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BERLIN-The writers relation to the state in Canada is a pretty benign affair. Artists, like other citizens, may oppose particular governments, but we seldom complain about Canada as such. The same is true of the citizenry at large. Though we may sing of true patriot love, what were really interested in is what the renowned German political philosopher Juergen Habermas calls constitutional patriotism. That is, what we care about is not so much nationalism in the old-fashioned sense, but that Canadians, both old and new ones, identify with the values contained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the rest of the Canadian constitution.
That easy-going relationship between artist and state apparatus is relatively rare both historically and geographically. From ancient empires to the dictatorships of the late 20th century, the writer was often a creature of the state and under the kind of total surveillance George Orwell imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Artists either toed the politically correct line or else. Whats more, the state was more or less identical with the regime or ruling party of the day. Perhaps nowhere in the modern world was that more true than in the former East Germany.
Though the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic collapsed along with the Berlin Wall in 1989, two recent works of art in Germany have reignited public memory, conversation, and debate about the topic of life within actually existing socialism, as it was sometimes called. The one that has garnered international attention and acclaim is filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarcks 2007 Oscar-winning drama, The Life of Others, a story about the dreaded Stasi secret police and its perverse pursuit of an East German playwright in Berlin in the 1980s.
But a deeper and broader work, one that goes well beyond politics, totalitarian or otherwise, is novelist and essayist Christa Wolfs remarkable 40-year diary project, One Day A Year: 1960-2000 (Europa Editions, 2007; translated by Lowell Bangerter), which has just appeared in English. If you havent heard of the seventy-seven-year-old Wolf, one of contemporary Germanys half-dozen pre-eminent writers, youre in for a thoughtful treat.
The idea for One Day A Year is simplicity itself. A Moscow newspaper in 1960 invited various writers, as Wolf recalls it, to describe as exactly as possible one day of that year, specifically the 27th of September. The proposal was a revival of an idea first put forward by Maksim Gorky in the mid-1930s. So I sat down and described my 27th of September of 1960. So far, so good, Wolf writes, then adds, But why did I then also describe the 27th of September of 1961? And all the 27th of Septembers that followed, until now-for [more than 40] years, already more than half my adult life?
Wolfs answer goes directly to the nature of art and life: "First of all my horror in the face of the forgetfulness that . . . specially carries away with it the routine days that I treasure so much . . . I wanted to write in opposition to that inexorable loss of existence. One day a year, every year, should at least be a reliable buttress for the memory-described purely, authentically, free of artistic designs, which means: left to and at the mercy of chance. As Wolf says, It also became an exercise against blindness to reality. Its an exercise that any aspiring writer can try.
As it turned out, the course of a day also became a literary form that Wolf brilliantly explored. Others have written works that take place in a single day (most famously, James Joyces Ulysses), but in a series of novella-length books, including Accident: A Days News (1987) and What Remains (1993), Wolf brought to the form her own particular tone and stamp.
Naturally, its not the only way that she works. Novels such as The Quest for Christa T. (1968) and Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays (1984) are perhaps her best-known works both in German and in translation, and collections like Parting from Phantoms: Writings 1990-1994 display the range of her interests, but the one day form has remained close to Wolfs heart as a way of answering the question that has preoccupied her since childhood: How does life come to be?
One Day A Year is deliberately low-key, unpretentious, and attentive to the mundane. And of course, over the years, it adds up. When I first wake up, she writes about Sept. 27, 1960, the one day on which it all began, the thought: The day will again go differently than planned. I will have to go to the doctor with Trinka because of her sore foot. Outside, doors slam. The children are already up and about. Gerd is still sleeping. His forehead is damp, but he no longer has a fever. In short, its just life, but thats the point. And gradually we learn about Wolfs second daughter Trinka, whose fourth birthday is impending, and her husband Gerd, and the industrial town of Halle in southeastern Germany where the then thirty-one-year-old aspiring writer is living and working. In due course, the four-year-old will become a mother herself (and Wolf a grandmother), the aspiring writer the author of successful books, and the towns, countryside, and capital will turn into a troubled state.
But One Day A Year, while never forgetting the mundane, is also something more than the everyday. Given Wolfs growing fame as a controversial East German writer over the decades, and her painful relationship to the state and to the Communist party, a relation that ranges from service to surveillance, the accumulation of days is a narrative of a writers life, and an informal first draft of history. Here, there are sharply realised moments in which the countryside around Berlin comes alive, as well as probing meditations on art, the departure and deportation of dissidents, personal and political near-despair as a monstrous regime grinds its people down, to say nothing of its artists.
Yet in the midst of this panorama, Wolf declares, I insist upon mysteries that cannot be unveiled by applying an economic law, and upon human autonomy that the individual cannot surrender to a higher organization with its claim of omnipotence, without destroying his or her personality. Its a credo for both artists and citizens.
Stan Persky (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
Christa Wolf is the best-known writer to emerge from East Germany. Her first major success came in 1963 with Divided Heaven. Other works include: The Quest for Christa T. and Cassandra. She received the Heinrich Mann Prize (1963) and the Schiller Memorial Prize (1983). She lives in Germany.