A Woman Scorned

MEDEA: A Novel in Voices By CHRISTA WOLF Translated by John Cullen, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood Doubleday/Talese 186 pages $23 hardcover

Medea: A Novel in Voices is Christa Wolf's first important piece of fiction to be published in the five years since this East German literary heroine fell resoundingly from grace, tainted by her connections with the former East German Communist establishment. It comes as no surprise, then, that Medea is not only a modern reworking of the old Greek myth but also, indirectly, the story of Wolf's ordeal.

Once heralded as the moral center of a compromised country, winner of many international literary prizes, and beloved by East German dissidents and Western left-wing literati alike, Wolf suffered after the fall of the Berlin Wall the media equivalent of a stake-burning. The reasons for this public humiliation were twofold. Wolf's 1990 publication of a 10-year-old novella, Was Bleibt? (What Remains?), based on the period between 1969 and 1980 when she and her husband, Gerhard, were under surveillance by the Stasi, the East German secret police, prompted critics to ask why she didn't publish this story earlier, when it might have been deleterious to the Communist regime. The second blow was the discovery in 1993 of Stasi files labeling Wolf an "informal collaborator." Between 1959 and 1962, she had met with Stasi officials several times, when she apparently reported on the "bourgeois" and "unstable" tendencies of other writers.

Wolf, now 69, has defended the late publication of What Remains? on literary grounds. It was a story that wasn't ready to be published, one that she continually reworked, she says. Wolf is surprised to have been labeled an informer. But she doesn't deny meeting with the Stasi (though she doesn't recall naming writers), blaming her decision to do so on her youthful naive belief that she could change the system from within. Still, she has openly agonized about her compromised past and her ability to repress unpleasant memories. If it weren't for her husband and daughters, for the ameliorating effect of files detailing her surveillance by the Stasi and the fact that everyone knows she was regularly censured for work critical of the East German government - works such as The Quest for Christa T. and Cassandra - she might, she says, have committed suicide.

This personal agony lies at the core of Medea, which Wolf wrote largely in Santa Monica as a visiting scholar of the Getty Foundation. It's as if she needed the distance of time and space - the lens of ancient Greece, the exile in Southern California - to address her pain and anger. For Medea is the story of a strong woman with clear ideas about truth and compassion, a parable about the need to restore to health a country sick with lies and violence, about her failure to do so, and about the loss of all hope for idealistic enterprises. When Medea asks toward the end, "What is left to me?" her (Wolf's?) answer is only to curse her enemies and to say, heartbreakingly, "Where can I go. Is it possible to imagine a world, a time, where I would have a place. There's no one I could ask." Medea, like Wolf, is estranged from her native country and scorned elsewhere.

Salve, perhaps, to Wolf's wounds is her assignation of the root cause of Medea's problems to powerful men, just as Wolf, identifying the yen for power with macho traditions, attributes the attacks upon her to male spite against an internationally famous woman. However much she may be rationalizing her own situation, by turning the various Medea myths on their heads Wolf makes one of her most forceful statements about the oppression of women at the hands of supposedly enlightened yet tyrannical regimes - Communist or not - and about the power imbalance between men and women in general.

In the ancient stories, beautifully retold in the introduction to Wolf's book by Margaret Atwood, Medea was a princess of Colchis, on the far side of the Black Sea, famed for her skills in sorcery and, later, for the ease with which she murdered those who stood in her way. It was Medea who fell in love with Jason and helped him and his Argonauts recover the Golden Fleece. It was Medea who killed and dismembered her brother, Aspyrtus, scattering his body parts in the ocean to delay the pursuit of Jason and Medea by her father, King Aeetes. When Jason ditched her in favor of Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth, in order to become heir to the Corinthian throne, Medea gave Glauce a poisonous dress, which burst into flames, causing the princess to jump down a well in agony. Medea skipped town. Jason became a vagabond and was later crushed by the rotting prow of the Argo.

Wolf's Medea is also a strong, confident woman and a sorceress. Yet she's not evil or violent, she's more a healer and wise woman. This Medea is not in love with Jason, whom Wolf paints as an ineffectual though handsome and not unlikable jock. Medea exploits Jason, rather than the reverse, using him as her means of escape from Colchis, where her father engineered the death of Aspyrtus as a way of increasing his own power. This Medea throws her brother's bones into the sea out of grief, only to be falsely accused later of Aspyrtus' murder by Corinthian politicians eager to be rid of her - a demonstration of the insidious power of rumor that surely mirrors Wolf's own sense of grievance over her treatment by the media. As for Glauce, Medea does give her a special dress, but out of generosity, and Glauce does wear it to jump down a well, only this time to kill herself, so maddened is she by her parents' neglect and a barely suppressed memory of a horrific crime. (It's a crime that everyone else busily denies, too, supposedly in the interests of Corinthian prosperity, in a justification of violence typical of totalitarian regimes.)

As Medea struggles to perform a useful role as a healer in a plague-ridden, increasingly hostile Corinth where the male politicians plot her demise, one can't help but remember Wolf's expulsion from the East German Writers' Union executive committee in 1976, after publicly voicing her protest over the expatriation of popular dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann. It was then that she began actively helping dissidents, smuggling out manuscripts, giving money to struggling writers, mediating between East German authors and Western publishers - none of which saved her from becoming reunified Germany's scapegoat. Medea's sense of helplessness in the face of intractable male power clearly mirrors Wolf's own.

Yet gender wars are not the whole story here. Wolf is describing all human behavior, our ability to compromise and deny under pressure, to validate self-protective actions we might otherwise abhor, to save our own skins in the current power game - be it in family, politics or corporate culture - as well as the all too human tendency to shun people different from ourselves. The scapegoating of Medea and her fellow dark-skinned Colchians by the pallid citizens of Corinth seems only too reminiscent of black-white conflict, or the oppression of Jews, gays, immigrants and others. The clash between the values of Colchis and Corinth - one culture believing in equality for all, the other promoting affluence for a few - is a reflection of the struggle between socialism and capitalism.

At times, Wolf's delineation of male-female relations and of the workings of various political systems veers dangerously close to the formulaic. Yet she manages to avoid stereotyping by having the six major players speak in their own voices in alternating chapters, which allows them to exist as fully realized characters, a clever mix of insight and inner blindness. Akamas is a chilly Corinthian astronomer and political pragmatist who likes Medea but sees the necessity for her downfall. Leukon, another astronomer, is paralyzed by his ability to see both sides of a question. Medea herself is no one-dimensional heroine: Sometimes she seems overly self-righteous, to the detriment of others' safety. And Medea's contradictions, perhaps, reflect Wolf's personal anguish over her own actions.

Still, Wolf is clearly aiming for something much greater than a roman a clef, and in this she has succeeded brilliantly. Long after Wolf's personal struggles have been forgotten, Medea will surely be remembered as a remarkable fictional study of the terrible destructive effects of private rationalization in the cause of public good.

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