Writer Monika Maron used to live a half-hour tram ride away (the No. 46) from the Friedrich-strasse train station in the center of East Berlin. Half an hour from this border crossing, where in minutes elevated subway trains pass over the Berlin Wall into the western half of the city. Half an hour between Germany's socialist and capitalist worlds. Much to the discomfort of East German authorities, this outspoken Berlin native - whose views are as blunt as her shoulder-length hair - was not content to keep quiet on her side of the Wall. Nor was she content to keep quiet about the Wall
``Whoever here thinks of the word `border' in connection with travel,'' she wrote in a newspaper last summer, ``first thinks of soldiers, barbed wire, the Wall, the laws. Of these, the laws are the worst; they criminalize one's dreams.''
Such public criticism by an East German - especially on the issue of closed borders to the West for most of the country's citizens - was rare enough. But Monika Maron went further. She wrote these lines for the pages of a leading West German newspaper, Die Zeit, as part of a public correspondence with a West German counterpart, Munich news-man Joseph von Westphalen.
From July 1987 to this past March, the two engaged in an uncensored written dialogue that covered a gamut of topics - from demonstrations by youth in East Berlin, to the draft and militarism, to clich'es that Germans from both societies have about one another. A very popular feature, it was one of the few public forums in West Germany in recent years where an East and a West German - neither of whom represented an ``official'' point of view - communicated freely with one another.
For Maron, the letters were a means for testing the limits of independence in her own society.
``It was, in part, my discussion with my own leadership,'' Maron explained after the series was over, adding that the letters ``were not intended to be insults to the GDR [the German Democratic Republic.] They were simply my thoughts.''
The East German authorities remained unconvinced. While the correspondence earned Maron some celebrity in the West, it added to her notoriety - at least in official circles - at home.
``Distasteful'' was how Elmer Faber, the director of an East German publishing concern, put it to a West German journalist at the Leipzig Book Fair in East Germany. ``She threw dirt on all of us connected with the GDR who want to bring this country forward.''
Last summer, views such as Mr. Faber's had left Maron unperturbed - even a little flattered. As she quipped to pen pal von Westphalen, ``The worst that can happen to an author here is not that one wouldn't be published. It is rather that one would be praised in the pages of [Communist Party Newspaper] Neues Deutschland.''
Maron has yet to be subjected to such praise. Since 1980, none of the former journalist's work - including her three books (two novels and a collection of short stories) - has been printed in East Germany. But all three books have been brought out by a West German publisher. The novels Flight of Ashes and The Defector have been translated into English as well.
Flight of Ashes marked Maron's departure from writing about themes that were acceptable to official East German sensibilities. It was her first novel, and it tackled one of the government's most taboo subjects: the massive pollution by brown coal, East Germany's main energy source. Through her semi-autobiographical protagonist, journalist Josef Nadler, Maron depicted the subtle as well as brutal mechanisms of the censorship employed to keep the real news out of the news. Maron, who wrote the book over 10 years ago, first submitted it to an East German publishing house. There it languished - neither formally rejected nor published.
Her second novel, The Defector (published in West Germany in 1986), was not any more acceptable to the authorities. A mix of surreal images and concrete narrative, it depicts the spiritual alienation of an up-to-now solid citizen, historian Rosalind Polkowski. One day she suddenly realizes that in fulfilling all the roles assigned to her by others, she is slowly killing her own sense of self. Ghosts representing these political and social authorities visit Rosalind Polkowski in her mind, and try to wrest her away from the danger of her imminent inner defection. An irreverent streak toward authority runs through The Defector. That streak is coupled with the message that true freedom can only come by placing individual needs before collective ones. Here Maron sounds a classically anarchist trumpet.
The echo from it resonates back to her own history. She comes, as she puts it, ``from a good Communist family.'' Born in 1941 in the working-class neighborhood of Neukoelln - today part of West Berlin - Maron was the illegitimate daughter of a German father and a half-Polish, half Polish-Jewish mother. At school, she was the only member of her class to belong to Pioneers, the Communist Party organization for youth.
``Jewish, Polish, Communist, and cross-eyed,'' is how she describes her childhood self, recalling the patch she wore over one one eye after operations to fix the impairment. ``I was very much alone, but on the side of right, of course.''
It was also the side of the powerful. Her stepfather, Karl Maron, was East Germany's Chief of Police until 1955, and thereafter Minister of the Interior until 1965. It was after he met her mother that she and Monika moved to East Berlin in the early 1950's.
Maron joined the party in the 1960's. At the time, her views of the Wall, built overnight by East Germany in August 1961, were different. In one of the letters to von Westphalen, she explained that she belonged ``to those who hoped that, separated from an alien value system, it would finally be possible to build a just socialist society with true democratic features.''
It was, ironically, her stepfather who paved the way for her eventual rebellion. An inheritance he left to her upon his death in the 1970's allowed her to leave her journalist job and devote herself full-time to writing Flight of Ashes. Before the decade was over, she had left the Communist Party.
Up until last month, Maron shared a ground floor apartment with her chemist husband and teenage son in East Berlin's residential neighborhood of Pankow, where elegant turn-of-the-century stone apartment buildings - in dire need of facelifts - line a tiny side street. Inside, bookcases along two walls of their high-ceilinged living room included titles by Edgar Allan Poe, Doris Lessing and Polish academic Leszek Kolowski. A small Jewish menorah stood on a display table between two windows facing out onto the street.
On an evening last April, Monica Maron sat on a beige couch and explained that she had just applied for an exit visa, for herself and her family, to leave East Germany. Beside her was a bright red phone; it rang continuously throughout the evening as friends who had just heard the news called.
``I always thought that in the end one should stay here, and struggle for one's things here,'' she explained. ``But nothing is going forward. There is nothing more to struggle for. I have said everything and done everything that I could do.''
By early June, the Maron family was in the West German city of Hamburg. But she had not fully closed the door behind her. Her exit visa was for three years only - and she had received permission from the East German authorities to reenter the country during that time to visit her mother.
Making the other mistake
As she told a friend before leaving, ``One can make the mistake to stay and one can make the mistake to go. I've been making the one mistake for a good long while. It's time now to try the other.''