26 June 2013

Why Gysi didn’t sue Simon Urban

Back in August 2011, the Hamburg based Simon Urban released Plan D, his first novel. The reaction of the German Feuilleton – something like a Grand Central Committee of Literary Taste, housing inside the press – was so unanimously, screamingly positive, that you might suspect its unanimity had been argued through in advance; that tactics were at play. The novel is itself set in 2011, in an East Germany to which reunification has never happened. In Urban’s alternative future the collapse of the iron curtain was followed, in 1992 already, by Die Wiederbelebung – The Resucitation – of the old East Germany, which has slugged on, stubbornly & monotonously socialist, with as much restriction on emigration – i.e. almost total – as there was in the GDR up til 1989. This author combines this gimmick with a whodunnit, airport thriller genre – the victim found hanging right at the start; both shoes tied together being the boasty stamp of a Stasi ritual revenge murder – to milk every West German sterotype about the old East for all it is worth. And these stereotype’s are worth more than a bit. Hard on the heels of the Holocaust industry, an ‘Ost’-algia industry – complete with torchlit tours through the old Stasi interrogation cells – has followed. I had to wait til February of this year for the paperback to gorge myself on those sterotypes; and now I’m glad I waited. 

A key metaphor for the commodification of East German history is provided for us by Urban himself. While dreaming back to the food served at a New Year’s Reception for Chief Police Officers – at which undreamt of, western delecacies, including scallops, were served – our anti-hero, Chief Inspector Wegener, decides upon a zoo as a definitive metaphor for his country:

“The fact that there were edible things on this earth, which you were denied in specific regions, and the fact that in these regions of denial people knew there was a surplus of these edible things in other regions of the world – this was the set-up that turned GDR citizens into animals. Into inferior creatures held in a cage, dependant on the food thrown to them through the bars of the iron curtain.” [1]

How far Urban intends the zoo metaphor to also function for the way West Germans have looked and still look at those who lived in the old GDR is unclear; but function it does. Urban invites us into a situation where we gape at the creatures behind the bars because they’re exotic, because the staring can entertain and kill time on a Sunday, and because some of the starers use the staring to find out something about themselves: but how many of us, after having been to the zoo, really feel we understand more about the animals we’ve seen than we did before? How many of us seriously wanted to understand more? How many of us go first to the sensational animals – the big cats, the chimpanzees – and avoid bothering our minds with the seeable-in-the-distance species of African antelope?
The book is, admittedly, addictive; I’ve reached page 180 despite my best efforts, and though I’ve sworn to stop, I hardly think I will do. Which just makes you wonder: why doesn’t a guy clever enough to write a page-turner with great one-liners – ‘Now that’s freedom of speech for you’, as the slogan for the latest East German cellphone model goes – why didn’t he want to do much more? Why does the everyday food eaten in the novel have to be so determinedly proletarian, and why such dogmatically darwinistic men, unable to think past the maximum autobahn speed of their nearest
And what are the ethics of incorporating real living German politicians into a parallel universe future, and mildly slandering some of them in the process, which is, perhaps, the show-off-iest card that Urban plays? The list of which politicians get chosen for this game is telling. They’re all high-profile politicians of the type which the public enjoys laughing about. Impossible to imagine Urban playing this game with Merkel; there there really is damned little to laugh about. Otto Schily is in real life an aging SPD figure, who, after an early career as a lawyer representing RAF terrorists, has sailed far to the right, and now bangs on about internal security; naturally, Urban couldn’t resist recasting him as Minister for State Security – for the Stasi – in his parallel future. Sahra Wagenknecht, in reality a sharp thinking leading figure for The Left party – despite continued press representation of her as a stalinistic hussy – gets recast by Urban as a film star, which may partly reference her artistic leanings as a very young woman. And Gysi?
            Gregor Gysi has been a leader of The Left party since its conception in 2007 – his is a face far more people will be able to recognise and name than the faces of the current two official leaders of the Left: if they’re famous for anything, it’s for people being unable to remember their names. A successful lawyer inside the GDR, he himself has said in speeches in the Bundestag that he maintained close relations during the period up to 1989 with both dissidents, and with members of the government authorities. The character-assasination campaign, replete with the predictable accusations of close cooperation with the Stasi, seems tireless; equally tireless appear Gysis’s efforts in refusing to fall victim to that campaign.
            And Urban takes this raw material of Gysi’s biography – Gysi’s intellectual property, I would say – and makes the following scene out of it. Chief Inspector Wegegner is inspecting the murder victim’s huge Berlin appartment, along with his West German colleague Brendel, who’s been drafted in to assist in the operation, because of the murder’s potentially huge rammifications, with regards to German-German relations:

                                Wegegner slowed his pace: ‘You’re asking who a GDR man needs to blackmail in order to get a flat like this.’ Brendel nodded: ‘I am, and you are too, obviously. How about the Chairman of the National Council?’ ‘How about the General Secretary? Or the Deputy-Chairman of the National Council. Or the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, for example? ‘Gysi,’ frowned Bredel. ‘I always thought Chairman of the Council of Ministers is purely a decorative title.’ ‘Even Gysi has enough power to sort out a flat for someone, no question.’ ‘And enough power to get someone hung?’ Wegener looked into Brendel’s blue eyes. ‘You’ll get a chance to ask Major Wischinsky that first thing tomorrow.’ [2]

This slander bears the hallmarks of someone carefully calculating how far he can push it.
I think Schoeffling, who published the hardback, and Random House, who published the paperback, have both looked at this passage, and have calculated: even if Gysi was to sue for libel because of this passage, the chances of him winning are well open; and even if he had won – it would have been great publicity for the book. No chance, they would have calculated, that Gysis would have used a court case to demand removal of that passage – if he had done so, he would have played right into the hands of those who want to cast him as an old-school socialist who even supports censorship. No, Urban’s way of writing about Gysi is a win-win for him & his publishers, and a lose-lose for Gysi. For there is no question: it brings clear undeserved discredit on Gysi. There’s no evidence to suggest, that in his real life, he’s ever had the remotest connection with political, state-authorised murder. Why should a fictionalised version of himself, who has gone for a career inside the GDR power apparatus, be thought of as someone who could, possibly, arrange for an opponent to be hung? Urban’s risk-free approach to his subject matter limits his art. Wouldn’t it be more exciting for us to choose to encounter people who lived through the GDR time on a humane level, full of risks? What does it say about us, that we insist on buying these tickets for the zoo?

Comment from Katy Derbyshire, Simon Urban's translator, via Facebook: Katy pointed out, that her publishers have decided to remove Gysi from the English edition because of  British libel laws.

[1] Urban, Simon. 2013. Plan D. Paperback, Random House. P. 116.
 [2] Ibid, p. 142.