Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Literary Gardens - Part 1: Störfall (Accident) by Christa Wolf (1987)

It has been quite a while since I have posted anything about garden references in music, film, or television, though that is a topic I am still very much interested in - in fact, I have just been drawing up a list of movie and TV show appearances of plants or gardens that I find interesting and which I will hopefully get around to discussing on this here blog. However, I have also been looking at a lot of literary depictions of gardens and gardening and then just this past weekend I ended up writing a short paper for my class on ecocriticism in German literature based on the following paragraph from the 1987 novel Störfall (Accident) by German author Christa Wolf (1929-2011):

Mir ist es plötzlich unaufschiebbar vorgekommen, endlich die japanischen Friedensblumen aus den Töpfen, in denen ich sie überwintern ließ, aufs Beet auszupflanzen. Nachtfröste würden doch wohl nicht mehr zu erwarten sein; gleichzeitig mit den Samen war mir im vorigen Jahr die Anweisung zuteil geworden, die Pflänzchen müßten abgehärtet werden und würden sich dann auch in unserem Klima behaupten. Ein japanischer Soldat habe diese Blume aus dem japanischen Krieg gegen Burma mit nach Hause gebracht, als Friedenszeichen habe er sie angepflanzt, inzwischen sei sie über ganz Japan verbreitet; man wünsche sich, daß sie auch in Europa heimisch werde. Sorgfältig habe ich die Sämlinge auf einen freien Fleck im Blumenbeet gepflanzt, meine Verantwortung für diese Versuchspflänzchen ist mir bewußt gewesen. (Nur eine von ihnen hat bis in diesen kalten Herbst hinein überdauert. Aus ihren Samen versuche ich, in Töpfen Nachkommen zu ziehen, die ihrerseits in geschützter Umgebung überwintern könnten. Eine Tätigkeit, die keine Rechtfertigung braucht) - (Wolf 75)

And here is my own rendering into English, since I do not currently have access to the official translation:

Suddenly it seemed urgent to me to finally transplant the Japanese peace flowers from the pots in which I had let them overwinter and onto the bed. No more night frosts were to be expected; last year along with the seeds I had received the instruction that the little plants would have to be hardened off and would then be able to succeed in our climate as well. A Japanese soldier supposedly brought this plant home from the Japanese war against Burma, he planted it as a sign of peace, by now it has spread through all of Japan; it is wished that it also establish itself in Europe. I have carefully planted the seedlings in a free spot in the flower bed, I was aware of my responsibility for these experimental plantlets. (Only one of them has endured into this cold fall. From its seeds I am trying to raise descendants which could once again overwinter in a protected place. An activity which requires no justification) -  (Wolf 75)

The plant in question appears to be Orychophragmus violaceus, a purple-flowered plant related to cabbages and radish that is native to East Asia. Supposedly a Japanese man took some specimens of this plant to Japan not from Burma but from Nanjing, the Chinese city that was a site of particularly atrocious carnage during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and promoted its cultivation as a symbol of peace. Apparently this is now even commemorated by a monument back in Nanjing which was paid for by the man's son. For references to this story and pictures of the monument, see here and here

The larger narrative of the novel consists of a meditation on the risks and responsibilities associated with science and technology in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl - the accident of the title - and as the narrator tries to make sense of the brain surgery her brother has to undergo to remove a tumor. In this bleak context, I find this rather detailed horticultural excursion all the more remarkable.


Wolf, Christa. Störfall. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1987.

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