Flight of Ashes is the first novel of Monika Maron, daughter of the late German Democratic Republic Interior Minister Karl Maron. The novel is an outstanding portrayal of the social contradictions that enmesh the now defunct modern revisionist GDR. Flight of Ashes particularly shows the discrepancy between the reality of state oppression and censorship in favor of capitalist exploitation and its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. The novel takes the right step of criticizing this moribund system yet clearly heads in the wrong direction.
The focal point of this elucidation is the life of Josefa Nadler, who we can safely conclude to stand in for the novelist herself and whose experiences in the novel are to some extent based on real life personal experiences. Nadler is a divorced journalist and single parent who, like the author, happens to be the daughter of some Socialist Unity Party of Germany bigwig. The key problem that underpins the novel is censorship: Nadler “wanted to write about the filth in B. and about the people who live in it.”
As is to be expected, the publication of her article in the Illustrated Weekly, the paper she writes for, is opposed by her editors and party bosses. One of the more interesting parts of the novel is the way the process a writer undergoes, including all the doubts, investigations, and self-justifications, in writing an article with the aim of circumventing censorship in mind.
“B. is the dirtiest town in Europe.” That should be the first sentence; that’s how I have to begin. But even Luise would cross that out. The dirtiest town in Europe in a socialist state of all places… Possible variation: B. is a filthy town. Rubbish, everyone knows that already.
If not the whole truth, then at least a nice sentence. Well: the only people who get off the train in B. are those who have to get off there, those who live there or work there or have something else to do there. This is my first sentence. I’m satisfied.
In the end, her conscience leads her to submit her article in its original blunt state of expressing the truth she saw in its entirety. The smog and pollution in B. is so sad that this is the way one of the fictional chemists in the novel related the story of their hometown to her daughter:
The dragon in it is the power plant with seven heads; each smoke stack is a head. The dragon had bewitched the town. Everyone had forgotten how to laugh. And it is dark in the town because the sun only shines where there is laughter. A very sad story until the dragon-slayer comes and strikes off the dragon’s head and frees the town from the spell.
In a talk with one of the coal plant workers in B., Nadler snaps back: “Why don’t you fight back?” “You are the ruling class after all.” But in the supposed workers state that was the GDR in its later years, the workers are not in power. The regime has been taken over by bureaucrat capitalists who seek to profit from their positions in the state apparatus and by transforming the state-owned socialist means of production into their private fiefdoms.
The major drawback in Maron’s novel is the petty bourgeois standpoint it upholds by focusing on the supposed individual freedoms that the regime is depriving its people. The following passage from the Flight of Ashes is quite instructive and is a sentiment reechoed throughout the novel:
Their desires will be destroyed through temperate regulation of eating, playing, learning. They learn reason without ever having been unreasonable. Wretched cretins will grow up, and the creative among them will feel a vague mourning and a longing for something alive. Woe be to them if they find it in themselves. They will become mocked outcasts.
This would seem straight out of some individualist Ayn Rand anthem like, say, We The Living. This focus on the dichotomy between the individual versus the collective speaks much of how the class consciousness of people living in the former modern revisionist states may have been dulled with the propagation of the deceptive line that classes have ceased to exist there. They fail to see how this sheepish docility is encouraged by the ruling clique in order to facilitate private gain without much opposition from the people:
I’ve been travelling through steelworks, textile mills, chemical plants, engineering collective combines for six years without being able to get used to the violence of industrial labor, without losing the horror that gets hold of me when I see the maiming that labor still does to people. Flayed wind pipes, crushed legs, deaf ears, growths jutting out of bones. Not to mention the invisible deformation through constant and unvarying signals to the brain.
Maron takes the environmental utopian view of condemning all industrial production as such instead of looking at the relations of people as they are engaged in creating the material needs of society. Who de facto owns the instruments of production? Who participates in the process of industrial production? Who benefits from the fruit of their labor? She doesn’t care if the relations are exploitative or not because industry in-itself and not people are for her the culprit.
I guess one of the worse things about modern revisionism is that it breeds cynicism and confusion among the working class and the oppressed people’s on who their real friends and who their real enemies are. In the words of Nadler, “they told us so much about revolution that a life without revolution seems meaningless. And then they pretend there are none left, as if all the revolutions in German history had already taken place.”
Maron fails to think through the way the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois continues during the period of socialist construction. As Mao Zedong once said, the new bourgeois is within the ruling communist party itself – that is the party functionaries seeking the capitalist road. So this is the answer when Nadler asks why it is actually the professional classes ruling in bed in spite of the workers being officially the ruling class.
The novel ends with state eventually closed down the old coal plant in B. but at the expense of Nadler’s journalistic career:
On the same day that the comrades of the Illustrated Weekly had come to the conclusion that it should be considered whether Comrade Nadler was worthy of remaining in their Party, the embodied unity of idea and discipline, the Supreme Council, decided in an afternoon session that the old power plant in B. had to be shut down in consideration of the health of the citizens of B. and in disregard for short-term economic gains.
Given Maron’s political background, the novel’s conclusion may not be that surprising. Nadler becomes the knight in shining armor who slays the dragon. It is the heroic and enlightened intellectual that saves the day through individual direct action and not the collective action of a working class too repressed by an oppressive regime.