City of Angels

“City of Angels,” by Christa Wolf

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City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud—the patently autobiographical final novel by Christa Wolf—begins in 1992 with a passport to a country that no longer exists, East Germany. After arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, the narrator Christa Wolf’s documents are scrutinized by an immigration official. She attempts to explain in hesitant English where she’s just come from and what she’ll be doing during her stay in the United States (working as a fellow at the Getty Center). But the red-blond official is sidetracked and puzzled by her identification: what is this country, the German Democratic Republic? It is a question Wolf spent a writing career attempting to answer. The bureaucrat phones a colleague for assistance and quickly confirms the ID’s validity, yet he cannot help himself in quizzing Wolf one last time after sliding her passport “across the counter with a hand covered in freckles.” Are you certain that that country exists? “Yes I am, I said curtly, even though the correct answer would have been No.”

Wolf, who died in 2011 at 82 years of age, was a central figure in East German letters—a country and literature that of course came to an inauspicious end after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She is the author of Cassandra, Patterns of Childhood, The Quest for Christa T, Divided Heaven, What Remains, and other books, as well as essays, speeches, and published letters. This final novel has been characterized as a sequel to Patterns of Childhood—a work of denser prose about a girlhood lived under the specter of Nazism—but City of Angels might be better viewed as a companion volume to the nonfiction Parting from Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-1994, which covers the same period of time in the author’s life as does City of Angels (e.g. see the essay “Santa Monica, Sunday, September 27, 1992” in Phantoms).

Translated from the German by Damion Searls, City of Angels itself is a slow-moving, ruminative book of fiction that more closely resembles a memoir of émigré and exile—albeit of the temporary, voluntary kind. The bulk of the story takes place a few years after German reunification, in the years 1992-1993, when the real-life Wolf was herself living in Los Angeles and working at the Getty. Near that time the German government acknowledged the existence of GDR state surveillance documents, and when Wolf’s files were leaked, she was uncloaked, shockingly, as having worked as an informant for the Stasi, the East German secret police, in the early 1960s. The anxiety, embarrassment, and internal struggle caused by that public scandal are the main subject of City of Angels. (“I couldn’t believe,” Wolf writes, in one of the many sections in which she compares the German and English languages, “that this short bright little word ‘file’ could mean the same thing as the dark, threatening German word ‘Akten.”)

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf

In real life, Wolf immediately declared that she had no memory of being an Informeller Mitarbeiter, or IM—a casual Stasi informer. Doubts about that claim dogged her for years. In a novelized version, in City of Angels, the reliability of memory is regularly called into question, as Wolf describes her mundane day-to-day activities, often meeting new people (mostly Germans) at Getty parties and dinners. “I asked Malinka—it was a compulsion, I had to ask everyone I met—if she had ever completely forgotten a crucially important event in her life. Oh yes, she said, I run into that all the time, whenever I go home and see my family. They remember lots of things that happened when I was there but which I don’t have the slightest memory of. These memories are a precious possession for them; for me, they’re a burden I have to throw off.” But the character Wolf does not dismiss memories willfully, as her acquaintance Malinka advises—too important; rather she struggles to comprehend them, and to assess the underlying meanings of how and why we remember and misremember (hence: the metaphor that also serves as the subtitle). Though City of Angels takes place in L.A., as with many of Wolf’s books, it really resides at the intersection of time, memory, and history.

Los Angeles—itself a disjointed metropolitan area with a dark, often misconstrued history—is at first befuddling for Wolf. She rides municipal busses before realizing she must arrange for a car if she wants to travel properly around the city. Soon enough she’s enjoying her navigation of L.A. freeways in her “little red Geo,” and the city morphs into an appropriate setting for her short-term exile, in the form of a personal version of “Weimar Under The Palms.” Wolf takes solace in the “unreal” Southern California light, the Pacific and its sunsets, her many strange dreams, the “tape recording” that is constantly running in her own mind, the letters of the mysterious L. given to her by a dead friend, her journal-writing on a Brother word-processor, and her reading of Thomas Mann’s diaries. Wolf tours the Los Angeles of Germany’s émigré artists: Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Leonhard Frank, and others. And, most importantly, she strikes up a quick friendship with a Getty colleague, Peter Gutman—a relationship that buttresses the entire novel and, I think, rescues it. Gutman is the narrator’s conscience and the reader’s guide, and when he disappears from the story, as he often does at chapter’s end, we can only hope for his fast return to the novel’s pages.

City of Angels demands a patient reader, particularly through the middle third of the novel, but it is often a moving melancholic remembrance by writer who—one final time—attempts to make sense of an historical and personal past, for herself and for her readers. In Patterns of Childhood history left its scars on a young life through the manifestation of war and Nazism; in City of Angels Wolf examines the reckoning that is late adulthood, a suffering compounded for her by the fact that her country—one that she, a celebrated writer, had been diagnosing for decades—had all but vanished from earth, leaving in its remainder a bewildering and complex grief. Wolf writes of the events of the autumn of 1989, “At some point, the sentence formed: We loved this country. An impossible sentence that would have earned you nothing but mocking jeers if you had spoken it out loud. But you didn’t. You kept it to yourself, the way you were keeping so much to yourself now.” Passages like that one, as well as the many humorous exchanges between characters, outweigh the occasional preachiness found in the novel, and the odd cliché in translation. In Searls’s professional hands, City of Angels is a fine valedictory.

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →