There’s an irony about Stasi 77. Like many of the characters within its pages, David Young’s latest DDR novel is not all it seems. It promises to be another high quality police procedural with the mystery taking place alongside position-jockeying between investigator Karin Müller and Stasi officers hiding in the shadows. In fact, the mystery is, you feel, only really there so that Young can ask fundamental questions about individual and collective fear, guilt, courage and moral certitude.
Let’s cover the mystery first: it’s fine. As usual, Müller forces her way through to a conclusion. We like Müller: she believes in the DDR but she is no humourless apparatchik. She’s brave and resourceful and if, sometimes, her hunches seem to pay off rather too conveniently there are none the less some super spy set pieces.
The main narrative is interspersed with a first person narrative from the tail end of the Second World War. The narrator, a French prisoner of war captured along with his brothers, and Young plausibly presents his fear, hope and spirit as the POWs are shunted by their captors as they flee the Allies’ advance. We can guess the outcome. What we may not know is that this narrative depicts a real atrocity.
In an afterword to the novel, Young questions the ethics of, as he puts it, ‘bolting a fictional story onto a horrific real-life event’. It isn’t for me to pass judgement on that, but I do think that Young manages to do three things rather well. First, he tells the story of the Gardelegen massacre, a not-well-known episode that requires to be told.
The second result is slightly less obvious and is difficult to relate in a review of this length. But Young tries to look at the massacre through the eyes of some of the Germans present at the massacre. He manages to do this sensitively and to ask wider questions about individual agency in the face of a mob. To what extent did those who found themselves caught up in atrocity find that they were able to stand up to it? Young considers the question from a number of angles: it is easy, after all, to claim you were against an atrocity after the fact, and it is also possible for history to be written and re-written, depending on the interests of those doing the writing. Young points out that Nazi sympathisers gained positions of power in the DDR – and that others were blackmailed by the Stasi into doing its work. I don’t think that Young lets his characters off the hook. And Müller, who was not born during this part of her country’s history, is able to take what she sees as a principled stance. On one level, that’s any easy position for her to take, and Young encourages us to question how much she earns her position on the high ground, and, by implication, how much we today who have never been tested in this way earn our right to claim any moral superiority.
Stasi 77 is a risk-taking, ambitious novel that promises you a police procedural and instead confronts you with a real mass murder. It isn’t an easy read. I recommend it highly.
Thanks to Zaffre Books for the review copy.
We’ve covered previous titles in the series: Stasi Wolf and A Darker State. And David Young participated in our Secret Library feature: read his book choices here.