· In memory of Christa Wolf ·
“It was here. This is where she stood. These stone lions looked at her; now they no longer have heads. This fortress – once impregnable, now a pile of stones – was the last thing she saw. These are the first words of Cassandra , perhaps the most notable of Christa Wolf’s novels, published in 1983. A hard and bitter novel in which the writer – born March 18, 1929 in Landsberg an der Warthe (modern-day Poland), raised under Nazism and lived her adult life in East Germany – dealt with one of the most complex, tormented and fascinating figures of Greek mythology. The inspiration came to her (as she told it) during a trip to Greece. “ I saw Mycenae, I experienced with all my sense the passage that was Cassandra’s. I was interested in grasping the crucial point, during the birth of our culture, in which the alienation which brings us close to self-destruction began.” Christa Wolf saw in the unfortunate daughter of Hecuba and Priam, in the proud priestess of Apollo, “a very significant figure for our times.”
The novel opens with the young woman who is waiting, in the fort of Mycenae at the door of the lions, for her destiny to play itself out. Agamemnon has brought her with him from Troy and clearly the seer – whom the whole city has turned out to see – knows what awaits her. Precisely because she knows, the story goes back in time to the beginning of the decline of Mycenae and the ten years which have led up to the twilight of her land and her family.
The voice of Cassandra is hard, bitter and deeply tragic: she progressively refuses a community which refuses to see (and live) the truth and chooses instead to see (and live) fiction. Having become the kingdom of the blind seers, Troy is destined to die.
Public opinion was divided upon the publication of Cassandra . Many did not understand, much less love, the harshness of a narrative myth with a merciless feminine voice. Yet at the time, Christa Wolf – who died Tuesday, December 1st in Berlin at 82 years of age – was already considered one of the major German writers of the post-war period. She had achieved success two decades prior in 1963, with the publication of Divided Heaven .
Published shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall, the novel – about divisions within a couple and within Germany as a whole – became its dark emblem. Inspired by a period when Wolf worked in a train factory, Divided Heaven , was awarded the prestigious Heinrich Mann prize.
Rifts and divisions of various kinds are perhaps one of the most significant aspects of her work; “Der Spiegel” recognized Wolf as one of the most famous German writers and “the most important chronicler of the German division.”
Spied on for decades by the Stasi (with whom she collaborated from 1959 to 1962 when a university student), Christa Wolf remains perhaps one of the most emblematic figures of the Germany of the second half of the 20th century: first the face of a nation divided – lived and told by her from the other side of the curtain – and then of a country facing a complex reunification.
In fact, her characters are complex and deeply tormented, regardless of whether they are personalities from long ago, today or yesterday. Wolf uses them to denounce the unease and torment of the individual in society, whether Nazi, Communist or mythical. Because the real challenge of one who knows but is not believed, is to continue to know without thinking that all is irreparably useless.
St. Peter’s Square
Sept. 22, 2019
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