Critic of Communism now goads German democrats: The novelist Stefan Heym tells Steve Crawshaw in Berlin of his electoral aims

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'IT'S an adventure. And there's a certain amount of spite in it.' He turns a venerable 81 on Sunday. But the pleasure that he gets from provocation is undiminished. Stefan Heym, a constant source of irritation to East Germany's Communist government, has now set himself up as a thorn in the flesh of Germany's democratic politicians, too. It is a role which he clearly warms to.

Mr Heym, East Germany's best- known novelist, earned enormous respect in past decades for his writings, which frequently put him sharply at odds with the regime.

But he remained a prickly figure, who was never keen to be pigeonholed. Throughout the past four decades, he continued to insist on his loyalty to the idea of what was known as 'socialism', despite his constant troubles with the authorities. Now, he has made what some believe to be the most shocking move of all: he is a parliamentary candidate for the successor party to the Communists, the PDS.

At his home in Grunau, on the eastern edge of Berlin, the visitor finds Mr Heym poring over his computer, working on a half-completed historical novel about where the Russian Revolution went wrong. He worries aloud that perhaps he is too rude about the party which he is supposed to be helping. He did not even attend a recent PDS party conference in Berlin. 'I have demonstrated that I am not their toy.' But his devil-may-care attitude may prove to be an attractive feature for voters, who are unlikely to be impressed by Mr Heym suddenly turning into a political yes- man. Thus, paradoxically, his disloyalty is precisely what the PDS most needs.

Nationally, the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) - strong in the east, almost non-existent in the west - is not expected to break through the 5 per cent barrier to gain seats in the German parliament, the Bundestag, in October. But, if the party can gain three direct seats, this provides an alternative way to gain additional seats, in proportion to the votes cast. In this respect, Mr Heym's candidacy is crucial.

Mr Heym fled from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1933 and returned to the newly-created German Democratic Republic in 1952. In East Germany he continued to offend the powers that be - occasionally loyal, more often not. Now, he clearly enjoys having mud thrown at him by the critics of the PDS, even while relishing his freedom to criticise. He has not become a party member. He insists, too, that he likes the idea that some diehard ex-Communists in his constituency will refuse to vote PDS, only because they cannot stomach the thought of voting for Stefan Heym - or that they will do so only through gritted teeth. He says cheerfully: 'For years and years, they've been maligning me. Now, they'll have to vote for me.'

Many have expressed bemusement at Mr Heym's motives. Certainly, as he himself has pointed out, it can hardly be because he hopes to make a career. More likely, perhaps, is the element of cussedness in his character.

Mr Heym is standing in the same Berlin constituency as Wolfgang Thierse, a former activist in the East German opposition, who is a deputy leader of the Social Democrats (SPD). It is a move that is clearly intended to irritate and put the wind up the SPD. In that, Mr Heym has undoubtedly succeeded.

Mr Thierse insists that 'a vote for Heym would be a vote for Kohl' and that there is only one essential question: 'Do we want a change of government? If so, we must understand that the only possibility is to vote SPD.' He explicitly accepts the potential strength, if only because of the strong protest vote, of the PDS. 'My fear is that east Germans will again deceive themselves. In 1990, they wanted to believe Kohl. Now, they're inclined to give votes to the PDS.'

Mr Thierse argues that voters may be persuaded by Mr Heym that the PDS is harmless. He says: 'Heym is giving the PDS a Persilschein.' (a 'Persil note', the colloquial phrase for the 'clean bill of health' certificates issued after 1945 to those deemed politically untainted.)

Mr Heym has his thick Stasi file, which makes bizarre reading. There are hundreds of pages, where his maid is regularly debriefed 'in a relaxed mood' (in the words of one Stasi rapporteur) on his every move. In short, he has experienced first-hand the grotesque madness of the old regime. Now, however, he has little time for the new establishment, including the Social Democrats. 'I think they're nice people, with whom I could drink tea in the afternoon. But politically, they're co-responsible for the miseries that have set in.' He insists: 'I think we need a real opposition - a real, left alternative.'

(Photograph omitted)