It’s unclear whether Christa Wolf, the former-DDR writer who’s been railing against shifting German governments for 45 years, and Dorota Maslowska, whose first novel (completed at age 19) caused European critics to anoint her the savior of Poland’s literary scene, would consider themselves compatriots. But in novels released in translation in the U.S. this year, they speak to each other in ways probably neither would have imagined, exploring how creativity bubbles through government repression.
Wolf’s In the Flesh is a litany of first-person ramblings from a prominent East German intellectual who lies in a near-destitute hospital shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, a seismic political shift that Wolf herself vocally opposed at the time.
After having her thoughts thwarted for decades by a government that wouldn’t allow them, the nameless (and thereby universal) woman turned her frustrations inward, developing in her “runaway body” an elusive mass of sickness and bile, an abscess where “the glowing nucleus of the truth coincides with the glowing nucleus of the lie.” And no amount of bed rest, surgery, or expensive medicine smuggled in from the West has knocked it out.
Wolf has never been one for subtlety, and it’s clear her patient has the symbolic weight of the Communist bloc on her shoulders. She is exhausted by East Germany’s restrictions, and her immune system is weak, but with time, patience, and a few infusions from the West, there’s hope for her yet. But “tormented by the history of pain and torture,” she first needs to sweat out the memories, which flitter to the surface in near-indistinguishable, fevered fragments. She asks, “How would we know how extensive our interior world is if there weren’t special keys—high fever for example—to unlock it for us?”
Maslowska uses semi-consciousness in Snow White and Russian Red to elicit a completely different state of affairs. Her narrator, who also spews out an entire novel in an alternating flux of both pointed and nonsensical first-person observations, suffers under a different government and self-
inflicted ailment. Andrzej “Nails” Robakoski is a pussy hound and speed addict whose quests for both are colored by his mistrust of both his hyper-patriotic Polish government and the “Russkies” who threaten it.
Where Wolf’s narrator is flat, elusive, and world-weary, Nails is anything but, taking the reader on a bizarre trip through his hopped-up, paranoid, pop-culture-savvy mind as he tries to shake off a recently ended relationship, a “faultless but tragic love doomed to collapse.”
A precocious, overstimulated punk, Maslowska has become the poster child for her generation of lost, post-Communist Polish youth—who were born too late to have firsthand understanding of the Communist bloc and are now stuck between it and rampant Americanization. Lost generations tend toward drug abuse, but in
Snow White and Russian Red, drugs aren’t an escape from life, they’re an escape to it. Maslow-ska’s prose squeals with directionless drive, whizzing like a drug-induced sensory overload: disjointed, formless, unleashed. Wolf’s hallucinations resuscitate bleak memories; Maslowska’s squeeze the life out of the present. It tires and invigorates.
It also introduces an otherworld of lasting, unusual imagery. Government workers, like the rose-painting gardeners in
Alice in Wonderland, have been ordered to slather the town in thick, flag-inspired red and white bands, house by house, in preparation for No Russkies Day, and to report those who demur. The 70-pound, 15-year-old virgin whom Nails tries to bed vomits fist-sized rocks. Poland’s salvation lies in the export of its hottest commodity, Polish sand.
Snow White and Russian Red scans like Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, an anarchic reaction to a generation of socially enforced post-war patriotism and merriness. But where Kerouac’s lost souls camped and made love in the mountains, these “disco-whores” and “disco-assholes” trek through low-income housing developments, screwing, text-messaging, and looking for speed. The novel’s effect is not unlike that of Larry Clark’s work. You had no idea kids—the characters or Maslowska herself—had seen so much, or were so guileless.
Wolf’s narrator remembers a friend “investigating the ways certain social circumstances fettered genius and what methods genius developed to free itself from those fetters, at least temporarily or partially.” Maslowska seems the newest addition to a legacy of furtively unfettered Eastern European genius. Like Wolf, she’s brave and faithful enough to raise her voice against her troubled homeland in dissent.