(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

“My overall concern is the sinister effects of alienation, in aesthetics, in art, as well as elsewhere.” Thus does Christa Wolf, whose previous writings have often been in the mode of memoirs and lightly disguised autobiographical fiction, begin a series of reflections on the genesis and composition of her most recent fiction translated into English, Cassandra. The English subtitle, “A Novel and Four Essays,” obscures slightly both the nature of these reflections and the stature of the fiction, which in German appeared in 1983 as Kassandra und Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung, and which translates as “Cassandra and the presuppositions (or conditions, as the more literal internal subtitling of the English version has it) of a narrative.” Cassandra is a tale, a story, nothing more—certainly not a fiction with the ambition suggested by the honorific “novel”—and the nonfictional prose pieces which accompany it are only “essays” in the scarcely current etymological sense of the term. They are, rather, a series of documents related to the novel’s genesis and writing: an account of the author’s travels, a diary, and a letter to a friend. The relationship between these nonfictional documents and the fictional narrative poses the key formal and thematic problem of the book.

First, there is the question of the text’s voices. The major difference between the fictionalized first-person narrator of the tale and the subsequent musings of the author consists in the utter helplessness and hopelessness of the former, balanced against the slim margin of optimism which Christa Wolf continues to project for herself and her world. Cassandra’s resignation to her impending fate, which she has foreseen along with all the disasters that were to befall her native city, is signaled in her placing the following sentences in the past:I still believed [early in the war between the Trojans and Achaeans] that a little will to truth, a little courage, could erase the whole misunderstanding. To call what was true, true and what was untrue, false: That was asking so little (I thought) and would have served our cause better than any lie or half-truth. For it was intolerable (I thought) to base the whole war—and our whole lives, for wasn’t war our life!—on the accident of a lie.

The sense of purpose and commitment which these words project are no longer possible for Cassandra, as she is enslaved and bound for certain death at the hands of her captor’s vengeful wife, Clytemnestra.

Wolf still believes, however narrow her faith, in the possibility of truth telling, of evading the impending disasters of war and destruction by speaking about them candidly and critically. For she is, as numerous passages in the second half of the book make plain, Cassandra’s modern counterpart. If she does not quite yet feel herself in the same double bind as her ancient precursor (to be cursed with a gift of prophecy no one will believe), this does not diminish the precariousness of her situation nor her consciousness of the difficulty of her task. Sprinkled with references to and quotations from contemporary European politics, including the strategic and diplomatic imperatives which have generated yet another arms race on European soil (Wolf was a young girl when this mania last overtook Europe in the 1930’s; her experiences growing up in Nazi Germany are chronicled in A Model Childhood), the second half of the book draws a reasonable parallel between the current crop of Priams and Agamemnons and the venal, foolish, and proud Greek and Trojan men who brought destruction on themselves and their peoples for motives too complicated and obscure to admit of completely rational explanation: “But in Troy, I firmly believe, the people were no different from us. Their gods are our gods, the false gods. Only our devices differ from theirs.” Each individual strategic or tactical calculation makes perfect sense within the limited context of its formulation, but taken together the entire logic of the process looks simply mad. This, E. P. Thompson has suggested, is the logic of exterminism that governs the nuclear arms race; it was, equally, the exterminating angel which led to the sacking of Troy and the bleeding of the Achaean warriors. Didactically considered, this is what Cassandra is all about.

The parallel between...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)