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Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Well-Made Catastrophe

The situation is catastrophic but not serious. That’s the Lacanian joke about how we live with the prospect of nuclear catastrophe, global warming, whatever.

Catching up belatedly with The Lives of Others made me want to turn that around: the situation is serious because not catastrophic.

(Water-treading plot summary paragraph.) The film centres on a Stasi agent sent to spy on a novelist and actress husband and wife, but who finds his morale flagging when he learns he is being set up to pin something on the entirely innocent husband and leave the way free for a slimy party apparatchik who is harassing his wife. Disgusted, he tips the novelist off about his wife’s reluctant affair. Emboldened against the system at last, the novelist decides to speak out by writing an article for Der Spiegel about suicide in the GDR. He deliberately conducts a subversive conversation in his apartment to find out if it’s bugged or not, but misunderstands its failure to trigger any response: the agent is taking pity on him. The frustrated apparatchik sees to it that the actress is arrested and threatened with drug offences; panicking, she betrays the hiding place of her husband’s secret type-writer. When the Stasi search the apartment, however, the typewriter has vanished: the good agent has removed it. It’s all too late for the actress, who runs into the street and throws herself under a lorry. The novelist is not arrested and the agent is disgraced in the eyes of his superiors. After the wall comes down, the novelist visits the Stasi archive and reads the agent’s reports, and the elaborate fantasies they spun about him, rather than betray his real activities. Recovering from many years’ writer’s block he writes a new book (Sonata for a Good Man), which he dedicates to the agent under his code name.

Let me explain what I mean by ‘the situation is serious because not catastrophic’. To start with, the novelist is not a good writer. He is a Yevtushenko/Sholokhov figure at best, whose outrage at the philistinism and brutality of the regime must have had lots of practice over the years but, somehow, has never got him into real trouble. His wife too is presented as a great artist, but must worry that something is wrong if party hacks and apparatchiks can love her work as much as they do. Each needs some kind of traumatic jolt to reawaken his/her sense of purpose. The novelist gets a taste of danger when he writes his article for Der Spiegel, and the actress is threatened with having her career destroyed by her lecherous admirer, but something tragic, and tragically out of proportion is required. If husband or wife went to prison, the worst that could happen would be temporary loss of freedom, martyr status, and rehabilitation after the (imminent) collapse of the system. Hence the logic of the wife’s self-sacrifice, however unconscious that sacrifice. And in fact, the sacrifice would be impossible without the good agent’s well-intentioned meddling. Because what the agent does for the couple is raise what might otherwise be a minor gesture of defiance, or of grubby compromise, to something permanent and irreparable. He separates wife and husband, gives one a tragic, martyred death, and the other the inspiration to do his best work. So, as I was saying the other day about the depiction of the artist in the recent film of McEwan’s Atonement, catastrophe is achieved and everything still turns out for the best. It also lets the novelist off the dissident hook, since if the typewriter had been found he would gone to jail and had to experience communist tyranny as a national tragedy rather than the backdrop to an unsavoury domestic incident. Why, it even allows an outing to that hoary old figure, 'the good communist' , the conscientious individual who does the system down out of loyalty to, rather than in defiance of the communist ideal. Maybe I would have warmed to him a bit more if, like his boorish colleagues, he could have allowed himself a good belly laugh at the jokes about Honecker. But he doesn't.

It’s always the way with cinematic depictions of writers though, isn’t it. The catastrophe can’t help turning out a roaring success.

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