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Banned in the East and cancelled in the West, polemical author Monika Maron continues to set her own moral compass as she enters her 80s.
Described by Le Monde as "one of the best writers of her generation," Monika Maron is popularly regarded as the most important GDR author alongside Christa Wolf (1929-2011).
But unlike the highly decorated Wolf, Maron did not achieve her writing success in East Germany, where she lived from 1951 to 1988 after she was born and first raised in West Berlin.
Her debut novel Flight of Ashes (1981), the GDR's first "environmental novel," was typically banned in her home country. Drawing on her experience as an industrial reporter, Maron exposed devastating pollution caused by the open cut brown coal mines in the East German town of Bitterfeld, which she called "the dirtiest city in Europe."
When Flight of Ashes was published in West Germany, Maron was 40 years old and remained a struggling writer. It was not until 2009 that she received one of the top awards in her homeland, the German National Prize.
Monika Maron had taken up the pen in the mid-1970s after working as a director's assistant, studying theater and art history, and then shifting to journalism.
In her early novels written in East Berlin, her primary theme was life and loathing inside a totalitarian surveillance state.
But despite Maron's criticism of the GDR regime, it turned out that she had worked as an informer for the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi — a fact that she addressed in her 1999 novel, Pawels Briefe (Pawel's Letters).
Her connection with the Stasi allegedly allowed her to travel to West Berlin to research her first novel, even if that book would describe censorship and corrupt state industry practices and later be banned.
Maron's ties to the regime began when her mother Hella Iglarz — who had been unable to marry since the Nazi race laws defined her as "half-Jewish" — met Karl Maron, a communist party functionary and later GDR Minister of the Interior. Hella and her daughter moved from West to East Berlin in 1951 before she was married in 1955, with Monika taking her stepfather's name.
So it was not a total surprise when from October 1976, Maron temporarily became an informer. But it would not be long before she herself was put under surveillance for incendiary writings — including the banned 1986 novel, The Defector, a feminist tale of individual alienation in the GDR.
By 1988, the East German regime facilitated her exit from the country by granting the writer a three-year visa — an indirect method of expatriation. She moved to Hamburg before returning to West Berlin in 1992.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Maron became a chronicler of everyday life throughout Germany. At first, she was particularly hard on East Germans who she portrayed as feeling victimized by the West, and unwilling to recognize how broken their country was.
Her autobiographical 1991 novel, Silent Close No. 6, was a scathing indictment of the fallen GDR. Describing the protagonist's life amid the political elite, she skewers the everyday party faithful who would keep the communist state going to the very end while also acknowledging her own complicity.
But she surprised her growing readership with Animal Triste (1995), a love story between a married, middle aged couple set in 1990 in Berlin's Museum of Natural History. While critics called it "escapist" and lacking political edge, the backdrop is a reunified Germany, the story emerging as a poignant metaphor for Berlin after the fall of the Wall.
Maron revived her political roots for her novel Bitterfelder Bogen (2009), which goes full circle back to the scene of her first novel, Flight of Ashes. Here she tells of the resurrection of a region that was once synonymous with an ailing economy and environmental destruction, and which has now become a "Solar Valley."
Her latest novel, Artur Lanz (2020), delves into the emasculation of men as "heroes," and the evolution of "cancel culture" in a liberal mainstream that polices speech and opinions. Maron's characters' views on gender, immigration and Islam made some wonder if the once leftist writer had become Islamophobic or anti-feminist.
Maron has also railed against the "gender gibberish" of woke liberals in political essays. She has criticized an "unenlightened Islam" and warned against "tolerance in the face of intolerance."
Opposing Germany's open door migration in 2015, she called out a "welcome mania" under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Maron's political rhetoric echoes the far-right AFD party. Is the opinionated author turning herself into a mouthpiece for the alt right?
"I say what I think," she explained in an interview with public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. "I arrive at my convictions or opinions by looking at the world or reading about it, or by weighing one opinion against another and somehow orienting myself. Whether that's right-wing or not doesn't matter to me in the end."
But Maron has indeed been cancelled due to her dalliances with the far-right, with her publisher S. Fischer Verlag cutting its ties with the author after 40 years of collaboration.
The official reason: Maron had published a volume of essays in 2020 with Buchhaus Loschwitz in Dresden, which was distributed by Antaios-Verlag — both organs of the alt right in Germany. Maron had thus become "politically unpredictable," said her former publisher.
But the author quickly found a new publishing home. On the occasion of Maron's 80th birthday, Hoffmann und Campe are publishing a volume of the writer's selected essays from across four decades. Its title: Was ist eigentlich los? (What is actually going on?).
Having been banned in the GDR and cancelled in the West, the uncompromising Monika Maron won't back down now.
This article was adapted from the German by Stuart Braun