means land of readers, and its queen was Christa Wolf. Ms. Wolf, whose realistic first novel, "Divided Heaven" (1963), brought her political favor, ran afoul of her government soon enough. "The Quest for Christa T" (1968), though a masterpiece of apolitical, indirect storytelling, unsettled state censors with its narrative of an unusual woman who suffers in a claustrophobic culture.

But Ms. Wolf was never exiled, or even marginalized. Though she quarreled with her government, she often had the chance to do so from a privileged position: meeting one on one with the head of state, Erich Honecker, for example. When the Berlin Wall came down, Ms. Wolf published a story collection, "WhatRemains" (1990), about her experiences as a subject of constant surveillance by the secret police, the Stasi. In 1993 she admitted that she had informed for the Stasi between 1959 and 1961. She was duly denounced as a "state poet," and all her old celebrity worked against her.

It is remarkable, then, to have "One Day a Year" (Europa Editions, 621 pages, $16.95), a series of annual minutes taken every September 27th from 1960 to 2000. Unedited — except for biographical footnotes — the diary presents Wolf's views in 1960 exactly as she noted them, and then we proceed to September 27, 1961, 1962, etc., at a great pace. You turn a page, and a year passes. A book has suddenly been written. In a few long sittings, you can experience not only the sweep of history, but also the changing of a very particular mind.

Ms. Wolf's experience of East Germany is, throughout, one of loyal enjoyment. Even after reunification brings a commercial flash to her local stores, she prefers to purchase "a bunch of wooden clothespins, guaranteed to be old East German products, and a similarly dusty trash can made of hard rubber, which stands hidden behind all of the new, sensational trash can models." Year after year, Ms. Wolf notes the seasonal ripening of East German elderberries, and she has the gift of making a giant collectivized barn or a factory worker's meeting sound human and friendly.

She is not silent, however, about the ironies life in a totalitarian state. In the 1961 entry, Ms. Wolf's 5-year-old daughter, Tinka, complains that all her photo books are of workers. "They're boring," she complains. Ms. Wolf's husband is delighted with his child's reaction: "Literary criticism on a high level," he says. Later, when Tinka must fill out her college application, mother and daughter laugh at their absurd formulations: "Because both of my parents are in the Socialist Unity Party, I have had piano lessons since I was nine years old."

Ms. Wolf was not only a Party member; she was a candidate for the Central Committee between 1963 and 1967. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, she was defensive: When her cleaning lady complained that the wall might "weigh heavily on a person's mind." Ms. Wolf rebutted, "The fact that you can no longer go from Düppel to West Berlin on the commuter train should not matter to her. She would not have done that anyway."

Idealism — with a streak of pride — soon gave way to skepticism, especially when other intellectuals were threatened. But the regime found Ms. Wolf, the dissident loyalist, useful, and Ms. Wolf, writing as late as 1984, called her decision to stay a "duty." She reproduces a fan letter: "I beg you to show me if and how there is still hope here, especially for my children."

After the wall falls, Ms. Wolf's disappointment and confusion testify to the persistence, through 30 of these entries, of an East German identity. Her feelings go far beyond ostalgie, the nostalgia for monumentalist apartment blocks and asbestos-racked people's palaces. After Ms. Wolf's purchase of some retrograde trashcans, she continues to a discount store, where an out-of-towner notices Ms. Wolf at the packing counter. "Honecker even gave her a luxurious house," the man announces. Ms. Wolf rudely pushes her way out of the store, and drives home singing giddily, not yet ready to phrase her regret for the socialist state.

Cancer, which Ms. Wolf battled throughout the 1990s, becomes a metaphor for Ms. Wolf's conscience. She survives with the help of Goethe's poems. Cancer also afflicts Günter Grass, whose career in the West mirrored her own, down to its criticism of reunification and, last summer, Grass's admission that he too was once complicit in the world he criticizes — in his case, he disclosed that he had served in the Waffen SS. The two become friends after reunification.

The years after reunification anchor this volume. Not only do all the previous years await the irony of 1989, but after that year the movement of the whole life, as an arc, hits the reader. Ms. Wolf maintains a kind of happiness, but even the most critical reader cannot help but experience her unique and certainly abstract loss. This is the story of a life whose explicit meaning was always tenuous, and finally lost. In the 1998 entry, right before the election that brought Gerhard Schröder to power, Ms. Wolf makes a chilling, offhand note: She and her husband, and implicitly anyone else who once cared for politics, "have all become tacticians."


BY BENJAMIN LYTAL