German writer from the former GDR, Wolf offers her latest intellectual-personal foray (Medea: A Modern Retelling, 1998, etc.): a somber, spare, sensitive treatment of pain, illness and memory.
Having been brought to the hospital by ambulance because of abdominal pain, the unnamed narrator, who moves somewhat ambiguously from first to third person, offers a blow-by-blow testament of her treatment and deteriorating condition. Under the care of the taciturn head of surgery, Herr Chefarzt, and a succession of busy nurses, the patient is left helpless, vulnerable to the invading army around her who “inspect the drains, change the IV bottles, wash and reposition the thing my body is for them.” Laid low by a “runaway body,” the character’s mind cracks under the pain and drugs she’s subjected to, and a long life of memories begins to intrude. She recalls her relationships with a wily fellow East German and perhaps lover, Urban, who moves into high office and subsequently hangs himself in the woods after a crisis of conscience; a colleague and friend from the university, Renate, who loves Urban and is made miserable by him; and Aunt Lisbeth, who, in 1944 Berlin, has a child out of wedlock by a Jew. The patient is enchanted by mythical associations surrounding the name of one of her nurses, Kora Bachmann, who “will lead me into darkness. . . she’ll watch over me, keep an eye on my heartbeat, I’m reassured.” The speaker mines a kind of collective memory of Communist rupture and reinvention, and, lest the reader of English miss her literary and political allusions, the translator has provided a list of endnotes. Wolf deconstructs words such as collapse, cut, and expose, moving from the personal (pathological) definitions to the political. After meeting with Urban in the Underworld, the woman begins to emerge into health and light again, and yet the lasting impression of this work is dour and pedantic.
A murky and elliptical descent into darkness.