ECHOES OF THE GU­LAG

In this ex­tract from the open­ing chap­ter of Ni­co­las Rothwell’s new novel it is late 1987 and the nar­ra­tor is in Dres­den with a peace ac­tivist named Berenika

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

‘ I’ VE never cared for Dres­den,’’ said Berenika at this moment, turn­ing to me con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. ‘‘ Why?’’ ‘‘ The sullen peo­ple, the cold, the grit in the air, that sense of be­ing in fron­tier ter­ri­tory but hav­ing the bor­ders closed, the en­closed feel you get from the deep val­ley like a wall around the town — all that would be enough, but it’s that ridicu­lous ruin, that church of noth­ing, those black­ened sym­bolic stones.You can’t en­ter Dres­den with­out be­ing thrown back con­stantly into the past, as though time was a trap with no es­cape.’’ ‘‘ Why go there, then?’’ ‘‘ In my line of things, you have to go to ev­ery peace con­fer­ence,’’ she said: ‘‘ Oth­er­wise, you’d never get visas for the trips that mat­ter — the ones to the West.’’

‘‘ And what do you put on your ap­pli­ca­tions and en­try forms? Ac­tivist?’’

‘‘ Philol­o­gist — no one knows what it means, so no one asks ques­tions: it al­ways works! Be­sides, this is a fra­ter­nal coun­try — all friends now. Though I must say I find it hard to for­give the Ger­mans for what they did to Poland, even though it was so long ago. When­ever I ar­rive at Berlin Friedrich­strasse, I feel ill at first, my head starts spin­ning, I feel like a traitor to my own cause — and then I re­mem­ber that my cause is in­ter­na­tion­al­ist. Even so, th­ese Ger­man meet­ings are dif­fi­cult: you al­ways have it in your mind that there are spies among the peo­ple you come across, re­port­ing ev­ery­thing you say back to the se­cret po­lice.’’ ‘‘ It’s that ex­treme?’’ ‘‘ You know how harsh the sys­tem is here; but that harsh­ness can also be an ally — there are peo­ple here to learn from: peo­ple who’ve looked into the heart of life. Peo­ple with­out the usual il­lu­sions: writ­ers who talk of tragic things, but with­out weight; ac­tors for whom act­ing is re­lease. And there’s one man who taught me a great deal about this world and its con­torted af­fairs.’’ ‘‘ A dis­si­dent?’’ ‘‘ Of a kind. More a philoso­pher. I’d have to say he helped me to see very far: he opened up views and per­spec­tives in­side my head. Maybe it would help you to talk to him.’’ ‘‘ I’d like that,’’ I said. ‘‘ Per­haps I can look into it, and ask, and see what might be pos­si­ble.’’

And so it was, some hours later, as the chill evening de­scended, and rain be­gan to fall in

visa the square be­fore the Frauenkirche ru­ins, their stones deep brown in that half-light, and stand­ing against the sky like gi­ant ex­e­cu­tion scaf­folds, that Berenika and I made our way down a wide, still street, turned into the door­way of a col­lec­tive apart­ment build­ing, and climbed the stair­way to its top. HAFFNER — the name was printed on the lit­tle sign be­side the bell. She rang it loudly; the door opened — and though years have passed, I can­not en­tirely free my­self from the spell of that en­counter, or shake the con­vic­tion that those hours paved the way for much in my life that still lay far ahead.

In­deed, the fur­ther in time that evening re­cedes, the more clearly I can sum­mon up Haffner’s most strik­ing ideas, his in­tu­itions and his sud­denly un­veiled para­doxes — they send for­ward their echoes now, and the sus­pi­cion be­gins to form in me that our lives are shaped by in­flu­ences we barely sense; that we trace out our paths in the world un­know­ingly, reg­is­ter­ing strange, dis­tant res­o­nances in our hearts. I see him as he was then, alert, his be­ing con­cen­trated in his eyes like some caged an­i­mal — yet there was also a soft­ness about his man­ner, a del­i­cacy, a court­li­ness that was it­self a re­sis­tance against the sur­round­ing world. His loy­alty was to the repub­lic of let­ters; he lived for words, that was plain at once: his ideal was to send the mind in flight, cut­ting and weav­ing through a con­cept-laden sky.

Such was Ste­fan Haffner as he seemed that night, in the dark hours of ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing so­cial­ism. He greeted us as if a visit of this kind was quite rou­tine, and led us down the tight, an­gled cor­ri­dor into a study, dimly lit, book­lined, shrouded by thick plumes of cig­a­rette smoke: from the dou­ble win­dow, through its thick half-drawn cur­tains, one glimpsed the dark­ened city stretch­ing off be­low. I tried to gauge him. He was grand in his man­ner, tall, with grey­ing hair; at that time he must have been al­ready in his fifties, and there was at first a tone of res­ig­na­tion in his voice, as he touched on pol­i­tics: the shadow play of the bloc, the regime, its fac­tions — sub­jects over which he ranged in sharp de­tail, with an air of sov­er­eign con­tempt, the cor­ners of his lips down­turned as though he were drain­ing to the dregs some bit­ter medicine — but grad­u­ally, as he sketched his pic­ture of the forces and en­er­gies that lay masked be­neath the sur­face flash and glim­mer of events, he seemed lifted up, his words and way of speak­ing changed: how deep the con­tra­dic­tions in the sys­tem had be­come, how short its fu­ture life would prove to be; how abrupt the West’s loom­ing seizure of con­trol; how to­tal the de­struc­tion of mem­o­ries, so that the en­tire record of the East Ger­man state, and all the thoughts and hopes of those who lived un­der it, would be no more than a foot­note in the flow of time, a cu­rios­ity, at best, re­served for his­to­ri­ans of ne­glected shad­ows.

‘‘ And so we live on, or we sur­vive,’’ he said, ‘‘ hop­ing for de­liv­er­ance, even though that de­liv­er­ance would prove the fa­tal blow to the whole world around us and the pat­tern is al­ready set, the sen­tence passed.’’

I lis­tened to th­ese ideas of his, which seemed at that time wo­ven from the cloth of fan­tasy, and made some po­lite re­ply.

He leaned for­ward. ‘‘ Nat­u­rally, you think I’ve lost my­self — that I’m in a dream,’’ he said: ‘‘ But some­times the man who lives in his dreams is the only one who sees the truth — and that truth is close at hand. I make you a prom­ise: be­fore you die, you will be able to visit Dres­den, and see a per­fect west­ern city — the face of free­dom, with all its won­drous beau­ties lov­ingly re­stored. The ru­ins will be re­built: they’ll sweep all the grime and the rub­ble aside; or no, bet­ter still, the palaces and churches will be recre­ated, one by one, but in­cor­po­rat­ing ev­ery sin­gle stone from the past, to give each of them the bite of au­then­tic­ity. You’ll be able to walk along the river prom­e­nade, and see the old palaces re­flected in the water, just as they were a hun­dred years ago; you’ll stroll through the mar­ket, past great banks and hand­some ar­cades, and above you there will be the stone bell of the Frauenkirche, ris­ing into a per­fect, cloud­less blue sky.’’

‘‘ You think we can de­stroy and re­make the past at will — just like that?’’

‘‘ Of course: haven’t you no­ticed that we love an­ni­hi­la­tion so much? His­tory has a pulse of its own, it has its rhythm: it’s like a piece of mu­sic. If you want to read its shape and plot

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