East Berlin, early November 1989. Protestors seeking political reforms thrum the city. You can feel it: The old communist order is falling apart. And so is Bernd Zeiger, Stasi officer.
While you and I know that the Berlin Wall is set to topple, the characters in Jennifer Hofmann’s excellent debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures do not. And, really, the protests that contribute to the wall’s cracking are just sporadic backdrops throughout the novel. What Hofmann gives us is a small cast of characters trying to lurch their way through daily life in a regime that has already taken so much from them.
Zeiger, nearing the end of his career as an officer in East Germany’s brutal secret police organization, is—like the wall—on the verge of total collapse. He has “developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.” The impetus for his breakdown: Lara, a waitress at the café he frequents, has disappeared. Apparently, Zeiger is so starved for human connection that an accidental near fall at the café, resulting in Lara catching herself by placing her hand on his shoulder, has reduced him to a vessel of total need. His life is a double helix of loss of meaning and a yearning for the one thing that might restore some balance: Lara. Driving Berlin, he sees her everywhere. “Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere. Lara in the ether.”
If Zeiger had one life-defining event, it was penning a reference work entitled “Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” (SDP Manual). As a young Stasi officer, he was unsettled by the Soviet method of torturing subjects into confessions (real or not). So he codified a different kind of torture, where recipients were at the end of a barrage of mental maneuverings (ridiculous, yet effective) that led to mental chaos. If they confessed, great. If not, it didn’t really matter. A different charge awaited.
An example of its comic absurdity: Subchapter 1.1, “Demoralization through Repetitive, Tedious Speech,” where, in one case, a Party spokesman talked for so long he had “anesthetized an entire room of journalists with his old Berliner lilt.” Still, to Zeiger, it was his “life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.”
I won’t give away what becomes of Zeiger’s search for Lara, but it’s ultimately both fantastical and beautiful. Throughout his pursuit, we learn that Zeiger was on his way to becoming a young orphan after his father was marched into oblivion, Germany having lost the Eastern Front during World War II. (The Eastern Front cost many German children their fathers, “when more stray dogs than grown men had roamed the streets.”) The process of becoming an orphan was complete after his mother received a small box, courtesy of the Soviets. Inside were the remains of her husband. Soon after, she had an “accident’ and “fell face forward into her Walther service gun.”
Dark stuff, indeed. However, the book is often wickedly funny. When a colleague presents a picture of his adult son (also gone missing), Zeiger sees in him “features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems.” Further losing his repose, Zeiger says to this colleague, “I think I’m dying.”
“Differently than the rest of us?”
“I believe so.”
“What makes your death so special?”
“That it’s mine.”
Then there was that time in Zeiger’s career when he reported to work having not received the memorandum that the color gray had been banned within the Party. At HQ, everyone else wore clownishly bright attire. The concept of gray, he learned, “was the sustenance of skeptics.”
So there you have Zeiger, crushed by the Soviets in his youth and then made to do their bidding as an adult. And he knows it. “Failure and shame; iron and steel.”
There are moments in the novel when the question of “Why?” is asked. Why was insanity allowed to reign for so long? It’s almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer. One can only circle around it. “Misery was never content with its victories, not because it was greedy, but because it had no memory.”
The torturer ends up torturing himself. “Any room, he realized, can be a torture chamber. It need not be titled as such to become one. A bedroom, a pretty house, a state, one’s own porous skull.” Hofmann’s novel is a reminder that the building and ultimate tearing down of a wall that was meant to divide expended too many lives, lives that would have been better spent doing just about anything else.