Christa Wolf, City of Angels

Cassandra, Medea. In Christa Wolf’s retelling of these old stories, there are no more heroes. Her project is ideological, the dismantling of myth to uncover the inherent manipulation. By groping her way into the past, Wolf provides a different way to look at our present situation.

In the earlier No Place on Earth, Wolf’s reference points are taking shape, and will be further developed in the two later works. Though political, she is much more than a mere polemicist, explicitly playing with a concept of memory beyond Socrates’ slab of wax, closer to the idea that memory is what makes perception possible, and that our interpretation of reality, based on our memories, is our principle source of wisdom.

In her last novel, City of Angels, these themes coalesce in a book that blurs all the traditional boundaries between reality and fiction. These are my favourite books, surprising and felt in equal measure. Wolf projects instances of her life onto a protagonist that is simultaneously subject and character. But none of that is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is rather the way we inhabit her protagonist’s mind, Wolf’s mind, as its exploration of its own subjectivity and recollection unfolds. As Brodsky wrote, “Evolution is not a species’/adjustment to a new environment but one’s memories/triumph over reality.”

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