Kingdom of Characters review: a ‘delightful mix of history and linguistics’

Jing Tsu’s ‘enchanting’ book tells the story of the Chinese language over the past 150 years

Chinese characters
(Image credit: Kilito Chan/Getty Images)

“It sounds like a movie script,” said Laura Hackett in The Sunday Times: the story of a group of Stasi spies “who spent their days interrogating suspects and their evenings penning sonnets”. But it’s true. In East Germany, art was seen as a means of socialist self-improvement and a weapon in the fight against capitalism. Every factory in the German Democratic Republic had its own library, and every industry its own “circle of writing workers”. So perhaps it was inevitable that the secret police got in on the act, forming the Writing Chekists in 1982.

In the journalist Philip Oltermann’s hands, the story makes for a “hilarious, page-turning yarn”. The group leader Uwe Berger, a mediocre poet, demanded that his group produce propaganda without ambiguity. “Precise research through/ Accurately filed matter / Information/ To the comrades”, ran one poetical effort. But some themes proved dangerously resistant to ideology. “An egotist/ in love I am/ want you to be mine/ just mine/ and hope never/ to be nationalised”, declared another.

This “fast-moving and lucid” account shows that the poetry circle was also “a way for the Stasi to spy on itself”, said Tristram Fane Saunders in The Daily Telegraph. Berger regularly filed critical reports on his fellow Writing Chekists as a way of settling grudges and advancing his career.

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Members were sometimes left crying after being berated for the dross they produced, said Oliver Moody in The Times. But at least one, Alexander Ruika, was “brilliant”, and Oltermann’s book is partly a “moving story” about poetry’s “irrepressible richness”.

In describing the group’s “petty rivalries, monstrous paranoia and small pleasures”, it also offers a unique perspective on the GDR itself – an Orwellian surveillance state whose “rigidity” and “obtuse deafness” led to its own downfall.

Faber 201pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99

Stasi book cover

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