‘One Day a Year’ by Christa Wolf: An Excerpt

During a 1960 interview, East German writer Christa Wolf was asked a curious question: would she describe in detail what she did on September 27th? Fascinated by considering the significance of a single day over many years, Wolf began keeping a detailed diary of September 27th, a practice which she carried on for more than fifty years until her death in 2011. One Day a Year, translated by Katy Derbyshire, collects Wolf's notes from 2001 to 2011, the last decade of her life. The book is both a personal record and a unique document of our times. With her characteristic precision and transparency, Wolf examines the interplay of the private, subjective, and major contemporary historical events.

Translated by Katy Derbyshire

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An Excerpt

Thursday, 27 September 2001


I am woken by a loud voice that says: A rip in the fabric of time. I listen to the echo of the voice, delighted at the truth it speaks, before I become aware of where I am; that it is early morning, that I’m lying in bed, and the more reality my consciousness reluctantly permits, the more the feeling of delight wanes. I have learnt that truth does not make us happy, because truth alone has no effect. Intrusively, as if they were part of reality(and they are a part of it), my inner screen fills with the last CNN images I saw after midnight last night, after which I found it hard to get to sleep, although I hadn’t neglected to take the two capsules of valerian extract. The channel didn’t refrain from using the word war: ‘America’s War against Terrorism’.

At a single stroke, the feelings of tension and fear are back, matching this reality and so often accompanying the beginning of the day throughout my life. The question today, then: Did the Americans carry out their threatened retaliation against Afghanistan—or against anyone else?—last night? I manage to persuade myself it’s too early to get up yet, so I put off finding out the answer for a while—not at all like back when the Gulf War began, I remember. Then, I was crouching in front of the TV at four o’clock in the morning and saw what I was supposed to see: the fire preceding the American troops’ landing on the Kuwaiti coast. I cried and then read in the newspaper that if I didn’t condone this war I was against Israel, only to find out much later that the young woman who had provided the final moral justification for the bombings with her eye-witness report of the Kuwaiti babies murdered by dehumanized Iraqis was the daughter of an employee of Kuwait’s embassy in the US, and had never set eyes on a single murdered baby.

So I give myself a reprieve before getting up, and extract from the haphazard piles of books on my small glass bedside table the one that seems most suitable for ‘the events’—as they are now called—of the past weeks; that is, what suits them with uncanny precision: City of God by E. L. Doctorow, which one could, if one wanted, use—abuse—as one more piece of evidence that there must have long been a premonition of catastrophe in the air for sensitive inhabitants of New York, which drove them to an intensive search for a reason for their fear and moral unrest. ‘There may not be much time. if the demographers are right, ten billion people will inhabit the earth by the middle of the coming century. Huge megacities of people all over the planet fighting for its resources. Under those circumstances, the prayers of mankind will sound to heaven as shrieks. and such abuses, shocks, to our hope for what life can be, as to make the twentieth century a paradise lost.’

That twentieth century, I think, to which historians had bid farewell, not even two years ago, with the signum of ‘cruellest saeculum in human history’, which had only once drawn me directly into one of its catastrophes but had otherwise allowed me to lead a life at one of its most dangerous points of conflict, a life rich in tensions but externally comparatively undisturbed. And so the thoughts machine has kicked off again. I get up and pull back the curtain, a grey day, like all the grey days since the 11th of September.

Gerd is in the kitchen already. Coffee or tea? He asks. Tea. In the bathroom, I immediately press the button on the little black radio. No, there’s no war yet. The crusade has not yet begun. The anti-terror coalition’s ring around Afghanistan is closing up. The former Soviet republics Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are also part of it. The West, I hear (in other words: the USA) has long had an interest in an undisrupted oil transport through Afghanistan. While I take a shower and get dressed—comfortable clothes because I can stay at home for the time being—I hear that hundreds of thousands of refugees are leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan, or withdrawing to the countryside from the cities threatened with bombings. In both cases they have no food; the UN is warning of a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and appealing for millions to prevent the worst, and I, incorrigible, can’t help imagining for a fraction of a second that the countries involved in this future war already accepted as unavoidable, above all the USA, might use half of the billions of dollars that the war will swallow up, not to support their arms industry by creating new demand, but might donate these vast sums to the people threatened by starvation for food, medication, for the reconstruction of their already destroyed country and for bribing their apparently corrupt tribal leaders, thus possibly pulling the rug from under future terrorists . . . Unrealistic? All the worse for reality. At lightning speed, I think, good old ‘reality’ lapses into the absurd, the boundaries of the narratable seem to be shrinking more and more. That would be something to write about, I think. But what for?