Anne McElvoy: A forgotten classic with a message the world needs now

From the former East Germany came a novel that still haunts me
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On my desert island, besides the statutory requisites and a supply of violet creams, will be a book hardly known outside its country of origin, which I have read more times than I can remember and yet still pursues me in odd moments, as the best writing does. It's not even in the Amazon top thousand, it's set in a country that no longer exists, but it tells us the story of a generation under communism – and so much more besides.

It's The Quest for Christa T, by Christa Wolf, East Germany's grand dame of letters who turned 80 this year.

I've revisited the lost world of Christa T this year as part of the launch of Radio 4's 1989 series, trying to find fiction that imparts the story of the country behind the Wall, without seeming irrelevant or arcane to people who didn't know it.

Although it was published in 1968, in a country impervious to the excitements of Prague and the Left Bank, it's one of those books that makes you forget the publication date, and enter its world.

A nameless narrator pieced together the fragments from the life of a friend who has died of leukaemia. It was hugely controversial in registering a broader sickness: the pressures of collectivism and the crushing of individual spirit under state socialism.

Condemned for its "ideological disorientation" when it appeared, (the censor must have been asleep or missed the point), it's a charge which is actually correct, though not in the way the critic meant it. This is a disorientating book in the best sense of the word: reflective, uncertain, questioning.

The scene we chose for the reading (by Sian Thomas) is one of my favourites: the clash between Christa T as a young teacher trying to fire her class with the importance of ideals, from Goethe to politics.

It's also one of the few books set under communism where we meet a school class as irksomely stroppy as their Western counterparts, a bunch of Leipzig Laurens, pre-occupied by hair combing, transistor radios and how to get the maximum grades for the least involvement with their subject matter. Wolf started out as a teacher: no surprise to discover.

She turns for advice to the head, a wizened veteran of the Nazi resistance, but the gulf between them is too wide to be bridged. "Once he too was one of the excitable people. Nothing is left of that but the sense that such people are not the worst sort. And: that they must be checked."

Christa lurches through life, an unusually troubled socialist heroine, with affairs, excesses and quirks amplifying the central theme: individuals are not just cogs in a wheel, however grandiose the cause.

The old East is there with authenticity in every line of Wolf's prose, but there are echoes you can hear watching events unfold in today's China, Iran, Russia – and sometimes closer to home than is comfortable.

I never read it as a disappointed socialist, brooding on the failure of an ideology, though one can, if that way inclined. For me it has always been something wider and deeper, a study of what it means to believe in something that is failing. (If you have absolutely no self doubt, don't bother with it.)

"The future, beauty and perfection, we're saving them up, as our reward, to be paid some day, for untiring industry," says the storyteller of Christa T's generation. Partly it's an ironic observation about her city's co-contemporaries – but also about the instinct of improvement that is hardwired into us. Even David Cameron has borrowed the laurel of "progressive" now.

Different parts make me wonder where I would have fitted in, and what I have believed in different circumstances. "When shall we live if not in the time that is given to us?" she asks Christa T, knowing there is no choice.

The dissident writer Wolf Biermann says of those who condemned Wolf as an insufficiently outspoken critic of the sclerotic East Berlin regime: "You might as well complain at the apple tree, that it fails to bring forth staves of oak, instead of mere apples."

Hers is a haunting voice, not a loud one. But it carries, many decades on.

The Quest for Christa T springs the boundaries of it's time, because it's about what it means to have any kind of beliefs or faith, and the hardship of living with them as they dissolve. There's a bit of her in most of us, I think, either side of the Wall that was.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist for the Evening Standard . She presents Writing on the Wall on Radio 4 at 3.30pm today