Archive for the ‘Timothy Garton Ash’ Category

"Zlata Ulicka in Winter, Prague" by T.F. Simon

I may be on holiday this week but I’m busier than ever, finishing up my Christmas tasks and getting together with all my friends who are briefly back in town for the holidays.  All I want to do now is curl up with a nice, long book (specifically, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope) but with so many things going on (most recently, acting as shopping assistant for those with no idea of what to buy other family members and who are only just realising this with a few short shopping days left), this does not seem the time to savour that most fondly anticipated book.  No, it is clearly a time for short stories and essays, pieces that can be read quickly in the gaps between my other activities.

Following on from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (which I loved), I picked up Café Europa by Slavenka DrakulićThis volume of essays focuses on post-communist life in Eastern Europe.  The book’s tone is very different from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, which, as the title suggests, generally focused on the positives, on triumphs rather than failures.  Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe.  The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not.  Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.  She is not a disinterested observer but one who is deeply engaged with her subjects, often guilty of the very behaviours she believes are holding back these countries’ progress.  These are essays about nations and people trying to find their place in the world and, especially, in Europe, a place that only a few years before seemed impossibly glamourous and incredibly foreign to all they knew and had experienced.  I was most touched by Drakulić’s frustration at constantly being treated like a second-class citizen when abroad, coming up against the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as poor and dirty, cheats and thieves.

From there, I moved on to Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which was perfect in almost every way.  I adored this book and couldn’t bear to put it down.   For one day at least I ignored all the other calls for my attention and read this straight through, even though I had picked it up specifically because it was a volume of stories that could be read in bursts.  There are 13 tales, varying in length from only a few pages to the 100-page long novellas “A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”, which bookend the volume.  All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague (coincidentally, my favourite part of the city), the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading.  Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet.  Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.  There are simply, brilliantly told everyday tragedies (“A Beggar Brought to Ruin” and “How Mr Vorel Broke In His Meerschaum”), a rather eerie tale of passion (“The Three Lilies”, the story that inspired Pablo Neruda to adopt his pen-name), wonderful comedies (particularly “How It Came to Pass”, about the ill-fated plans of several schoolboys to overthrown their Austrian rulers) and excellent domestic dramas dealing with the intertwined lives of neighbours (“A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”).  What is particularly striking is how different the tone is from anything that was being written in English at the same time.  There is a clarity and crispness to his prose, as well as a confidently satirical style, that reminds me more of books written in the 1920s and 1930s.  It is no surprise to find that Karel Čapek used Neruda as a model.  Neruda was also a passionate Czech nationalist.  At the time he was writing, German was the language of business and literature, of serious people, while Czech was left to the peasants.  It is fascinating to read the many comments in these stories relating to that, whether it be a manager demanding his employees cease speaking Czech in the office (our rebellious young narrator refusing to: “I speak Czech long and loudly.  My colleagues avoid me like the plague”) or a group of soldiers chatting away about a visit to the Czech theatre, which was performing a German play.    I cannot praise this book highly enough and my only concern now is how to obtain a copy of my own (having read a borrowed copy from the library).

After being so delighted by Prague Tales, I decided to move on to something very different, since any other fiction book would do poorly in comparison.  Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash seemed an excellent contrast, a collection of political essays written between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009.  With sections devoted to still-evolving Eastern European countries, the idea of Europe itself as a collective (including the excellent “The Perfect EU Member”, an entertaining argument for why Canada represents the EU ideal), Islam, the US (with a historically fascinating essay written directly after 11 September 2001 outlining what Garton Ash saw as the US’s options at the time), Asia, as well as essays on specific writers, books, and films, there is more than enough variety here to choose from.  I did pick and choose somewhat, skipping a few of the essays that appealed to me the least or which I had already read when first published.  I particularly enjoyed “The Brown Grass of Memory”, Garton Ash’s response to Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion.

And then, feeling the need for something light, I picked up Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (of Austenprose) and promptly wished I hadn’t.  A collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen, I found only a handful of these to be worth reading and my enjoyment of those few was certainly hampered by having to wade through the others to get at them.

I’ve now worked through all the volumes of short stories and essays I had out from the library and find myself longing for a good novel or biography, something cohesive.  So on I go, to read about Tommy Douglas and finally try Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, knowing that at the end of this week, with my commitments filled and these two short books most likely finished, I will be able to pick up Trollope unhindered and escape into Barsetshire in time for Christmas.  What bliss!

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I finished reading The File by Timothy Garton Ash yesterday and just had to talk about it immediately.  It is a fascinating, bravely personal examination of the secretive, fearful culture of the GDR and the way it shaped the lives of those touched by the Stasi, be they employee, informer or, in Garton Ash’s case, subject.  After retrieving his own Stasi file once they were made available in the early 1990s, Garton Ash sets out to gauge its accuracy (comparing it against his own diaries and memories of the period) and to track down and interview those who informed on and monitored him, a particularly intriguing task for a historian who, after all, arrived in Berlin in 1978 as a student studying the city under Hitler, when German citizens had to choose whether to resist or yield to the totalitarian state of the Third Reich.  But once he arrived, he realised that the present was perhaps more interesting than the past:

I was fascinated because here, in East Germany, people were actually living those endlessly difficult choices between collaboration with and resistance to a dictatorship.  Here I could pursue the Stauffenberg/Speer question in, as it were, real time. (p. 44)

Happily, there were no sinister consequences for Garton Ash as the result of information passed on by informants.  He did not suffer at anyone’s hands and was more intrigued by why they became informants and how they’ve lived with the consequences of that decision than why they informed on him personally. 

I have never read extensively on the GDR so some of the numbers were staggering for me.  The sheer scale of the Stasi’s operations and the cooperation they received from the general population is overwhelming:

The sources the Stasi themselves considered most important were the ‘unofficial collaborators’, the IMs.  The numbers are extraordinary.  According to internal records, in 1988 – the last ‘normal’ year of the GDR – the Ministry for State Security had more than 170,000 ‘unofficial collaborators’.  Of these, some 110,000 were regular informers, while the others were involved in ‘conspiratorial’ services, such as lending their flats for secret meetings, or were simply listed as reliable contacts.  The Ministry itself had over 90,000 full-time employees, of whom less than 5,000 were in the HVA foreign intelligence wing.  Setting the total figure against the adult population in the same year, this means that about one out of every fifty adult East Germans had a direct connection with the secret police.  Allow just one dependent per person, and you’re up to one in twenty-five.  (p. 74)

The interviews with the informants, while predictably awkward, were surprising in how openly the informants talked to Garton Ash about their actions.  They all had their reasons, their rationalizations to protect themselves from their own recriminations, their own consciences, perhaps even more than Garton Ash’s.  Some began as idealists, some were hoping for improved standing and future benefits in return for their assistance, and some were being blackmailed or coerced.  To a man, their decision to inform was not a personal grudge against Garton Ash; there was no malice intended.  It was something they did for themselves, for their own reasons.    

His interviews with the more reticent former-Stasi officers are even more interesting.  Unlike the informers, these men know they ruined lives, had people killed or imprisoned for political differences that now mean nothing.  But that was their world, their job.  Some harboured doubts then and regrets now while some remained convinced that all they had done, they had done for the best.  But who is brave or foolish enough to be a dissident in a totalitarian state, when an ideological quibble could see your entire family’s future ruined?  Or worse?  Are you an evil person for protecting yourself while knowing that your organization is doing wrong, even if you aren’t personally doing anything to its victims?  Are you worse if you believe that it is not wrong but absolutely necessary, as you’ve always been told?

There is no definitive answer to those questions and never will be and Garton Ash comes away with no conclusion, just profiles of people who touched his life without him ever having known it, without, thankfully, having damaged it:

What you find here, in the files, is how deeply our conduct is influenced by our circumstances…What you find is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness.  And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty then our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.

If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person.

But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human.  Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil.  It’s true what people often say: we, who never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship.  So who are we to condemn?  But equally, who are we to forgive?  (p. 223-224)

I think what made this so special for me, aside from just being informative, were all the personal details Garton Ash includes.  It is a memoir of his time there as a young ‘bourgeois-liberal’ (as his file described him), struggling to define his identity and career path even as much darker struggles are taking place all around him.  And it is the story of an older man looking back on the youth he once was and trying to remember and identify with him:

What the Stasi’s Lieutenant Küntzel called my ‘legends’ were in truth less cover stories than different strands of an unformed life.  Like the confused, ambitious twenty-three-year-old graduate students who now come to my rooms in Oxford to ask me for life advice, I wanted to do everything at once: to write a doctoral thesis about Berlin in the Third Reich, and a book about East Germany, and an essay about the Bauhaus, and brilliant reports for the Spectator, and probably to be George Orwell, Foreign Secretary and war hero too.  Cover stories that I told myself.

The diary reminds me of all the fumblings, the clumsiness, the pretentiousness and snobbery – and the insouciance with which I barged into other people’s lives.  Embarrassment apart, there is the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt.  How much easier to do it to other people!  At times, this past self is such a stranger to m that where I have written ‘I’ in these last pages I almost feel it should be ‘he’. (p. 37)

There are delightful, lighter moments too.  How, for example, to resist the arrogant, comedic stylings of twenty-something males?

As we sat up at 1 am, drinking in the flat next to Mark’s office, the telephone rang.  Heavy breathing, then the line went dead.  Half-an-hour later, the phone rang again and a voice said: ‘I see you have a guest.’  We guessed they were bored, or simply wanted us to go to bed.  Knowing the place to be bugged, we took pleasure in loudly deploring the latest article by ‘Edward Marston’, my pseudonym in the Spectator.  ‘Did you see Eddie Marston’s latest piece, Tim?’  ‘Yes, terrible wasn’t it?  He must have been drunk again.’  I ask Frau Schulz to enquire if there is a file on this enemy of the people but, alas, the central card index has no entry under Marston, Edward.  (p. 67-68)

The File is a gripping personal history centered on great ethical questions with no clear answers.  Garton Ash’s writing is superb: thoughtful and skilled, passionate and compelling, he does a wonderful job illuminating all the players in his little story in a balanced, sympathetic way, without the reader ever forgetting that this is his story.  All this happened not that long ago, not so far away, and not to a political firebrand or revolutionary but to a twenty-something history student.  And to many others.

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