>> Saturday, April 24, 2010
TITLE: The File: A Personal History
AUTHOR: Timothy Garton Ash
SETTING: Mostly 1980s East Germany and the present
TYPE: Non Fiction
REASON FOR READING: My book club's choice for April.
After the Berlin Wall came down and the archives opened up, Timothy Garton Ash walked into the ministry that housed the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, and asked if there was a file on him. There was - one marked "Romeo". This is the story of what was in the buff-coloured binder.During the 80s, Timothy Garton Ash spent some time in East Berlin as a student and a journalist. After the fall of the Wall, he, as many thousands of Germans, was able to obtain the file the Stasi had kept on him. The File recounts how he dealt with what was in the file, from comparing his own memories and detailed files with the secret police's interpretation of his actions, to his confronting the people who had informed on him.
I found the subject matter fascinating. Even having a basic knowledge about what East Germany had been like, I was shocked at What Garton Ash's personal experience and his file reveal about what it had been like to live in a place where the State kept such a close and paranoid watch on its citizens, and had built such a complex and formal structure in order to do so. I knew the basics, but I hadn't realised the extent of it.
I only wish the book hadn't been written in such a dry, emotionless manner. When I read in the description that he had gone out and confronted those who had spied on him so closely, several of them people he knew socially quite well, I expected some emotion. He had been betrayed by these people, after all. But no, it was all quite matter-of-fact and prosaic. The focus was on understanding what had motivated these people and the pressures they had faced and how they were dealing with it now, and that was fine and interesting, but those interactions felt artificially cold, and the resulting book wasn't precisely a page-turner.
MY GRADE: A B-.