Monday, May 18, 2009

Turning Greene

My plan to start drafting the new book next month is starting to look tenuous. As often happens when I get into the depths of research, I find there is more and more I want to know – more and more I ought to know. As if preparing for a long journey, I want to make sure I have an adequate mental map and all the necessary paperwork before I set out.

My setting is the former GDR. My wife grew up there (she was sixteen when the wall came down) and I myself made several trips behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ during the 1980s, when there still was one. So it’s a world that’s been part of my world, in one way or another, for some time. But that’s not enough. Reality is made up of small details, but so much has changed in East Germany over the past twenty years, it’s quite a business rebuilding it, little piece by little piece.

And then there’s the issue of what it actually felt like to live there. East Germany was a police state like no other in European history. The State Security Service (Stasi) had 97,000 employees, the bulk of which were involved with keeping tabs on East Germany’s 17 million citizens. In addition, it received regular information from a network of informers known as Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter – literally, ‘unofficial collaborators’. These informers numbered some 173,000. In all, one in every sixty-three people worked for or reported regularly to the Stasi. Probably hundreds of thousands more informed on their fellow citizens part-time. Wire-taps, bugging and mail intercepts kept a secret army of bureaucrats busy up and down the country. Citizens who were judged unreliable or disloyal could expect to suffer, although most often the damage was done without explanation or acknowledgement: education curtailed, career paths blocked, travel permits denied. Even the secrecy was secret.

Yet people lived, or tried to live, normal lives: to maintain friendships, to harbour ambitions, to raise children. How easy was that? What kind of psychological adaptations (or contortions) were necessary? Or was it possible – indeed easy – to ignore the nature of the system, or to accept it?

After the Wall came down, the Germany government granted people the right to discover whether the Stasi had kept a file on them, and to see that file. My father-in-law was one of the many who exercised that right. As he’d suspected, he found he had been the subject of a Stasi Operative Personenkontrolle over a number of years. In his file were the names of close colleagues and acquaintances who had regularly informed on him. Fortunately, as the son of an active Liberal party activist, he had been brought up to expect surveillance; and had been careful. Even so, it is highly unlikely that my wife, despite finishing top of her class at school, would have been permitted a university education had not the Wall come down just in time.

Once I was content to know all this only in outline. But now it's too valuable a resource to ignore. All the same, I’m not sure how I feel about turning up in Germany next time with a tape recorder and a note book in my pocket. Graham Greene said: “Every novelist has something in common with a spy: he watches, he overhears, he seeks motives and analyses character, and in his attempt to serve literature he is unscrupulous.”

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