Tr. from the German by Priscilla Layne

[Catapult; 2022]

Perhaps fittingly for a novel teeming with Q&A exchanges, Olivia Wenzel’s 1,000 Coils of Fear is haunted by departure, absence, loss. As the biracial daughter of an East German mother and an Angolan father, the narrator confronts both racist legacies and her own painful past. Throughout much of the novel, a disembodied voice interacts with the narrator, asking pointed questions or even unraveling her memories. Along with the artifacts the narrator describes while the voice is silent, this complex dialogue navigates a precarious balance between privacy and disclosure. In this narrative universe, there are no easy answers, as the novel intertwines disparate threads of a fraught Communist past, familial trauma, and racist myopia. She painstakingly constructs her own identity through descriptions of photographs, travelogues, and memories. The novel’s treatment of these divulgences creates a multifaceted effect, depicting a plurality of perspectives and personal histories. This dynamic is especially evident when examining the tonal shifts of the voice and the novel’s treatment of East German nostalgia.

What, exactly, is the role of the alternate voice that emerges in 1,000 Coils of Fear? At times, it clearly seems an extension of the narrator, cajoling, reminding, and commiserating with her. Yet demanding questions and grim declaratives upend this dynamic of a divided self, transforming the voice into a contemptuous echo. Priscilla Layne’s skillful translation captures these tonal shifts with subtle cues, such as transitions between the first- and second-person. Its initial question is one that recurs, helping to anchor the reader in the narrator’s consciousness: “Where are you now?” Though she lives in Germany, the narrator is traveling in the United States around the time of Donald Trump’s victory speech in the 2016 US presidential election. Racist graffiti she sees prompts a troubling flashback to harassment from neo-Nazis while swimming in a German lake, leaving her in perpetual uncertainty about “right-wing terror.” The voice’s initial reaction to these recollections is sympathetic. “The combination of fear and the inability to say something, this powerlessness, this inability to act—I understand.” But it also adopts an adversarial stance toward disturbing accounts of racism, as the voice mocks her “white-privilege face” and asks, “Do you enjoy playing the victim . . . Do you think political correctness is sexy?” This question ventures into uneasy territory, offering insight into the significance of the dialogue.

Splashed in bold across the pages of this edition, a jarring voice breaks the illusion of a seamless narrative, drawing attention to how and why the narrator is sharing these snapshots. In addition to moments where the voice urges her to “concentrate” or “go on,” it also presses for details. “Is there something you’re afraid to divulge?” The voice’s insistence creates a new question for the reader. How does the voice reflect or avoid a cacophony of ideas, images, and memories that have shaped the narrator’s life? The novel’s Q&A device shines a glaring spotlight on the intentionality of narrative, on the details that are illuminated and those that remain shrouded in darkness.

As the narrator’s many responses imply, though, this voice does more than reveal the importance of direction in storytelling. Its relentless onslaught of questions and imperatives creates a narrative universe in which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy; in which every secret must be exposed. The prospect of surveillance hangs over her shoulder. She refers to her mother as “a punk, stuck in East Germany,” who “gets involved with an Angolan in a small East German town where everybody knows everybody.” Though her mother envisions a new life abroad, she is arrested and “her emigration permit is revoked, her psyche crumbled like a cookie in a Stasi prison.” This invocation of the Stasi, the East German state police notorious for spying and interrogation tactics, casts the role of the voice in a sinister light. The official diction of some questions—about her “next of kin,” about whether she has “ever belonged to a terrorist organization”—would not feel out of place in a police interrogation room or during an instance of racial profiling. While she holds her own against the voice’s authoritarian aspects, the narrator does lay much of her life bare. We learn about how her father in Angola sends a birthday email a day early because “he can’t remember the correct date,” about a grandmother with whom she “can’t speak openly” about her twin brother’s suicide, about crashing on friends’ couches and a series of trips and one-night stands. Rather than reinforcing the palpable silences and grief in her family history, her travels and romantic relationships cultivate a powerful sense of belonging. When the voice hints that loneliness is a “side effect” of her traveling, she counters, “Why loneliness?” Even as it disrupts the narrator’s account, the voice also illustrates the danger of blindly accepting the perspective of one narrative. When it objects that her mother’s youth sounds like “a cliché-filled East German film on public television,” she responds that the problem with clichés is that they “only ever describe the same, singular perspective.” Much as her mother was both an East German punk and a tormented “fifty-three year old woman” who now lives off the grid, the narrator’s experiences bear equal weight and cannot be contained by a unified narrative form. In the last pages of the novel, the voice shifts into a more vulnerable first-person point of view and echoes this point with its final appearance. “But especially, I’m asking you . . . do you understand the idea that everything I tell you fits in a single life and that this life is nevertheless something ordinary and good?” The voice evokes the wounds of totalitarianism and systemic racism, but it also defies easy categorization in its responses to the narrator’s experiences.

With the reference to trite historical films, it feels tempting to place this novel in conversation with Ostalgie, the nostalgic resurrection of East German brands and lifestyle. This cultural trend—and heated reactions to its popularity—are evident in notable German films of the early- and mid-aughts. The protagonist of Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) creates a post-reunification replica of East Germany for his ill mother, once a loyal Socialist. Conversely, Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] (2006), an account of a Stasi officer who goes to extreme lengths to protect a writer he surveils, offers an anti-nostalgic glimpse of the regime.

But where might Wenzel’s narrator fit when considering depictions of the former East? Her rejection of binaries resists sentimentality and demonization alike. At certain moments, she seems an investigator herself, poring over old photographs and memories for traces of what was. When describing an old photo of an East German apartment complex, the narrator notes the West German insistence on “destroy[ing] positive, tangible memories” after reunification. She likens this impulse to her mother’s description of a particularly cruel Stasi prison warden who would “rip up women’s photos.” The best and worst parts of East German life, which have spawned lengthy debates and numerous cultural products, are condensed into a few adjacent paragraphs here. They coexist, if not in harmony, then in an uneasy balance. She never knows if her grandmother “curses the GDR or longs to have it back,” but “maybe both things are possible.” Her longing feels personal, centering on her parents’ youth before their separation. There is the photograph of her father wearing a “keffiyeh” as “a symbol of leftist, anti-imperialist convictions.” There is also a renowned artist who shares stories of photographing her mother in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and gives the narrator a painting of her. Neither utopia nor hellscape, the narrator’s East Germany remains an ambiguous space that at once offered the prospect of family unity and destroyed that possibility.

Despite the urgency of these memories, to characterize the narrator as merely an archivist of hope or pain is reductionist, especially when it overlooks how the legacy of East versus West Germany shaped her identity. In one sense, it feels irresistible to draw parallels with Christa Wolf, the controversial grand dame of East German letters. The arrogant male professionals of her early novels are not a far cry from the psychologist who dismisses Wenzel’s narrator as a “minority” whose “questions can’t be answered with therapy.” Her reliance on a fragmented narrative may be a distant descendent of Wolf’s Was bleibt [What Remains] (1990), where an author longs for a new language while Stasi informants stake out her home. But to rely on this sole frame of reference would ignore the equal significance of bell hooks in this novel’s thoughtful consideration of cross-currents between race, gender, and class. Racism is the single constant in her life before and after German reunification—and American cultural exports offer a narrow vision of racial belonging. Although the narrator is swept away by the 1990s explosion of US hip-hop, particularly “the cool kind of Blackness” it represents, she comes to recognize how “absurd the dominance of American pop is” while visiting Angola in the mid-2000s. This realization is timed well with hooks’s skepticism toward patriarchal rap in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004). But it also reflects how this novel offers a fresh perspective on Ostalgie, portraying the legacy of West German consumerism alongside a maze of racial stereotypes and white moral vanity. The tapestry of voices and episodes in 1,000 Coils of Fear are at home in the beauty and horror of their contradictions, a moving testimony to the power of ambivalence.                         

Emily Hershman received a PhD in English at the University of Notre Dame. Her writing has appeared in the James Joyce Quarterly and elsewhere.  

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