Death in Stasiland
This review of The Judas Tree was written by the British author Paul Samael and published on his blog in October 2012 at http://paulsamael.com/blog/the-judas-tree Since 2012, I’ve made some minor changes to the book and it’s now also available in paperback form, but nothing major has changed and Paul’s comments are still highly pertinent. The review has been edited slightly in the interests of clarity.
Patricia le Roy
is an established novelist – she has at least 8 books to her name and I gather that one of them (“Angels of Russia
”) was the first ebook ever to be put forward for the Booker Prize. “The Judas Tree
” is the only one that I have read so far – but on the strength of that, I will definitely be reading some of the others.
Its starting point is the death of a French woman, Anne, who was (seemingly) happily married to Matthias, an East German – a marriage that took place some years before the collapse of the DDR. But Anne appears to have taken a number of secrets to her grave. Several years later, Matthias finally decides to visit her family in Provence, looking for answers. Neither he nor Anne’s family fully understand why she made the choices that she did – and it is only when they put the different pieces of the jigsaw together that the truth emerges.
I’ve long had an interest in East Germany, partly for personal reasons – and part of the book is also set in Leipzig, which I visited in 2000. As it happens, that trip included a tour of the old Stasi headquarters
(apologies – this site is in German only). I particularly remember a map of the city festooned with coloured pins, each one corresponding to the location of a safe house used for meeting IMs (“Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter” or Unofficial Co-Worker – Stasi jargon for informant). IMs feature prominently in “The Judas Tree”, as they have done in the non-fiction book “Stasiland
” and the film “The Lives of Others
” (both of which I would also recommend). And judging by the success of the last two works, I’m certainly not the only person who’s fascinated by that period – particularly the horrifying extent of efforts by the Stasi to know everything about everyone in the DDR (or at least anyone they considered to be a threat – which was pretty much everyone).
In the first part of the book, there is a strong sense of the characters skirting round the central question of what happened to Anne. It is several years since her death and her family seem to want to put it behind them, whereas Matthias wants answers, but is afraid of upsetting Anne’s family. This creates a strong atmosphere of suppressed emotion, which helps to build up the tension for the relevations that come later.
Having a Westerner marry an East German also works very well, allowing us to see the DDR through the eyes of someone who did not grow up in that society. It also allows for a strong contrast between the sunny, colourful landscape of Provence where Anne comes from and the dour, decaying surroundings of Leipzig in the DDR.
The psychology of the various characters is also impressively drawn – particularly Anne’s rather dysfunctional family (as a child, she had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with her sister Sophie, who was jealous of Anne’s close relationship with her manipulative and slightly histrionic German mother). Characters speak in the first person, with the author switching at regular intervals from one to another, yet managing to give each of them a distinctive voice. In that respect, the novel reminded me somewhat of a number of recent stage plays based on factual events where characters come to the front of the stage and attempt to explain themselves (e.g. much of David Hare’s recent work and Michael Frayn’s “Democracy
” – also partly about the DDR). This helps to give the novel something of a documentary feel – which is entirely appropriate, since much of what is depicted is based on fact (even if the characters are fictional).
If you’ve read Anna Funder’s excellent “Stasiland”, you might say “why read this book ? I know all about that stuff already.” But I would urge you to read it all the same, because it brilliantly conveys the emotional/psychological impact of Stasi’s grip on East German society, reminding us just how insidious and corrosive a force it was.
As someone who grew up during the later stages of the Cold War, I sometimes worry that my children will grow up simply taking for granted the individual freedoms that we have always enjoyed in the West – because from today’s vantage point, it can seem almost unbelievable that a system of government which showed little or no respect for those freedoms was able to survive for over 40 years in Eastern Europe. But so long as novels like this one continue to be read, I remain hopeful that we will not forget that lesson in a hurry.
Finally, it is a real indictment of the publishing industry that no commercial publisher appears to have seen fit to take this book on. I understand from the author that publishers did not feel it was commercial enough. But as noted above, Patricia le Roy is an author with an established track record and there is a really, really easy and (to me) obvious marketing pitch for this book: ‘if you liked “Stasiland” or “The Lives of Others”, you’ll like this’. What more do they want?