Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The futility of writing prose under socialism


The New Yorker recently published a feature on the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura. His speciality are crime stories, a genre that gives him sufficient cover to explore some of the contortions of the socialist political and economic demise of Cuba without treading too forcefully on the Communist Party’s shoes. 

Reading the piece, I was reminded of the various writers in East Germany who equally managed to carve out a niche during the Socialist regime. Their writing resembled a constant balancing act between what they would like to say and what could be printed. The benchmarks and definitions of the permissible were also constantly shifting due to the latest fad of Communist Party dogma. 

The most striking resemblance between writing in the dying days of the Cuban communist regime and writing in East Germany of the latter years was however not the writer’s agility to find and define creative space for their prose to flourish but the extent to which their writing depended on the very restrictions they railed against. Much of the writing of East German novelists flourished in a climate of high politicisation, where every word took on a double meaning. Telling a story about a fishmonger was not just a story about a fishmonger (or a butcher, as Havel so memorably said), but a tale of moral rectitude or ethical failure clothed in events of a seemingly ordinary life. 

Under the conditions of censorship in socialist regimes (institutionalised through the writer’s guilt or through the ‘ministry of truth’, i.e. a government agency), every time a writer would break wind to the right side was taken as a sign of incredible intransigence or political opposition by the readers. Where the ordinary could not be said without adopting a hidden meaning, public discourse tended to create a double speak, which required considerable interpretative faculties to decipher. 

The fascinating result was a rhetorical dance on a highly strung rope. For the writers, this increased the stakes enormously. One misstep or literary miscalculation could mean literary exile. Whilst the ability to say the unspeakable through seemingly innocuous prose would lead to immeasurable reward: a communion with the readers who knew what the writer actually meant, and a license to be printed at home. 

This pas de deux of prose writing, one may have thought, created high art. But actually it was completely context dependent. The disappearance of practically all East German prose from the German literary canon is a testament to its conditionality. What remained of its highly crafted intentional duplicity was flat and stale prose, laughable at best to anybody who now reads again the books of Hermann Kant or Christa Wolf. Whereas East German prose writing had a duplicity may have been entertaining or even daring back then, now it simply strikes one as poor craftsmanship, or of embarrassing quality. 

In the end, socialism, in its desire to exert total control over any artistic expression, not only killed public discourse, it also ensured that it left no literary legacy that’s worthy of our attention. That may perhaps its gravest failure, to make its prose that was supposed to capture the experiences of its people a brittle product that disintegrated as soon as the air of freedom gushed in. 

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