cover image City of Angels or, 
The Overcoat of Dr. Freud

City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud

Christa Wolf, trans. from the German by Damion Searls. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-26935-7

In 1992, East German author Wolf was a resident scholar at the Getty Institute; this book, published in 2010, a year before her death, is the fictional account of her time there. Almost diaristic, the book details her routines as she learns her way around Los Angeles, connects with her fellow scholars (a friendly group of mostly Europeans), and holds fraught meetings with Holocaust survivors and their adult children. Wolf includes notes she made at the time, but also admits that when you’re “telling the story from the end... you run the risk of pretending you know less than you really do,” a reminder of the difficulty of locating the dividing line between truth and invention. Which may be the point: the GDR no longer exists, but Wolf still travels on her old passport; as East Germany’s most famous writer, she was both punished and feted, as well as decried for being too cozy with the regime. And then it comes to light that Wolf was not only monitored by the Stasi (the files constituted 42 volumes) but was also briefly an informant, a fact she is mystified to find that she’s forgotten. Although not much happens in this book, there’s an odd fascination in watching Wolf navigate depression, guilt, anger, and Los Angeles, home of earlier generations of German refugees and émigrés. And we get, too, an insider’s view of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, complete, as such views are, with dropped details and omitted linkages that create more confusion and more interest. The book is slow in places and fizzles at the end with a trip to the desert, but it’s worth it to see Wolf grappling with a past that, far from being dead, is live—like ammunition. (Feb.)