Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that movie, its perched-on-the-shoulder meandering through a foreign city (Los Angeles in Wolf’s case, Tokyo in Coppolla’s) is patient to the point of boredom; at the same time, it is a very rigorous attempt to represent a state of being that more eagerly-paced works ignore. The effectiveness of this attempt is undeniable within the works themselves, but communicating it outside of the works can be frustrating. It’s like trying to tell a friend about a great dream you had: the events add up, but the atmosphere that surrounded those events vanishes. Reverse-engineering this disappearance, we could say that the most successful part of both City of Angels and Lost in Translation is not their locations, or their characters, but their dreaminess: that is, their capacity to transform the world (at least while we’re reading/watching them) into a place where everything means something, or has the potential to mean something. Wandering around in this supercharged world becomes a sort of metaphysical sleuthing. Does that sunset matter? Will the pair of shoes dangling from that telephone line have an eventual bearing on our fate? We don’t know for sure, and because we don’t know for sure we feel compelled to keep searching for whoever or whatever knocked our lives out of whack to begin with.
This is all fine and dandy—but one of the really great things about City of Angels is the way that it reminds us that in dreams (unlike, say, episodes of CSI), every character is you, meaning that after a certain point the trace-hiding villain and the clue-uncovering detective must turn out to be the same person. The book’s particular value as a work, not just about, but of atonement, lies in its relentless struggle to make the two Christa Wolfs face one another. This is much harder than you might think, given Wolf’s relentless honesty as an author and public figure—but then doesn’t it make sense that the better a detective was at detecting, the better their concurrent villain would be at covering his tracks?
In City, it is precisely this ability to cover, or rather sublimate (to borrow a word from the man whose overcoat furnishes the subtitle to this book) that scares Wolf. When a German newspaper uncovers and then reports a series of meetings that she had with the communist authorities decades earlier, she finds herself flabbergasted, not by the crime itself, but by her inability to remember it. Practically everyone living in communist East Germany collaborated, she explains—but to forget this collaboration completely, and for so long? It’s like she’s robbed a house while sleepwalking: the standard language of will and guilt are literally applicable, but incapable on a deeper level of explaining exactly what happened. Is she guilty despite the fact that she forgot her crime? Because of this? Couched as they are in ecstatically-recriminatory language, the newspapers’ explanations of the case don’t make sense; and because they don’t make sense, Wolf is unable to feel any catharsis from their condemnation. On the contrary, she feels like a ghost, which is like being a prisoner except worse, since without sentencing there can be no hope of serving one’s time and being released.
In the face of this disjunction, Wolf turns to the only tool she knows for righting (writing) the world. Her atonement, which begins in thinking and journaling, but then progresses into a novel that I think we can say without too much of a jump into meta-ness is City of Angels itself, is a linguistic act. It’s a naming, meaning an attempt to assemble words into a shape that fits her suffering the way a map fits a city. In order to do this, Wolf uses a number of formal devices that seem alienating at first, but gradually reveal more and more to her, and us. One of the most effective of these is her habit of addressing a “You” who we realize after many pages is not a separate person at all, but the young German idealist that she used to be. As developed and dipped into over the course of the novel, this conversation manages to be strangely both dispassionate and intimate at the same. It’s as if we were reading the letters of an old married couple, now divorced, but still very close to one another: the insights are sharp, but there’s a tenderness about the liberties taken that make us realize that, for all their bickering, these are two people who share more than they want to admit.
One of the things they share, of course, is memory—not just specific memories but the patterns of remembering that Wolf suggests makes a person who she is. In her particular case these patterns are (like certain abnormal heartbeats) reliably unreliable. “I know that, sometimes. And then I forget it again,” she says apropos some insight—a sentence that can be read as both harmless and terrifying when we consider the fact that the person speaking has been, over the course of her life, not only a writer, but a German and a communist. Her pedigree gives Wolf a perspective on idealism that makes American amnesia look less like a cultural feature and more like something all human minds indulge in. At the same time, it doesn’t make this amnesia any less frightening. “I didn’t forget most of the things in my life, I wouldn’t survive,” counsels a sympathetic friend. To which the horrified Wolf asks, “Was our whole life for nothing?”
It’s a question that people have been asking for years in Los Angeles—which may be why, for all its Sebaldian meandering, City of Angels feels like a perfect fit for its setting: the great lost Teutonic Raymond Chandler novel. It’s a detective story, meaning a Bildungsroman played backwards or maybe looped, until the heroine finds herself forced to unlearn certainty and so enter into a more capacious acceptance of what she will not and, more importantly, cannot know. This sounds suspiciously similar to the forgetting that disturbed Wolf to begin with; but it is really a step in the opposite direction. It’s the step we see offered and declined at the end of that great proto-detective story Oedipus Rex, or offered and accepted at the critical moments in Shakespeare’s comedies. A generic signpost, in other words, pointing this way to a work where everyone ends up dead, and that way to a work where the heroine’s pride gives way to her love, and we all go back to our normal lives. Did we find out whodunit? Not exactly—but the killer is no longer at large. Writing—meaning exploration, detection, the search—has seen what it needed to see and then stepped back, leaving the unknown there but still lucidly absent, like a chalk outline on a sidewalk. Or, as Wolf puts it in her notebook:
“Now, writing is just working your way towards the border that the innermost secret draws around itself, and to cross that line would mean self-destruction. But writing is also an attempt to respect the borderline only for the truly innermost secret, and bit by bit to free the taboos around that core, difficult to admit as they are, from their prison of unspeakability. Not self-destruction but self-redemption. Not to be afraid of unavoidable suffering.”
The idea that any line of inquiry might pull back with the truth in its crosshairs sounds strange when we think about it from a legal point of view, but Wolf is not a lawyer: she’s a writer, meaning, among other things, someone concerned with lived experience. Like Dostoevsky and Melville, she understands that there is a blind spot at the center of all epistemology, whether it occurs on TV, or in a courtroom, or at a communist rally. Words don’t fit; so, as users of words we must either willfully blinker ourselves or accept that no tabulation will ever be perfect, and that we will always, on some level, be at fault. We will also be at least partially innocent—a_ fact that would seem like a relief but which Wolf struggles over the course of _City to accept. That she does not (in my reading at least) completely testifies both to her seriousness and the book’s strange faith; not in words necessarily, but in the ultimate unknowability of what words try to describe.
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