ACCIDENT: A DAY'S NEWS by Christa Wolf, Translated by Heike Schwarzbauer, and Rick Takvorian New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 113 pp., $15.95 POST-World War II German writers are caretakers of their language. They keep a watchful eye on its evolution - sometimes riding currents, other times struggling against them. In view of the misuse of the language during Hitler's time, they bear a particular responsibility to avoid doublespeak in their writing, and to call attention to it wherever it surfaces - in politics, in education, in the news.
Christa Wolf, a prizewinning East German writer, has concerned herself for three decades with the metamorphosis of her language - as well as its historical and modern allusions to the condition of German political culture.
Her latest novel, ``Accident: A Day's News,'' deals with the nuclear mishap at Chernobyl. For Wolf, the accident was doubly distressing because it added to the growing list of words and phrases that serve as cover-ups and patronize the public.
Wolf protests what she considers the dangerous use of a number of these unpalatable linguistic adaptations, including ``radioactive cloud'': The narrator, at her kitchen sink, wonders ``which poet would be the first to dare sing the praises of a white cloud'' again.
The author picks apart such phrases, claiming that they rob us of our humanity by contaminating the expressive terms we use to depict the natural world. For her, ``radioactive cloud'' is not simply post-atomic imagery; it defiles the white clouds of Rilke's poetry.
The story unfolds as the news of the reactor fire breaks. The narrator's brother has just undergone surgery for a brain tumor. She spends the day at home, waiting for a phone call from the hospital and contemplating the relationship between her brother's condition and the Soviet reactor accident.
The entire action takes place on this single day. The narrator takes readers on a tour of her conscious world, which is constantly interrupted by outside information and events - first, the television and radio reports (``experts'' giving an opinion about how long it will take until the ground water is affected or how many tomato salads one might ``safely'' eat in a week); eventually, by her own soul-searching attempt to understand the occurrence.
Is the modern scientist a latter-day Faust, trying to outwit ``a fear which must be so immense that [he] would rather `free' the atom than [himself]?'' Or are humans not so very different from those rats ``which had been trained to stimulate their centers of desire by pressing a button''? She continues, ``They love that button. Press, press, press. At the risk of starving, perishing of thirst, becoming extinct.''
Through the narrator, Wolf registers her fear that knowledge - technical knowledge - is taking this path. Furthermore, she suggests, the ambiguous use of language is a last-ditch attempt at a defense mechanism - a ``say it isn't so.''
Wolf is painstakingly precise in her own choice of words; she is unwilling to accept types of usage that tend toward the ambiguous rather than the articulate. She believes that all 20th-century language (not just German) is full of terms that inhibit creativity by filling the mind with chatter. In ``Accident,'' she likens the computer and its universal language to a latter-day Tower of Babel.
In this work, as in others, Wolf tells the story on several levels, thereby heightening the reader's awareness of form, precision, and language. The m'elange of voices can sometimes be a challenge to the reader - in one text, where the mix of speakers seems to grow louder and louder, Wolf abruptly cuts them short with, ``Who is speaking?''
Such devices clearly stray from the literary guidelines of Socialist Realism, the traditional cultural/creative policy of the East German government.
But with her growing international recognition, Wolf is more than ever free to follow her own calling - in this case, confronting double-tongued politicians in both East and West with her personal vision of a nuclear-free, peaceful world.
Taking such a moral stance, Wolf has not only superseded the prescriptions of East German cultural policies, but has also reestablished herself as today's most prominent all-German author.