She comes from a small, poor country in the East where the trees are hung with goatskin bags full of human bones, swinging in the breeze, to a western state so powerful, arrogant and rich that even the dead lie buried with food, jewellery and horses in their gorgeously furnished tombs; from a childhood full of secrets—‘but everything in Colchis was full of dark secrets’—to the glittering city-state of Corinth, whose people affect to have no secrets at all: though, ‘how much they hold it against you if you express doubts about their happiness’.footnote1

Thus Medea, in the first work of fiction since the reunification of Germany by the ex-gdr’s foremost writer, Christa Wolf. But this is a Medea very different from the powerful and impassioned heroine of Euripides, the mature and furious woman whose grief and anger, when she is deserted by her adored husband Jason, is so devastating that she is ready to destroy her own children in her all-consuming, all-purifying rage. The tragedy of Wolf’s Medea lies in politics, not in love. In this late German version of the myth, Medea comes to Corinth in the wake of a failed revolt against the authoritarian rule of the king, her father, taking cool advantage of the presence of Jason and his Argonauts, who are in Colchis questing for the Golden Fleece, to escape with them over the Black Sea. Once in Corinth, and married to Jason, Medea finds herself defined as an outsider. The city-state of King Creon is built on the inequality of power and privilege; refugee communities—including her own—live huddled in their ghettoes by the docks and city walls.

But King Creon’s situation is precarious: his power rests on the monstrous secret of human sacrifice, of a child slaughtered to ensure the continuation of his reign, and once Medea has discovered the bones buried deep beneath the palace, she begins to pose a threat. The narrative of Wolf’s Medea documents the relentless process of the scapegoating of this rebellious easterner, as Medea is first accused of killing her younger brother and then of poisoning the Princess Glauce. Rumours spread that it is she who has caused the earthquake that devastates Corinth and the plague that follows in its wake; finally, it is even whispered that she has murdered her own children.

‘But who could believe that?’ asks Medea, incredulous.

A fully-fledged political allegory, then, about the scapegoating of a dissenter and about the two German states; and one in which Christa Wolf would seem to be striking back at the calumnies that were heaped upon her own head in the summer of 1990, when the publication of What Remains, a short text based on her own experience of being kept under surveillance by the East German Stasi, became a lightning rod for the huge static clouds of anger and bitterness that were crackling across German skies at the moment of unification. For, at that time, Wolf herself was singled out for a ferocious campaign of victimization by conservative West German critics, who accused her of everything from political cowardice to turn-coatism; from being an official mouth-piece—a Staatsdichterin—to a lack of sincerity both towards herself and towards her fellow citizens; from having a ‘guilty conscience’ to hide to failing in that ‘dreadful and most necessary’ taskfootnote2 of coming to terms with her own past, of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

‘Unfair as it may seem,’ wrote Ulrich Greiner in an article on Christa Wolf in Die Zeit in July, 1990, ‘gdr intellectuals must carry the can for history.’footnote3 And, as one of the most pre-eminent gdr writers on the world stage or, as the highly ideological young literary editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frank Schirrmacher, put it, ‘the only intellectual who seemed to give proof of the spiritual sovereignty and self-sufficiency of the other German state’,footnote4 Christa Wolf was made to stand in for the rest. As the attack became internationalized, even such liberal luminaries as Lorna Sage and Ian Buruma joined in the hunt, with Ian Buruma accusing Wolf in the New York Review of Books of being just the sort of intellectual that the sed state machine needed: ‘[Wolf’s] struggles with her personal morality struck a tremendous chord with a people force-fed with propagandistic pap. Yet she never wavered in her political commitment. This made her the ideal writer for a communist regime, for she made it easier for people to live in a quasi-totalitarian state. Indeed she made the personal sacrifices, the spiritual hardship, seem virtuous.’footnote5

Among Wolf’s many defenders, on the other hand—who included Günter Grass, Stefan Heym, Wolf Biermann, Walter Jens, Volker Hage and Ivan Nagel—there was a general agreement that the ‘Literary Dispute’, or Literaturstreit, of 1990 had the aim not simply of discrediting Wolf’s own political stance—a cautiously reformist eco-socialistfeminism which has, after all, at least as broad a following in the Federal Republic as in the East—but, rather, of obliterating all traces of gdr culture from the new Germany; and, not least, all traces within that culture of something that aspired to a better world than ‘actually existing socialism’, and which made of Christa Wolf and others, in Andreas Huyssens’s phrase, ‘deputies in the here and now of a socialism yet to come’.footnote6