Hofmann transports us to the surreal setting of East Berlin in her humorous and emotive novel, The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures. The disastrous results of living under a spy state are carefully examined through the eyes of Bernd Zeiger, whose glimpses into paranoia demonstrate this brutal and unforgiving regime. It’s absurd yet completely plausible, and Hofmann peppers her prose with satirical references alongside the bleak backdrop. It’s an intriguing look into a life lived in contained fear, and what can happen when those internal constraints finally begin to unravel.
Stasi agent Zeiger, our charming but questionable protagonist, suspects he is nearing the end of his life, and so decides to unveil his secrets to the beautifully elusive Lara. However after his revelation, she suddenly disappears, and Zeiger embarks on a mission to uncover what has happened to her. What follows is a mesh of times, places, and viewpoints. We dance around in time as Zeiger slowly allows us to piece together his past, and the making and significance of his life’s work and novel’s namesake – the Manual.
The book not only very quickly conjured up the striking backdrop of gloomy and grey East Berlin, but also added multiple layers to really emphasise the almost surreal nature of the distinctive setting:
“Through his driver’s-side window, broken and permanently cracked, wafted a smell like iron and lignite coal. Childhood memories, postwar smells, Zeiger held a tight grip on the wheel. The line at the bakery had exploded into pieces. Spontaneous, unregistered disarray. Protests in Leipzig a few weeks ago had been planned; the demonstrations last week at Alexanderplatz had been planned; Management’s response to these planned happenings had been planned. Plans were made five years ahead of time. And now the baker’s white apron was splattered with blood.”
Just in this short paragraph, Hoffman demonstrates what continues to distinguish her novel as a fantastic piece of literature. She highlights the factual, but almost comical, activities of the state, however there’s also the crucial element of humanity too; the smells that whisk Zeiger back to his childhood, and the visceral final image of the blood on the innocent baker’s apron. The startling effect of the red against white requires no analysis, and immediately Hofmann shows the lost innocence of the everyday when living under this ruthless regime.
It is small details and considerations like these that really set apart Hofmann’s writing. Layered, all encompassing paragraphs like the one above are frequent, which really help to elevate the setting into something much more than a ready-made environment to be relied upon.
Her decision to cross over to America during sections of the book is also important in achieving the established backdrop. Exposing the reader to other characters and other nationalities helped to underline the uniqueness of this time and place, and also underscored the otherness of our Berlin-based characters.
I loved the addition of the desert boys, too, which scientist Held encounters during his eerie time in the American lab. They represented something so untouched and mysterious, and also highlighted the scientists own vulnerability and fragility. Their reaction to their supposed freedom was fascinating. Held’s continued obsession with the boys, and their subsequent disappearances, worked with his own regression into this paranoid state, an emotion which underpins almost the entirety of the novel.
Hofmann embeds stories within stories, making for an interesting and varied read that also mirrors the novel’s themes of deceit, hidden information and revelations. I loved the way the book progressed in this way – it was entirely unexpected and really carried the storyline forward in a uniquely challenging manner. We weave through time and sometimes even point of view; though much of the novel is determined by the strength of Zeiger’s memory and storytelling abilities, keeping the narrative third person also allows for strong, opposing narratives to mix their way into the stories.
Everything is shrouded in secrecy, only revealed under careful explanation and a deep analysis of the facts. I really enjoyed getting to understand Lara’s background and her significance like this. What seems like an innocent crush is revealed to be much more complex, and the nature of the relationship between Lara and Zeiger was one that, thanks to the packing of the stories, was one that I could have never had guessed.
Despite the novel’s strong focus on paranoia, Hofmann is also keen to highlight the absurdity of the conditions of the time. This is where her skills as a diverse writer really shine. The segue into the quarrel over uniforms – in which grey and dull colours are temporarily banned – was hilarious, yet Hofmann ensured that the section ended with a poignant reminder of the setting’s bleakness: “Comrades returned to work in old muted suits and colorless ties and avoided one another. As quickly as the clouds had parted, they were shuttered back into a low-hanging mass every bit as deep, impenetrable, and, some would argue, even more gray than before.”
There’s also the young punk who is convinced the outside air is poisoning him, and a chilling and equally bizarre agency interview process, which all culminates in an almost laughable novel end point. The image of the unravelling ministers, one by one checking themselves in the psych unit, regressing to bizarre childlike states, was compelling, and a fantastic way to finish this novel. It was as though, with Zeiger’s final revelation, the final piece of this intricate but crumbling mechanism had been toppled.
The novel gave me strong remnants of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time; this idea of exposing your life’s work just moments before your suspected death, in order to free yourself from the trappings of such information, is so powerful and makes for such an interesting story that can – as we see here – bend in any direction.
The freeing act could also explain why Zeiger maintains this detached nature, despite the repercussions of his Manual – he is now so outside of what he has done, all that’s left to do is attempt to unburden himself before slipping away, as he hopes, unnoticed.
The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures is published by Riverrun and is available here.
Jennifer Hofmann was born in Princeton, New Jersey, to an Austrian father and a Colombian mother, and grew up in Germany. She received her MFA from NYU and currently lives in Berlin. The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures is her first novel.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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