When we think about the Eastern Bloc, large Brutalist apartment buildings loom from Erfurt to Anadyr. The collapse of the seemingly powerful Soviet empire was a shock to essentially everyone, not in least the people who lived in it. A mistaken turn of phrase by an Eastern German official opened the Berlin Wall, and the winds of change blew across half of a continent. The Soviet jackboot was lifted.
It is this time in East Germany that Jennifer Hofman portrays vividly in her novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, released in 2020.
The plot revolves around Bernd Zieger, an agent of the Stasi, the East German secret police. He is obsessed with a waitress, Lara, who disappears without a trace. This occurs as the entire Stasi, indeed the entire country, seems to be coming undone. During his search for Lara, Bernd is confronted with the deeds he has committed in the service of the German Democratic Republic, and what it all means now that the Iron Curtain is being drawn up.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures can be a hard book to follow. I strongly suspect this was Hofman’s intention. Her writing reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka (with a bit of Michael Frayn), all in a red coat of paint. There’s an absurdism in the book that I can’t quite put my finger on; I suppose that’s what it’s like when your entire world is collapsing.
The book’s confusing qualities emphasize how little sense the East German state apparatus made by the time of its demise. So many things are arbitrary, defying explanation, and this lack of meaning has permeated Zieger’s own conception of self. It is a book about ennui and loss of purpose, about the sense that one is no longer fit for the world.
Purpose is another theme that defines this book. Underlying the entire enterprise are probing questions about the nature of a state that loudly proclaims it exists for the sake of workers but viciously crushed strikes. Bernd Zieger is painfully aware of the terrible things he had done for his country in the name of the workers, no matter how much he tries to suppress it. His internal conflict is the internal conflict of so many Eastern Europeans in this period, as the gulf between aspiration and reality becomes impossible to ignore.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures is a challenging book, and perhaps a confusing one. It is also a relevant book when many of us live under systems that are similarly buckling under the strain of the passage of time. Things in this book reflect our lives in ways that may be unpleasant to reckon with.