“City of Angels: Or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud” by Christa Wolf, translated by Damion Searls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $27)
You are an award-winning German writer from the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. You feel weighed down by history, by the inexorable passage of time. It leads nowhere. So you rely on the gift of storytelling to help redeem the emptiness, the lack of direction.
The making of language makes memory, you believe. The making of memory makes history. Memory mitigates the traces of pain and suffering that follow you wherever you roam – now easing into your 80s, now remembering a life of repression and regret.
As a teenager in 1929, before Germany split its personality, you happily joined the Hitler Youth. Later, when the Soviets defeated the Nazis in World War II, you quickly converted to Communism, trying to distance yourself from the moral ambiguity of your past, from your implications in repression, in rites of betrayal, in the deaths of innocents.
But you can never, through time, win back your integrity.
Your artistry exists solely for self-exploration, for self-exculpation. Words on the page represent your better self, your other self . They approximate the eternal. They turn you into an unknown, desirable someone, no longer a citizen of a country that no longer exists, but a person free of all political posturing – and time.
“I have realized that I take myself as exemplary; in other words, by seeming to focus entirely on myself, I leave myself out. A strong motion in opposite directions.”
You are Christa Wolf, who in your enthusiasm to embrace the Socialist state, spied on your neighbors for three years, from 1959 to 1962, as an informal collaborator with the Stasi, the Stalinist secret police.
You did not know this until three years after the collapse of Communism in East Germany, your homeland. You did not know this until you gained access to 42 volumes of declassified Stasi documents.
You read thousands of pages of reports, then found a slight, green folder with evidence that you had been a spy on your colleagues. The revelation shocks you into a nameless remorse. You say you cannot remember this episode of your past; you have repressed it as the Stasi repressed the rights of their victims.
You never declared yourself a dissident, of course, yet you can’t recall your collaboration.
This is your excuse: The weight of history sabotages even memory.
So you escape to southern California.
Although you stress in the foreword to this, the last novel you published before your death in 2011 – a novel you had worked on for 10 years – that no characters bear resemblance to actual persons, no one could think the nameless narrator of “City of Angels” is anyone but you.
You arrive in Los Angeles ostensibly to study at the Center, an ill-defined meeting place of scholars from around the globe. When quizzed about your project, you dodge the question, because you have no plans beyond a quixotic quest to find “L.,” the mysterious friend of your friend, Emma, who has recently died from cancer and bequeathed to you the letters of “L.” in exile in America in the 1930s.
Now you are in exile in America in the 1990s. A stranger in a strange land.
You try to make breakfast in your hotel room – large enough to house a family of four at home – but cannot find remotely palatable coffee. You watch “Star Trek” on television; you drive down Wiltshire Boulevard; you visit African-American churches; you learn the ubiquitous smiles of greeting, the exchange of empty pleasantries.
Still, southern California does not suit you; the Pacific Ocean threatens infinity; the unceasing niceness of people seems robotic, superficial, commercial, inane.
Too much sun, not enough fog. Not enough cold, dark Baltic Sea. Not enough intrigue. Only novelty, gimmicky, learning to play by foreign rules.
The surface sensations cannot cleanse your willful amnesia. The “forgotten” blot on the soul spreads like a birthmark.
You yearn for the force “that would free me from the compulsion to say everything.”
You know what needs to be said cannot be said except as a divided truth. You try in vain to keep apart what does not belong together. You write inappropriate words in your diary – “successful,” “happy.” Yet you yearn “for the ultimate darkness.”
Near the novel’s end, your quest ends in death, flying above Death Valley:
“There they lay, all of them, my dead, struggling out of their graves as I flew over them. . . . I thought: I wonder if the dead will tell me something.”
They tell you that memory is either discovery of a moral force that can change the future, or a fabrication to console you about the failures of your past.
Where does L. fit into these alternatives? Where do you?
The dead tell you only that the power of your fiction is to make language to make memory to make history to make an identity, to fly about the Earth with the angels, to write into existence your better self.
“Where are we going?” you ask on your way back home to Berlin.
“I don’t know,” comes the reply.
Time still leads nowhere.