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The Ministry for State Unhappiness

 

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The Judas Tree reviewed for The Paris Readers’ Circle by Dick Aherne

Patricia le Roy’s The Judas Tree is a fascinating, tortuous tale of the atrocious behaviour of the then-East Germany’s internal security agency, the STASI.  The French writer Henri de Montherlant observed, “one writes of happiness in white.”  The Judas Tree by contrast is black, unrelievedly black.

But lack of sprightliness in the face of horror is no sin.  Above all le Roy’s is a story of normal people trapped in what seems a no-win situation.  And she has the courage to end it that way: no one wins.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall we learned that the STASI had, among many many other things:

– surreptitiously organized and financed Adolf Eichmann’s legal defence team for his trial in Israel

– financed and trained members of the Baader-Meinhof gang, at its time the most notorious of terrorists and assassins in West European democracies

– encouraged and financed neo-Nazis in West Germany, promoting their all-too-often-successful desecration of Jewish cemeteries in West Germany

– made it seem to many that the US was responsible for HIV/AIDS.  The early years of AIDS were frightening times, and the many STASI deceptions – forged documents, phony endorsements, and so on – often convinced people, especially in the Third World.

For the last 32 years of East Germany’s existence STASI’s director was a German sent by Stalin to Spain during the 1936-39 civil war.  His mission was to locate and assassinate any among Russia’s “allies” who seemed insufficiently supine before Stalin’s wishes.  Socialists and other leftists were murdered by the hundreds, while Russia’s contribution to the actual war – with Franco’s armies – was minimal.

Le Roy dramatically makes clear though that to write off STASI – and thus East Germany – as a sort of dry, adjectival, and ultimately tragic history misses the point.  The real story is what was done to individuals: how hopes were killed, emotions seemed dangerous, friendships were risky, one’s own family owed a higher loyalty to the state than to its members.  And internal debates and uncertainties could easily become, literally, matters of life and death.

It is an unusual book stylistically.  Each key character expresses, seriatim, in his or her own words, their emotions, hopes and wishes, and eventual disillusionment.  They come together at the end but not – as one might’ve expected in opera, for example! – in a grand rhapsodic resolution.  Instead we simply learn the by-then-expected reason for the principal character’s death, and must think our way through the rest.

The unusual structure takes a little getting used to.  Think for example of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  At first it seems an odd collection of disparate images, united only by their media – paint and canvas.  But keep looking, and your eye gradually tells you there’s more than paint and canvas, there’s a person.  Moving.  And you are privileged to realize you’re actually seeing three dimensions, though only two appear.

The Judas Tree gives the reader two gifts.  First, most of us need its kind of encouragement to think seriously about the way we human beings behave in everyday life.  Second, by encouraging careful contemplation of each element it allows us to see images and colors in ways not at first evident.

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