Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

Source of book: I decided to buy this one because it is hard to find.

This book was my selection for Banned Books Week this year. It was mentioned in Iron Curtain, which I read earlier this year. Last year, I discussed why I believe we need to read banned books. Past selections:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Areopagitica by John Milton
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (although I didn’t read it specifically for Banned Books Week)

I also read a number of banned books before I started blogging, so I don’t have reviews of those books. Highlights would be The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (banned in pre-Communist China), Animal Farm by George Orwell, parts of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, parts of The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (what are they smoking in China anyway?), Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Again, a reminder of my rules for this series.

1. Banned books only. This means a government must outlaw sale and/or possession of the book. If it is removed from a library or a school curriculum, it is merely “challenged,” and does not count as a banned book. I encourage the reading of challenged books too, but stick to truly banned books for this series.

2. The Bible only counts if you haven’t already read it. For that matter, read something new if you can.

3. I generally lean toward books banned for political reasons over books banned for “obscenity.” Societal standards about the depiction of sex and nudity vary greatly with time and place. Tyrants of all times and places have banned books that threatened their power.

The Quest for Christa T. seems a peculiar book to appear on this list. On its face, it is a story of a rather ordinary woman who lived an ordinary, non-controversial life, and died young of a tragic disease, as told by her friend. Christa T. never does anything more shocking than spontaneously blowing a trumpet in the middle of the street during a college outing, and she does it because she is an emotional free spirit, not because it has any political significance. She goes to school, gets married, has kids, and dies in a Victorian manner. (Although by this time, the killer is cancer rather than tuberculosis or malaria.) There is a brief reference to the attempted Hungarian revolution - quickly ended by Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest - but the author hardly dwells on it. She says nothing overtly political.

So how did this book come to be banned?

Christa Wolf was born in 1929 in what is now part of Poland. Her family was of German descent, so they were expelled at the end of World War Two and relocated in East Germany. She was a member of the Socialist Party until the fall of the iron curtain, and even served as an informant in the Stasi for a couple of years. (She was dismissed because of her “reticence,” which is not a positive trait for an informer to have.) Although she was critical of the East German leadership, she opposed reunification, and she remained generally loyal to socialist ideas.

So why did East Germany ban her book?

A technicality should be noted. It was not technically illegal to purchase or own The Quest for Christa T. - as long as you were on a very short list of well known literary professionals. The average person could not purchase or possess this book. I thus count it as banned, as it was made unavailable by the force of law.

The East German government recognized the threat that this book posed: the undercurrent is Christa’s response to the overwhelming societal pressure to conform. And conform she does, though it nearly kills her inside.

The book opens thus:

The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself.

And later, as the narrator describes meeting Christa:

She didn’t go out of her way to find a welcome, friendly or unfriendly. She wasn’t interested in being accepted. We didn’t interest her “excessively” - that word was just going the rounds. She’s not excessively polite, is she? I looked up in the air and said: So what?
The truth was: she didn’t need us. She came and she went; that was all that could be said about her.
It was I who ended up knowing most about her. And if not the most, then enough. Which is how it turned out.

Throughout, there are little hints like this about her innate non-conformism, but also that she never did anything particularly extraordinary. She kept her head down, and did what she was told she ought. The pressure was there. The pressure to not even think what was unacceptable.

The truth is: we had other things to do. We were fully occupied with making ourselves unassailable - perhaps the sense of that can be felt. Not only to admit into our minds nothing extraneous - and all sorts of things we considered extraneous ; also to let nothing extraneous well up from inside ourselves, and if it did so - a doubt, a suspicion, observations, questions - then not to let it show. Less from fear, although many people were frightened, than from insecurity. A feeling of insecurity that is more difficult to shed than anything else I know.

Or later:

When her name was called: “Christa T.!” - she stood up and went and did what was expected of her; was there anyone to whom she could say that hearing her name called gave her much to think about: Is it really me who’s meant? Or is it only my name that’s being used? Counted in with other names, industriously added up in front of the equals sign? And might I just as well have been absent, would anyone have notice? She saw, too, how people began to slip away, leaving only the shell of a name behind. She couldn’t do that.
But she had also lost the capacity to live in a state of rapture. The vehement overplayed words, the waving banners, the deafening songs, the hands clapping rhythms over our heads. She felt how the words begin to change when they aren’t being tossed out any more by belief and ineptitude and excessive zeal but by calculation, craftiness, the urge to adapt and conform. Our words, not even false ones - how easy it would be if they were! - but the person speaking them has become a different person. Does that change everything?

Christa uses her writing as an outlet - except she is careful to stay clear of controversy even there. One can only see the barest outline of the rebellion of her free spirit.

Her other love, almost a vice - complicatedness, multisignificance, subtlety, the end-of-an-epoch feelings, Thomas Mann - this now takes second place. What she notes for her own use are stories which she has got other people to tell her, life stories, traditional and manageable matters, as if she mistrusted imagination profoundly, as if imagination were a source of possible error.

Unsurprisingly, this repression of imagination and self drive Christa half crazy. As the narrator puts it, “She saw herself melting away in an endless welter of deadly banal actions and clichés.”

Among her papers are various fragments written in the third person: she, with whom she associated herself, whom she was careful not to name, for what name could she have given her? She, who knows she must always be new, and see anew, over and over again; and who can do what she must wish to do. She, who knows only the present and won’t let herself be deprived of the right to live according to the laws of her own being.
I understand the secret of the third person, who is there without being tangible and who, when circumstances favor her, can bring down more reality upon herself than the first person: I. The difficulty of saying “I.”

Perhaps one could conclude that Christa T. is Christa Wolf? There seems to be a hint of that here. The woman who served the regime faithfully - if rather unhelpfully - but had to let out a hint of the cost to her own self. To her own ability to “live according to the laws of her own being.”

This is why this book is such an effective portrayal of the repression of totalitarian systems. It shows, not the forceful imprisonment or executions of overt dissidents, not the gulags, but the effect of the system on the ordinary, unremarkable person who conforms at the cost of trauma to the life of the inner mind.

Even the writing itself works to create this impression. As can be seen from the excerpts above, the writing is elliptical. It hints rather than states. Often, a statement is made, then quickly qualified, or seemingly withdrawn. The author skillfully shows the narrator’s attempts to avoid saying anything too definitively, too certainly. The narrative also skips around a bit, while remaining chronological. The narrator hints at future events, and alludes to past ones, then sharply returns to the present, almost embarrassed at giving spoilers.

It was a bit fortuitous to read this book at the same time that Malala Yousafzai’s interview made the rounds. For those unfamiliar with her story, she is a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Islamic militants in a targeted assassination attempt - she was asked for by name. Why? She wrote a blog advocating for the education of females, and described the brutality of the Taliban as they destroyed schools and threatened families who let their girls get an education. So she had to be silenced.

Totalitarian systems are more alike than they are different. In each, the worth of the individual is subsumed into a role. One is a cog in the machine, existing to carry out the purposes of system. “We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live.”

Christa T. is forced into her role in furthering the Communist state. Her “extraneous” thoughts, her doubts and observations, indeed her imagination itself must be tamped down so that she can conform to expectations. She is reduced to “banal actions and clichés. She isn’t really a person with her own thoughts and dreams. Her name is called, but it might as well be a number. She matters only in her service to the system.

In the case of Communism, this depersonalization applies to all. In systems like that enforced by the Taliban, it applies somewhat less universally: it is particularly aimed at women. They have their role to serve society. Wife, mother, property. Stay in the house. Don’t waste education on girls; they won’t need it to play their role.

But this occurs in backward places like the third world, right?

It so happens that an interesting article came to my attention just this week.

This led to an interesting discussion with my wife, because she spent her teen years in a group just like this. Her parents believed strongly in educating girls, and supported her in her college education. However, when she did go off to college, the girls in the group her age were forbidden to talk to her because she would be a corrupting influence. She threatened the system.

In reading this book, I could see so many of the same traits represented in all of the systems. A suspicion of imagination. (Perhaps this is how Dr. Seuss got banned?) A belief that roles and contribution to the goals of the system trumped individuality. Training everyone - particularly children - to eliminate those extraneous thoughts, doubts, and observations. Only the system. And the slogans, words, signs. Words that once meant something, but now used by calculation to further conformity.

On a less dramatic, but equally disturbing note, I observed the results of Dominionist teaching in greater Evangelicalism just a few days ago. Some friends of mine are married, and have chosen not to have children. He went public with it online, and - in an entirely predictable development, had a few comment that not having children was an inherently godless and selfish thing to do. Indeed, it appears that reproduction has become a defining test of “godliness” these days. (I noted that this seems driven by a fear of being out-reproduced by Muslims - although it has much in common with past fears of being reproduced by brown-skinned people as well. Dominionism and White Supremacy are bedfellows, after all.) It also reflects a change in the focus of Christian evangelism from that of making converts to giving birth to them instead.

I was struck, though, by the fact that, once again, the individual is merely a cog in the machine. The use of the word “selfish” is a conversation ender, just like “godly.” The Dominionist machine needs bodies, and that means every potentially fertile couple must reproduce. (In groups like the one my wife spent time in, that means having as many children as physically possible.) It is not even given one second’s consideration that God might not have called everyone to have children. Or that one might contribute positively to society and the kingdom of God without reproducing. I can think of a number of childless friends who have and continue to make the world a better place, bring positive things to children and youths through their involvement in their lives, and do other positive things that are to an extent made possible by their childless state. And I say this as a father of five who always wanted kids and love having them around.

(I will interject as well that, from my observation, being a child that was brought into the world because “God wants me to have lots of children” is no picnic. Nothing like being another notch on the crib…)

Again, the same idea is at work. Individual desire and calling are unimportant. What is important is serving the system. “We keep you alive to serve this ship. Row well and live.”

And, just like Christa T., the system is most painful to those who cannot “live according to the laws of their own being” and still be true to the expectations of the system. Those who overtly rebel, like Solzhenitsyn and Malala Yousafzai pay the price in overt ways. Those like Christa T. suffer too, inside themselves. Unlike my wife, who was able to leave the system, and has never looked back, countless millions remained until the fall of the iron curtain. And millions today remain in systems like the militant Islam as enforced by the Taliban.

I have mentioned this before, but I believe it bears repeating:

The banning of books is an essential, vital part of any totalitarian system. We tend to forget what a blessing our freedoms of speech, thought, and conscience truly are. And how rare they are, historically and geographically. We ought to read those books that have been banned both as a protest against totalitarianism (I suggest reading The Satanic Verses rather than burning the Koran), and to experience those ideas that were so dangerous, tyrants felt the need to ban them.


  1. That's interesting that you seek out banned books. I think Naguib Mahfouz would be a good choice, particularly the Cairo trilogy. He books were banned in some Arab countries, but I didn't check to see if any would meet your criteria.

    1. Mahfouz does appear to qualify, particularly for books written before 1978, when his works were banned. (If a government bans a book, it qualifies.) Mahfouz also gets major points for being nearly assassinated by Islamic extremists. I'll have to put him on the list.