It was 1988 when my friend Bert came up with the perfect plan to escape from the GDR. Armed only with his green Social Security passbook, he was going to make his way across the People’s Republic of Poland and the USSR to North Korea, and then somehow end up in South Korea. It would be hard to imagine a more impossible plan, but, he argued, it was precisely because the idea was so fantastical, so absurd, that no one would ever question it. The border guards in Vladivostok, he said, wouldn’t know the difference between a doctor’s stamp and a North Korean visa. Just beyond Moscow, though, he found himself the only foreigner far and wide, amazed at how smoothly everything was going. He got as far as the China-bound train from Vladivostok. It was a locomotive with a single car and only one passenger – Bert. When he presented his passbook, the handcuffs snapped shut and he was headed back to Berlin. To Hohenschönhausen prison. Not long afterward, the Stasi called me in for questioning.
During those years, the State Security department no longer had a reputation as a severe, inflexible, Siberian-issue repression command. Instead, it felt more like an aging, slightly dim bureaucracy-monster, stumbling around in a more or less helpless state. The charms of investigative work and espionage, to the extent that those had ever been a part of the Stasi, were long forgotten. While the invitation didn’t just turn up in my mailbox, neither did agents in pleather trench coats step out of darkened doorways to whisk me into a waiting car, engine running. It came through the usual depressing, gray, bureaucratic channels, like a Socialist game of Operator – except that the message never changed; it simply gathered more and more importance and dramatic weight as it was passed along. A colonel placed a phone call to a Party executive, who then called someone else; he in turn talked to the management, which informed the main office, which passed the message along to the boss. At some point they finally worked their way through the twisting and turning chain of command to the university where I was studying at the time. I was called into the Dean’s office, and he told me, in a grave tone that would not have been out of place delivering the news of a death, that there was a meeting concerning me – today, at 3 pm – and he recommended that – it being fairly urgent, though, he said, he did not know why, nor should he, as he was sure I could understand – well, anyway, he recommended that I be there.
Before I reported to Magdalenenstrasse, I quickly went back to my apartment to conduct a sort of emergency auto-da-fé. Paper, as it turns out, doesn’t burn all that easily – especially since the stove wasn’t connected to the chimney and had only been standing around in the corner for decorative purposes. Where at one time a pipe had led to the chimney, now there was just a black hole. My oeuvre – if a pile of occasional poems on paper scraps, collected over the years with no ambition whatsoever, can be referred to as such – generated a mind-blowing amount of smoke, which channeled itself straight into the room and befouled everything in no time. I could hardly see; like someone in a turbulent scene from a silent film, I battled with asphyxiation and held it off long enough to get the window open. Plumes of smoke drifted out, and I finally got a little bit of air.
A couple of people had gathered below and were looking up.
“You’ve got a fire there!” called one.
“I know,” I said.
A short pause ensued.
“Fire!” the man repeated, pointing a finger in my direction.
“Yes, the stove,” I said. “The flue’s not working right.”
The spectators were silent, sober; they stood there with upturned faces, a small semi-circle under my window, while behind me a cloud of white smoke ascended into the sky.
After a while, the chimney settled down; the smoke dispersed, and I was able to leave my post at the window to survey the situation. A pile of white-gray ash lay in the stove, with the occasional half-charred piece of paper still casting a faint glow. A couple of letters and amputated word fragments were slowly turning to ash. The cover sheet of the folder had crumpled in the heat and refused to burn. The inscription was still clearly legible: “Possible Execution of the Subjunctive.”
At Magdalenenstrasse, more than anything else, there were doors: doors in front of doors and doors behind doors, doors leading around other doors, all because no one was supposed to see anyone else here – or, in secret-service jargon, be given an opportunity to “deconspire.” The hallways were liberally sprinkled with doors, one every few feet. No other building in the world had as many doors. It’s entirely possible that the Stasi’s exorbitant door-consumption habits were what caused the downfall of the GDR.
A clever system prevented more than one person from going through a door at a time, so you had to wait between the doors until other doors had been opened or closed. Hard to imagine how much time a Stasi employee would have needed whenever he set out for a bathroom break, since he would have needed to open and close hundreds of doors along the way.
The Stasi man in civilian clothing who had met me at the entrance to the modern building complex on Magdalenenstrasse, a colossally complicated structure that encapsulated whole buildings within itself, called himself Schnatz, First Lieutenant Schnatz. No idea whether that was really his name, or whether Schnatz was just one of fifty aliases in the fleet he kept parked in his garage of identities. I guessed that he was about forty, tall, athletic and quick, with close-cropped hair encircling his bald spot. He worked his way through the obstacle course with me. Whenever we passed through a doorway, he would first reach around me, closing the door behind us, then turn to face forward again; he then opened the door a crack, pushed his head through to see whether there were any people in the next area, pushed the door all the way open and indicated that I should follow him. Not seeing and not being seen was the motto here. After covering an impressive distance and changing directions several times at double and triple-doored intersections, we finally reached the dark-paneled meeting room.
We sat down. He crossed his legs; as an indication of my willingness to cooperate, but also as a sign of resistance, I crossed mine in the other direction. The suspicions rambling through my head were unpleasant from every perspective. What did they want from me? Did they want to recruit me? Or expatriate me? There weren’t too many options in between.
We began a conversation, seemingly insignificant chit-chat, the way you would talk with someone you met on vacation about this and that, a Kaffeeklatsch – and I think there was even some coffee, which I sipped warily. The conversation conspicuously circled inconspicuously around the subject of travel, and around the question of what I thought about travel in general – what kinds of advantages and disadvantages it might entail, and what specifically I thought about the travels of my friend Bert, since we happened to be on the subject.
A delicate topic for a fireside chat at the State Security offices. “Aiding and abetting defection from the Republic” was a statutory offense closely related to “defection from the Republic” itself. Even being party to it was punishable by law. The key was to tread carefully without seeming careful.
“I’m critical of it,” I responded, truthfully. The truth was, I said, that I was opposed to travel in and of itself – I just didn’t see the point of it. Fundamentally. Ultimately, in my opinion, you couldn’t gain any new experiences from it. After all, I said, the world was the same wherever you went because you always had to take yourself along, because you could never escape from yourself. So it was just better to stay home.
My conversation partner crossed his legs in the other direction.
My friend Bert, I explained further, had always been obsessed with traveling. Carrying backpacks, standing around at train stations, saying “hello!” to foreign people in foreign languages – he thought all of that was great, for whatever reason.
First Lieutenant Schnatz nodded weakly and wrote down everything I said. Occasionally he ran his closed fist over his bald spot, a strange tic.
“You never spoke about travel plans?”
“Never,” I responded. I know, never say never, but in this case it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
“So never?” he said.
“‘Never’ sums it up,” I declared.
A long look from him, a short look back from me.
“And if we did, well, then, always afterward. He knows what I think about it, so obviously he doesn’t want me to rain on his traveling parade.”
We re-crossed our legs in the other direction.
He said that I should let him know if I heard anything from Bert.
And then it was over; First Lieutenant Schnatz maneuvered me back outside, through the labyrinth of a thousand doors; it seemed to me that he closed quite a few of them with more emphasis than he had on the way in.
I never saw Bert again. No idea whether he was deported to North Korea or just to West Berlin. His story circulated among our circle of friends as an example of the absurd poetry of despair, a North Korean paradox. A couple of months later, the GDR accidentally collapsed like a poorly assembled pay toilet and was simply filed away. I forgot about the Stasi, I forgot about the episode, and I even forgot about the “Possible Execution of the Subjunctive” until I was sorting papers one day and my green GDR Social Security passbook fell into my lap. I flipped through as if it were a photo album, looking at the foreign stamps from my foreign life: “Edwin Hoernle Secondary School,” “Upper Spree Works Polyclinic,” “People’s Television Electronics Enterprise,” “Turbine Gasworks Company Sports Association,” “Eggesin National People’s Army,” the “Hans Beimler” agricultural co-op, “Humboldt University of Berlin.” Totally normal milestones in an East German career, everything correct, everything normal. The only thing that gave me pause was a stamp from the People’s Republic of North Korea… where… to the best of my knowledge, anyway… I had never been.
What was that doing in my ID book?
When was I supposed to have been in North Korea?
Just for a moment – as I racked my brain for hidden fragments of North Korean memories and began to question who I was and what I was doing – I believed anything was possible. That in reality, I was the one who had come up with the plan to defect. That my Social Security passbook had been manipulated by the State Security Department. That I must have suppressed it. That I was living in the wrong body. That life was just a pack of lies, a gap in the memory, a game of shadows… or a reading error.
“Nordkeramik State Works,” I saw when I looked at the round, official stamp for the fourth time. Oh right, I had been assigned to a manufacturing job at that factory once. Everything was fine. The world was back to normal.
But who knows? Maybe the border guards in Vladivostok would have let me through.
For you this poem is intended.
To make you love me once I send it.
To make you kiss me once for pleasure.
And not just one time either, treasure.
And not just kissing either, darling.
Other urges are my calling.
You know the ones – they’re farther south.**
It’s just a verse. To draw you out.
*Apparently a love poem. Action required: evaluate W.’s romantic relationship & keep under operational observation.
** (underlined in black) operationally significant, poss. coded indication of W.’s plans to go to Portugal with KP, as per informant reports
“I Suggest That We Kiss" features a narrator who says he has put the East German past behind him and forgotten all about it – until, nearly two decades after the fall of the Wall, he receives an invitation to attend a lecture on his own GDR-era resistance poetry. This is strange, since he has never considered himself a poet; after further investigation, he realizes that his “oeuvre” is drawn from a series of letters and assorted doggerel written to a girlfriend in the West, subsequently intercepted and meticulously analyzed by the Stasi. Throughout the novel, questioning the truth of his reality is central to the narrator’s experience, particularly when the East German secret police have constructed a very different picture of him than he has of himself.
The following translation features the novel’s first chapter and one of the teenage narrator’s poems, as annotated by the Stasi. A few translation issues are worth mentioning: In the first chapter, sentence structure echoes content. The narrator describes a visit to the Stasi headquarters, which are labyrinthine – rooms within rooms, doors leading merely to other doors, a building complex that “encapsulat[es] whole buildings within itself.” German literary style typically allows multiple dependent clauses within a sentence and encapsulated within one another. In this case, the tendency is also somewhat exaggerated, highlighting the narrator’s circuitous path through the building and his roundabout conversation with the investigator. I tried to replicate the sentence length as faithfully as possible to preserve this effect.
The narrator’s meeting with the investigator is technically an interrogation, but framed as a casual fireside chat. Much is left unsaid, with the implication that the narrator could easily slip up and say the wrong thing. Clearly, one hazard of relying on the reader’s assumptions lies in the very different German and American experiences of East Germany and the secret police; while the general references are easily understood, the particular minefields of this conversation would resonate more strongly with German readers. One way I dealt with this phenomenon later on was by translating the acronyms and proper names used for East German institutions. Thus the names are still unfamiliar (Upper Spree Works Polyclinic, Eggesin National People’s Army), but not wholly incomprehensible (Betriebspoliklinik Oberspree, NVA Eggesin).
Finally, there is the delicate matter of humor in translation. In some cases, as with the list of the narrator’s passbook stamps, merely naming East German organizations – in their volume and omnipresence – is an ironic reminder of the defunct culture, something that is potentially less apparent to an American reader. Other humor hinges on misunderstandings, both by the narrator and the Stasi, for instance at the end of Chapter One and in the footnotes to the poem. The former example, which depends on a bit of wordplay, is so subtle that even the translator nearly missed it. In the latter case, the misunderstanding is cultural, and the main challenge – an enjoyable one – was finding appropriately halting rhymes for the teenage author’s romantic verses.
Rayk Wieland, born in Leipzig in 1965, is a satirist and author. He is trained as an electrician, majored in philosophy, and has worked as a newspaper, radio, and television editor. He currently divides his time between Shanghai and Hamburg, working as a writer and TV journalist. He writes for the Frankfurt-based satirical journal Titanic, among others. Ich schlage vor, dass wir uns küssen, published in 2009, was his first novel and has been translated into Italian and Spanish. It was followed by the novel, Kein Feuer, das nicht brennt (2012).
Emily Banwell is a freelance translator based in Oakland, California. She received a PhD in German literature from UC Berkeley, where she lectured for several years before becoming a full-time translator. Published translations include more than a dozen nonfiction books and an excerpt of Heiko Michael Hartmann’s novel MOI in The Dirty Goat. She is a member of the American Literary Translators Association and ATA.