Once upon a time there was a woman, who took the train to East Germany. She went there 3 times.
The first time she was a college student and she barely spoke German and she had a bad experience at the border when she didn’t understand that her passport number had been called.
The second time she had just gotten married and she went to the place where the two famous authors that she had studied in graduate school lived and taught. She went to their graves and saw their houses. She met poets who lent her books wrapped carefully in brown paper. On the 4th of July her hosts gave her carnations to mark the anniversary of her revolution. “Because,” the head teacher of the place she was studying at said to her.
“All the revolutions matter.”
The third time the woman went to East Germany, she met an editor who was married to a doctor, and she met writers, and other doctors. They discussed ideas and politics and travel and art. The woman’s new friends gave her beautiful books wrapped in brown paper. To protect the covers. Because books are precious. Books are — to quote Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s mother — wealth.
Once long ago, the woman’s aristocratic grandmother whispered to the woman when the princely grandfather wasn’t listening. “The Russian Revolution saved Russia. The people were…” the grandmother sighed. “Destitute. Desperate. Their lives are better now, even if Communism is the enemy.”
There are many stories to tell about power and powerlessness. About what is good and what is evil. These all must be told.
But the story of empire is not necessarily about these things. That story is always a story about winners. As such it is necessarily a story that self-congratulates, seeks to share its victory. Reproduce. Multiply.
Also simplify. In the stories of nation and empire, there is also the wish to make it all very simple.
The writer feels the tug of this simplicity. The wish to streamline, to use the dominant view, because after all, that view won.
Please don’t let the tug pull you over. Because in the other story may be something, there certainly is something, that needs to be considered. That needs to be suggested.
To read one person’s memory of East Germany, read Jenny Erpenbeck’s piece “Homesick for Sadness” in the Paris Review.