CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY on a new novel about a Stasi agent immersed in the chill­ing op­pres­sion of the East German state, right up un­til its fi­nal mo­ments

The New European - - Eurofile Books - The Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of De­mor­al­iza­tion Pro­ce­dures by Jen­nifer Hof­mann is pub­lished on Au­gust 11 by River­run, price £16.99

Afew years ago I was in Leipzig with a film crew. We were be­ing taken around the city by a lo­cal fixer called To­mas, a gi­ant of a man but warm and gen­tle, softly spo­ken with kind eyes of the palest blue. We’d pull up out­side an­other lo­ca­tion on our itin­er­ary – most likely con­nected to Bach – and To­mas would go ahead and talk to the peo­ple in­side while we re­moved flight cases and tripods from the back of the van and pre­pared to dis­rupt every­thing and ev­ery­one around us for the sake of a few sec­onds’ footage while To­mas kept ev­ery­one happy. Ev­ery­one loved To­mas.

To­wards the end of the first day we parked out­side a build­ing on the cor­ner of a square, a build­ing with a rounded door­way that gave it its name, Runde Ecke, ‘round cor­ner’. The Runde Ecke was once the lo­cal head­quar­ters of the East German se­cret police, the Stasi, and is now a mu­seum. For us it was just an­other place to tick off the list, an­other ses­sion of un­load­ing and un­pack­ing be­fore putting every­thing away again and do­ing the same thing some­where else.

We had set off up the steps when I no­ticed that To­mas was miss­ing. As the oth­ers dis­ap­peared through the doors I looked round and saw him still stand­ing by the van, look­ing up un­cer­tainly to­wards the build­ing. Trot­ting back down the steps I asked if he was OK. He looked very pale.

“That build­ing…” he said, and paused. “When I was grow­ing up it was a ter­ri­fy­ing place. Peo­ple went in through those doors and some­times they never came out again. Friends of mine. I don’t think I can go in there. It still scares me too much. I’m sorry.”

Years after the fall of the Ber­lin Wall To­mas could still sense the men­ace, the dark­ness, the dan­ger epit­o­mised by a build­ing that once housed the se­cret police, and it still ac­ti­vated some­thing deep within him. The Runde Ecke is in a prom­i­nent lo­ca­tion at the cor­ner of one of Leipzig’s busiest squares and To­mas passed it all the time but it still trig­gered deep-seated fear.

He’d al­ready told me about how he’d been part of the mass protests held in the square in 1989, demon­stra­tions that helped to kick­start the move­ment that even­tu­ally brought down the Wall, de­scrib­ing how mil­i­tary police would charge through the crowds beat­ing protesters in­dis­crim­i­nately, him­self in­cluded.

If see­ing the build­ing at the heart of the ter­ror was bad enough, the thought of go­ing through its doors was too much for him to bear.

I left To­mas in the van and went in­side. The dis­play cases were filled with some of the equip­ment and tech­niques with which the Stasi mon­i­tored ev­ery as­pect of the lives of East German ci­ti­zens. The cam­eras – in­clud­ing a har­ness de­signed to make its wearer look heav­ily preg­nant with a cam­era fit­ted roughly where the navel would be – the dis­guises, the end­less pa­per­work, even jars with lids screwed tight that con­tained the scents of the peo­ple of Leipzig: in the DDR even your very essence wasn’t your own.

I thought of this – and To­mas – as I read The Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of De­mor­al­iza­tion Pro­ce­dures, the de­but novel by Jen­nifer Hof­mann.

De­mor­al­iza­tion was what the Stasi did best. It wasn’t long into the ex­is­tence of the German Demo­cratic Repub­lic be­fore they re­alised phys­i­cal tor­ture wasn’t usu­ally nec­es­sary. Why go to the trou­ble of tear­ing out fin­ger­nails or pulling teeth when you could break some­one men­tally in­stead? No bruises, no blood, same re­sult.

Bernd Zeiger, Hof­mann’s pro­tag­o­nist, is an age­ing Stasi man, a ca­reer bu­reau­crat in East Ber­lin whose early prom­ise as a se­cret po­lice­man hadn’t re­ally flour­ished into a steady rise up the ca­reer lad­der of sur­veil­lance and op­pres­sion.

There had been two key mo­ments in Zeiger’s work­ing life. One was his in­volve­ment in the ques­tion­ing of a physi­cist named Jo­hannes Held who in the early 1960s had trav­elled to a mys­te­ri­ous re­search es­tab­lish­ment in the Ari­zona desert whose pur­pose was murky but seemed to in­volve the para­nor­mal and the dis­ap­pear­ance of or­phaned chil­dren. Zeiger ques­tioned Held, who re­fused to di­vulge what he’d learned in the US, and watched as he was tor­tured and beaten be­fore be­ing placed in a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion. Prior to his ar­rest and while un­der sur­veil­lance Held had been moved to the apart­ment next to Zeiger’s and the two had be­come friends. At least, that’s how Held saw it.

The other land­mark in his long ser­vice was au­thor­ship of a man­ual called The Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of De­mor­al­iza­tion Pro­ce­dures, a hand­book of ter­ror, a stepby-step guide to the to­tal men­tal dis­in­te­gra­tion of sus­pects ac­cused of act­ing against the in­ter­ests of the state. Ev­ery­one in the Stasi knew about it, most could quote from it, nearly all had utilised the tech­niques and the­o­ries con­tained in its pages. It was, in Stasi terms, a mas­ter­piece.

When the novel opens in Novem­ber 1989, on the day be­fore the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, Zeiger is liv­ing alone and in poor health, suf­fer­ing nose­bleeds, seizures and black­outs, and has be­come pre­oc­cu­pied with Lara, a young wait­ress at the café near the of­fice who serves him his cof­fee and cheese toastie. Lara hasn’t been at work for the pre­vi­ous month and he is be­gin­ning to won­der where she is.

Hof­mann, an Aus­trian-amer­i­can based in Ber­lin, con­structs a con­vinc­ing por­trait of life in East Ger­many, its sights, sounds and even smells. When Zeiger makes cof­fee in his apart­ment that morn­ing, “this was not cof­fee. It was cof­fee, pea flour and dis­grace. This was Kaf­fee Mix and tasted like a nose­bleed”.

He watches a pre-dawn queue al­ready form­ing at the bak­ery op­po­site his apart­ment. “Lim­ited food and peo­ple trust­ing strangers with the naked planes of their backs. The pin­na­cle of hu­man evo­lu­tion.”

What Hof­mann does par­tic­u­larly well is evoke the ba­nal­ity of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. State ter­ror can only thrive on the depth of its bu­reau­cracy and the DDR’S was chas­mic. When Zeiger fin­ished his mas­ter­work, “it took weeks to reg­is­ter, val­i­date and ar­chive the com­ple­tion of the Man­ual. There were forms to fill out, which re­quired other forms to ac­quire, which, in turn, no­body knew how to ob­tain”.

When he goes to place a copy in the ar­chive – it’s as­signed to the lit­er­ary

fic­tion de­part­ment, to his be­muse­ment – he finds “dense, win­dow­less rooms, pop­u­lated by hag­gard com­rades who gave the im­pres­sion of hav­ing lived there since they were born. Keep­ers of records and post­hu­mous fate com­prised a very par­tic­u­lar species, one bred to sur­vive with­out sun­light or rest”.

Hof­mann also suc­ceeds in twist­ing our ex­pec­ta­tions and as­sump­tions. Weeks ear­lier Zeiger had been in the café when Lara placed a hand on his shoul­der, ac­ci­den­tally as it turns out, but he takes this as tacit per­mis­sion to turn up at her apart­ment bear­ing an as­sort­ment of odd gifts. We learn he’s been spy­ing on her for quite a while al­ready, ob­serv­ing her com­ings and go­ings from the shad­ows.

Bound­aries clearly don’t con­cern

Bernd Zeiger. He’s creepy for a liv­ing, sur­veil­lance has be­come sec­ond na­ture, mean­ing that even what ap­pears to be a lonely man read­ing non-ex­is­tent mean­ings into ges­tures and be­hav­iour be­comes a sin­is­ter op­por­tu­nity to cross ac­cept­able lines of be­hav­iour em­phat­i­cally and with im­punity.

In the hands of a less-skilled author this would have been the ex­tent of

Zeiger’s char­ac­ter, but of course there is more to him than that. The more we learn about the Stasi agent the more nu­anced he be­comes, a lit­tle bit like Stasi of­fi­cer Wiesler in the 2006 film The Lives of Oth­ers.

We de­velop sur­pris­ing sym­pa­thies for a man who on that first morn­ing – the last to dawn on the GDR – is even in­tend­ing to re­port his blind neigh­bour for lis­ten­ing to a western radio sta­tion he can make out through the wall.

“It oc­curred to him that al­though he had once been a child and there had been a child­hood, it was amor­phous and blank, an empti­ness de­signed to tor­ture by van­ish­ing,” Hof­mann writes, de­tail­ing a fam­ily back­ground scarred by war that would not have been un­typ­i­cal for a man of Zeiger’s gen­er­a­tion but which goes some way to ex­plain­ing his will­ing ab­sorp­tion into a state sur­veil­lance ma­chine.

Zeiger’s progress through the last full day of the GDR is par­tic­u­larly notable for how he fails to no­tice it’s hap­pen­ing. As his coun­try and the ide­ol­ogy that built it crum­bles Zeiger, the master of sur­veil­lance steeped in pro­fes­sional para­noia, re­mains obliv­i­ous. Granted he has other mat­ters on his mind, the beau­ti­fully-ex­e­cuted plot twists and turns that link the Stasi man, the café

wait­ress and the physi­cist, but it’s still ex­tra­or­di­nary to ex­pe­ri­ence one of the great his­tor­i­cal mo­ments of the 20th cen­tury as bur­bling away qui­etly in the back­ground un­no­ticed by the man at the heart of the story. Zeiger was sup­posed to be at the press con­fer­ence that evening where govern­ment spokesman Gün­ter Sch­abowski an­nounced the im­me­di­ate sus­pen­sion of travel re­stric­tions be­tween East and West Ger­many, trig­ger­ing the fall of the Ber­lin Wall.

Hof­mann’s East Ber­lin is bril­liantly de­picted, like a lighter-touch le Carré, and the more mag­i­cal el­e­ments of the story are rem­i­nis­cent of Space­man of Bo­hemia, Jaroslav Kal­far’s ter­rific novel about a Czech space mis­sion (it’s notable that Kal­far pro­vides a cover en­dorse­ment). The Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of De­moral­i­sa­tion Pro­ce­dures is a com­pelling de­but, strik­ing a per­fect bal­ance be­tween hu­mour and the hor­rors of life un­der a to­tal­i­tar­ian regime even as it crum­bles. It’s a novel of se­crets, be­tray­als and how the past lurks per­ma­nently in the present.

In Leipzig, in the part of the Runde Ecke that isn’t taken up by the mu­seum, the Stasi’s metic­u­lously kept records are avail­able to view. Peo­ple can read their

own sur­veil­lance files, in some cases a day-to-day ac­count of their ac­tiv­i­ties, the places they went, the peo­ple they met, even tran­scripts of long-for­got­ten con­ver­sa­tions decades old.

They can see pho­to­graphs of them­selves, cap­tur­ing mo­ments when they thought they were alone, the re­al­i­sa­tion that per­sonal in­ti­macy, day­dreams, re­flec­tions, were the prop­erty of the most ad­vanced and em­bed­ded sur­veil­lance state in the world.

As we drove away from the Runde Ecke I asked To­mas if he’d read his own file.

“No,” he replied, “and I never will. I never want to know which of my friends were in­form­ing on me.”

Hof­mann’s novel dis­tils beau­ti­fully much of what mil­lions of To­mases went through dur­ing an era where any kind of free will or even ba­sic hope must have seemed point­less.

“Numb­ing your­self makes some peo­ple fear­less,” says Dr Witzbold, the en­nuirid­dled psy­chi­a­trist as­signed to Jo­hannes Held. “Oth­ers it turns into mur­der­ers.”

Pho­tos: Getty Im­ages / Con­trib­uted

STATE SE­CRETS: The ar­chive of the Stasi – the for­mer East German se­cret police – in Ber­lin. Be­low, Jen­nifer Hoff­mann, whose de­but novel is The Stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of De­mor­al­iza­tion Pro­ce­dures

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