The Censor and the Censored, Linked by Literature [in South Africa]

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WHEN Big Brother regimes crumble, they sometimes leave an unintended paper trail, a pathway into the dark tradecraft of oppression.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, for just one example, many Germans discovered from files kept on them that children or spouses had spied on them for the Stasi secret police. And in Romania, Doru Pavaloiae, an economist, learned that a man he thought of as a friend, a popular singer in his hometown, was an informer — code name: Minstrel — for the feared Securitate.

Such epiphanies would scarcely be possible if repressive regimes were not seized with an obsession to accumulate raw data on their citizens — the bytes of betrayal, the grist of control.

Hence, the snoopers’ reports on whom people meet with, talk to, sleep with — on how their hearts beat and their minds roam. At the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, files left behind by the Nazis at 51 concentration camps and prisons fill almost 50 million pages, documenting the minutiae of terror.

But sometimes, depending on the country, the story is more nuanced — not genocide or crude repression but a more subtle chronicle, the fine shadings of control.

So it was for the South African-born writer and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, as an audience at the American University in Paris learned recently when he spoke of his experiences to students, faculty members and at least one American icon — the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 91, who was also, coincidentally, visiting Paris.

“Until I was 50 years old my books could be read by my fellow South Africans only after they had been approved by a committee of censors,” Mr. Coetzee, 70, told his listeners. But it was only around 2008 that an academic researcher offered to show him files he had unearthed relating to three of the author’s works from the 1970s and early 1980s....

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