If the past is, in L.P. Hartley’s endlessly quoted observation, a foreign country, then how much more disorientating must it be to attempt to find one’s bearings doubly lost, adrift both in the past and a foreign country? Philip Oltermann uses the specific, almost comedic, contradictions of a secret police force indulging its poetic sensibilities to prise open the cracks in history and, in doing so, to craft a guidebook to the East Germany of the 1980s. It might seem like the premise of fiction, but East Germany’s secret police really did convene a poetry circle, and this is their story.
Viewed through the filter of Ostalgie, a more recent trend for rose-tinted recollection of the Soviet-aligned slice of the severed post-war Germany, it’s easy to lose sight of how, before the Berlin Wall was brought low, it appeared so foreboding, so grey, so alien. The setting and the circumstances may be at one remove from the corruption, mendacity and incompetence of the current British Government, but there’s a queasy sense of familiarity in the way in which, in the D.D.R., language was bled of meaning while a partisan press cleaved close to the party line.
Nonetheless, culture (of the right kind) was valued. Poetry was paid the immense compliment of being taken seriously, both as a threat and as a weapon. That, however, was more clearly the case towards the end, when both country and writer’s circle had become vicious, turning in upon themselves. Their beginnings were altogether more idealistic, utopian even; utopian, moreover, in both senses of the word, since the Adlershof compound where the group convened was not to be found on maps of Berlin of the time. Like the derivation of Thomas More’s fictional island, it was nowhere. What could be more poetic than that?
Inevitably, of course, the reality was far more prosaic. Uwe Berger, the group’s overseer, aspired for the collective to reach towards a kind of Socialist Realist sublimity, but, forged with different aims in mind, the material he had to work with was, if never quite ridiculous, nonetheless ill-suited in the main to such lofty intentions.
Indeed, it could be argued that the best of poets chafe against prescriptions, as opposed to submitting to them. This was certainly the case with Alexander Ruika, Berger’s favourite pupil, and perhaps even more so of a poet outside the circle, Annegret Gallin, who wrote verse reminiscent of the alienated lyrics scratched out by X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, and whose lot was to find herself imprisoned for a poem that had not even seen publication.
Berger was not a poet who bridled unduly, but rather one who bent his neck to the yoke of the ruling Socialist Unity Party. More importantly, he was, as Ruika was later coerced into being, an informer, settling scores and cementing his own importance with reports back up the chain that fettered him, at the rate of 100 Ostmark a betrayal.
While it’s accurate to observe that Oltermann frequently wanders outside the circumference of his titular writer’s circle, making connections on a tangent to it, these deviations often add depth and weight to the sphere they were constrained within, whether they draw attention to Dynamo Berlin, the Stasi’s own elite football team, or to the counterintuitive intelligence that homosexuality was decriminalised in East Germany a good five years before its western counterpart followed the D.D.R.’s lead into the right side of history.
Indeed, Oltermann’s achievement is in his eye for such details, ones which tell against the stereotypes of Cold War East Germany and allow the reader to look at it afresh. Much like a poet, you might say.
The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann is published by Faber and available to buy now.