Christa Wolf vs. Grace Ogot

What remains

I know this comment will make me look like a snob but I’m going to make it anyway.

It was so nice to read two stories that were so well written.

I’ve read a wide range a short stories for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.  But it’s been a while since I read two stories that featured such good writing.  At the risk of over-simplifying some stories put writing in service to the plot or to the characters while others put plot and character in service to the writing.  Maybe using that old stand by the continuum will work better.  At one end place quality writing; at the other put telling a good story.  Most short stories will fall somewhere in between the two extremes, but lately, I’ve been reading from the ‘telling a good story’ end of the spectrum. It was very nice to move towards the ‘quality writing’ side this time around.

That’s one thing the two short stories I read: Grace Ogot’s “Tekayo”  and Christa Wolf’s “Exchanging Glances” had in common.  The other thing they have in common is that they both represent points of view that are generally unfamiliar to American readers.

Christa Wolf was one of the best writers East Germany produced.  Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, her point of view along with much  of her subject matter have been greatly diminished.  Writing about life in East Germany is now the stuff of historical fiction, much to everyone’s pleasure.  It certainly puts Christa Wolf in an unusual position.

Her autobiographical short story “Exchanging Glances” is based on her family’s experiences towards the end of the second World War when they were forced to flee their homes as the Russian army advanced across what was previously German controlled territory.  Christa Wolf was a young girl when she fled with her mother, her grand parents and her brother pushing what they could carry in a small handcart.

It’s a harrowing story, but it’s the writing that makes it work so well.  Take this passage, translated by Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian for example.

Then we saw the prisoners from the concentration camp.  The rumor that the Oranienburgers were being driving right behind us had haunted us like a ghost. The suspicion that we were fleeing from them as well did not occur to me back then.  They stood at the edge of the forest and gazed questioningly at us. We could have given them a sign that the air was clear, but nobody did. Cautiously, they approached the street. They looked different from all the people I had seen up to then, and I wasn’t surprised that we automatically shrank back from them.  But it betrayed us, this shrinking back, it showed that, in spite of what we protested to each other and ourselves, we knew.  All we unhappy ones who had been driven away from all our possessions, from our farms and our manors, from our shops and musty bedrooms and brightly polished parlors with the picture of the Führer on the wall–we knew: these people, who had been declared animals and who were now slowly coming towards us to take revenge–we had dropped them.  Now the ragged would but on our clothes and stick their bloody feet in our shoes, now the starved would seize hold of the flour and the sausage we had just snatched.  And to my horror I felt, It is just, and I was horrified to feel that it was just, and knew for a fraction of a second that we were guilty.  I forgot it again.

This is telling, not showing. I think it works very well.  The line about only later realizing they were being pursued by the prisoners as much as they were by the Russians.  Already comparing them to ghosts, the guilt that will haunt the German survivors.  These prisoners who will take their abandoned clothes and shoes. The sense that this is just.  And those last four words, “I forgot it again.”  This idea that some things are forgotten repeatedly strikes me as powerful and true.  It’s a brave thing to admit.  It’s also very well written which only makes it more powerful in my view.

Grace Ogot was the first Kenyan woman writing in English to be published back in the early 1960’s.  I found her short story “Tekayo”  in a book from that period called African Writing Today.  When I asked my brother who has lived many years in various parts of Africa and who studied African writers in college to choose some of the stories I should read he warned me that African writers did not write what we would call realistic stories, that they tend towards fables.  It was easy to see what he meant with Grace Ogot’s story.

Tekayo, the title character, is a respected elder in his village.  He has a large family, several wives, and enough sons and grand sons that he no longer has to work much.  He can enjoy his status and elder, until one day when he sees an eagle flying low overhead.   He throws a stick at the eagle who drops the large piece of meat it was carrying.  Tekayo keeps the meat, a piece of liver, to cook with his lunch later in the day.

The liver he stole from the eagle turns out to be the best piece of meat Tekayo has ever eaten.  He soon dreams of cooking and eating it again.  He begins hunting animal after animal hoping to discover what kind of meat it was that he stole from the eagle, but he cannot.  Soon, he is so obsessed that he is unable to perform with any of his wives as a result.  Eventually, while out walking with one of his grand-daughter he realizes that there is only one type of animal he has not yet eaten.

While there were no standout bits of writing in Grace Ogot’s story the way there were in Christa Wolf’s, the overall effect maybe the underlying idea struck me as enough to make “Tekayo” qualify as great writing.  Remember to read the story as a fable, as something meant to illustrate human nature.  Are we meant to read Temayo as stealing something from the gods, as reaching for something beyond the proper place of humanity the way Icarus did?  Is his story meant to reveal how one generation exploits the generations that follow, a warning to the young that serving their elders’ wishes may not always be in their best interest?

Both stories present cultures that are largely foreign to me, but both stories also presented very human characters.   I’m having a hard time coming up with an exact reason why each story struck so close to home for me because both stories are so far from home, so far from my home anyway.  Maybe this is something good writing can do, make the reader bond with a story without really understanding why.  I’m trailing off into incoherence here, I know, but I loved both Grace Ogot and Christa Wolf.  I’m going to be looking for more of each.

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve not read any Christa Wolf, and I feel quite guilty about how long I’ve had her ‘Cassandra’ on my shelves. Apparently it is something that lovers of the ancient world *should* have read. I think I’m intimidated by her. 😉

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    What a wonderful quote from Wolf! I’m quite partial to her, despite her somewhat controversial (pro/anti?) writing in East Germany. I think she did the best she could under the circumstances – and that the GDR handled the guilt of the war much more quickly and thoroughly than West Germany did.

  3. Caroline says:

    I’m not sure I read this Christa Wold story but I read a lot of her other work and find her a great writer. I found it brave as well – to admit that one forgets.

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