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
‘ 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