Wolfgang Hilbig writes as Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany



Wolfgang Hilbig, "I", Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Seagull Books, 2015.



The perfect book for paranoid times, “I” introduces us to W, a mere hanger-on in East Berlin’s postmodern underground literary scene. All is not as it appears, though, as W is actually a Stasi informant who reports to the mercurial David Bowie look-alike Major Feuerbach. But are political secrets all that W is seeking in the underground labyrinth of Berlin? In fact, what W really desires are his own lost memories, the self undone by surveillance: his "I."
            First published in Germany in 1993 and hailed as an instant classic, “I” is a black comedy about state power and the seductions of surveillance. Its penetrating vision seems especially relevant today in our world of cameras on every train, bus, and corner. This is an engrossing read, available now for the first time in English.



    “[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.”—Los Angeles Review of Books


Wolfgang Hilbig died in 2007, but his reputation continues to grow in Germany. Hilbig started writing while working as a stoker in the industrial wasteland of the GDR but he was hardly the ideal "worker-poet" in the eyes of the regime: he refused to pay tribute to the heroic proletarian, but rather wrote from the perspective of the oppressed - those at the bottom rung of society - even in the GDR Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staat. His critical stance and pessimism proved too much for the Stalinist state, and he was allowed to leave in 1985.  Hilbig remained an outsider in West Germany and for the most part was ignored by the literary scene there.  His novel "Ich" appeared in 1993 and is now recognized as one of the most important novels of the post-Wende era.  Nothing of Hilbig has appeared in English, which is unfortunate since Hilbig is a far greater writer than better-known East German writers such as Christa Wolf or Uwe Johnson.
"Ich" is written in dense, Kafka-like prose with multiple layers of meaning.  It would take at least another reading to peel back the layers.  The novel can be seen as a Wenderoman, since it depicts an illegitimate state in the throes of collapse. This is East Berlin, capital of the GDR, in the late eighties and the protagonist is a Stasi IM (informant).  But the legitimation crisis of the state is inferred only indirectly through interior monologues; there are no grand scenes of Montagsdemos.
"Ich" is also a Künstlerroman, sincethe narrator/protagonist - M.W.  or "Cambert" - is a writer, or at least an aspiring writer.  M.W., like Hilbig, works as stoker in the East German provincial city A. and is compelled to write during his coffee breaks.  This arouses the suspicion of his fellow workers, since it assumed that M.W. is writing reports for "die Firma" - which is what the Stasi is called in the novel.  And, in fact, it is M.W.'s talent as a writer that attracts the attention of the Stasi, who coerce him to write reports on persons of interest.  When M.W. makes his way to East Berlin he is recruited to inflitrate the unofficial group of writers and artists in the Prenzlauer Berg - known as "die Szene".  M.W. achieves the reputation as a dissident writer after 17 of his poems - poems he doesn't recall having written - appear in West German literary journals.  M.W channels his literary talents into his reports, and it is quickly apparent that die Firma is more interested in his style than in the content. His Stasi handler Feuerbach is a lover of American literature and complains that the reports lack the concision of Hemingway; he suggests that M.W. read Thomas Pynchon.
There is a Freudian subtext to "Ich".  M.W.'s father perished during the war (just as Hilbig's own father fell at Stalingrad), and so he latches onto his Stasi handlers as father figures.  Feuerbach especailly functions as a kind of super-ego, and M.W. is despondent and suffers from writer's block when Feuerbach disappears for months at a time.  Sexually, M.W. is virtually impotent and unable to connect with women his own age.  He finds refuge from his informant activities in a cellar beneath a graffiti drawing up a giant phallus and finally ends up in bed with his landlady who treats him as her son.  M.W. accuses his "target" - the writer Reader - of being gay, and then he himself is sexually assaulted by his Stasi handler Feuerbach with the barrel of a pistol.
Mostly "Ich" is novel of an identity crisis, which is why Hilbig put quotation marks around his title.  The ego is fragile, and the narrative perspective keeps shifting back and forth from first to third person.  The narrator/protagonist is alternatively called M.W., or just W. or Cambert - his Stasi cover name - or just C.  Finally Cambert takes over as M.W. succumbs completely to the false consciousness of the state.  But Hilbig holds the reader's sympathy in check; M.W. is the author of his own destruction and is hated as an operative of a despised state:
"  Die Gründe für diesen Hass waren nicht die unhaltbaren oder gebrochenen Verprechen der Regierung, nicht die Blindheit und das Krieichertum ihrer Repräsentanten, nicht die Wahlfälschungen, vielleicht noch nicht einmal die Mauer, die Polizei, die Parteibonzen mith ihrer Doppelmoral und Feigheit...der Grund für deisen Hass waren wir...Wir, die kleinen und niederen, unscharfen, unermüdlichen Schatten, die den Leuten des Landes anhingen: wir waren die Nahrung dür diesen Hass. ...Wir hatten keinem etwas getan... Wir waren der Schatten des Lebens, wir waren der Tod...wir waren die fleischgewordene, schattenfleischgewordene Dunkelseite des Menschen, wir waren der abgespaltene Hass. "Ich" war der Hass."
(The reasons for this hatred weren't the unkept promises of the state, not the blindness or the toadyness of its representatives, not the phony elections, maybe not even the Wall, the police, the party bosses with hypocrisy and cowardice. We were the reason for their hate.  We, the insignificant, blurry, tireless shadows, who latched themselves on to the people of this country. we nourished this hate....We never hurt anyone.  We were the shadows of life, we were death... we were the incarnation, the shadow incarnation of the dark side of people, we were the hate that had split off.  "I" was the hate.)
Hilbig illustrates brilliantly in "Ich" how the fragmentation and ultimate dissolution of authentic identity mirror the dissolution of the false state. M.W. - or Cambert - is nothing more than a shadow. - www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2010/12/review-wolfgang-hilbigs-ich.html


This spring, it was announced that the author, Wolfgang Hilbig, will be this year's winner of the Büchner-Preis - Germany's most prestigious literary award. These three short-shorts or prose poems: “The End of the Night (Old story...)”, “Ancient Enmity” and “The End of the Night (Rolling the bones...)”", date from the years 1974, 1986 and 1974 respectively. They have been reprinted in several collections of Hilbig's work.
Wolfgang Hilbig was born in 1941 in the coal-mining region of Meuselwitz, Saxony; his father fell in the Battle of Stalingrad. Hilbig grew up in a working-class milieu and worked in East Germany's industrial wasteland; his densely poetic texts literally emerged from the boiler-room. He was too independent and his work too apocalyptic to make him a candidate for the new breed of working-class poets fostered by the GDR.
In 1985 Hilbig moved to West Germany, but has remained a profoundly East German writer. His mordant view of capitalist society and post-reunification politics has raised some hackles, but he commands too much respect to be written off as a mere provocateur. With his integrity and intensity, he has become one of Germany's most important living writers. His early work, of which the enclosed pieces are typical, stands as one of the GDR's richest literary legacies.
Hilbig's work has been translated into a number of European and Asian languages; the only major work of his to appear in English was the novella “Knacker's Yard”, published several years ago in Grand Street (Issue 48). Isabel Cole's translation of several excerpts from his most recent novel “The Interim” appeared in the Spring, 2001 issue of the “Edinburgh Review” and in the May 2002 issue of the “Chicago Review”. Another excerpt of “The Interim” is forthcoming in the Fall issue of the Northwest Review.


The End of the Night (Rolling the bones...)
Rolling the bones at a big round table in the inn.
Rare luck, I win every game, on a roll, the pot is alcohol, but I must pay everything myself, for the other five chairs are empty, I have no opponents. So after each round I must down six shots, and the pitiless innkeeper keeps bringing new trays of filled glasses. I must throw for each of my opponents, and I cannot leave, my feet are trapped in a layer of rocks piled up to my shins, holding my legs, the table legs; the whole floor of the room, up to the walls before me, behind me, is covered by this talus layer, I hope it won't start to rise like the water in thrillers. By morning the alcohol will have dulled the pain in my feet... and already day is breaking, hail O Sun... it rises harsh yellow on the horizon, a magical hue shimmers over the rigid wave-crests of this talus desert. Soon the air over the grey-yellow stones will vibrate as if in the emanations of a glowing stovetop, and as far as I can see, whichever way I turn my head: nothing but a boundless plain heaped with talus, stretching on and on with the curve of the world down below all horizons. And above me, at the zenith, the naked implacable fire... nothing to be done but go on with the game, submit to the luck of these dice, nothing to lose, all the gold of this world is already won.


The End of the Night (Old story...)
Old story, just before midnight, the clattering mail-coach nears – more dragged than drawn by the panting horses; the lash that danced about their sweat-drenched flanks drove the beasts to a pace unconscionable on these miserable mud-covered roads –; on the sludgy pond of a village square the coach comes to a standstill like a roar falling silent. The travelling gentleman steps out, heedlessly tramping his boots in the puddles, in evident haste, despite which, before turning to the inn, he glances at the sky. Prodigious black reactionary clouds drift threateningly low, the village square, without a single light, is filled with cold wind, soon it must start to rain; no sooner did the horses come to a stop than the coachman fell asleep slumped over on the coach-box. The door of the inn is locked, the windows armored with stout wooden shutters. The characters on the sign above the door are impossible to read; the gentleman sets down his little leather case in the doorway and pounds on one of the shutters with a gloved fist, but there is no reply. – Never, at this hour, would he dare to cry: Open up, open up, give me a bed for just this half a night, it's almost midnight, the horses are exhausted, why, I was announced, and tomorrow I am expected in the city, yes, I am the long-awaited one, my bag is full of ducats... no one would hear him. The gentleman puts his ear to the shutter, hammers at the wood with both his fists, he hears the blows resound throughout the house, the empty house, no doors shut off the inner rooms and hold out the pounding, they are torn down, broken from the walls, no furniture in the abandoned house, the floors covered with rubble, the stairs caved in, the front door boarded up. Seized by icy pain the gentleman hears the echo of his blows die away; as he looks back imploringly at the coachman the clouds part, for one moment a moonbeam strikes this figure whose flamboyantly outstretched arm rests on the railing of the coach-box; from the wide sleeve dangle, quite distinct, the snow-white fingers of a skeletal hand. Never would the gentleman dare address this coachman, mindful of the grisly skull which the dark hat hides. As the darkness returns, and the rain begins, the gentleman feels his wet face, and giving up all hope he thinks: Soon the last night of the old time will be over, and the new... I'll never reach it, no matter that I was already announced. And watching the plundered houses of this village withdraw from me I will be left behind in this dying world with my cold knowledge, oh, with the knowledge that I fell a few human words short of a goal I pursued for an entire century, with the knowledge, finally, that the ears of those to come would have profited from a few words of mine. But now the light to come will gleam with flowing blood, for their ears shall be cut off, their limbs broken, their hearts torn asunder, their bodies shall be burned to ash, and streets paved with ash shall take into the fire the bodies of those to come... and as I grasp this I see the horses will never be whipped on again, the horses turn to stone.
Old Enmity
First I learned to abandon the ears on my head. The left and then the right; that was when bombs struck all around, the houses burned and sent crackling smoke shooting up to the motor drone of a black-glowing firmament.
I never noticed it, but it was said there was a God who had an ear for me.
It was the ears I first began to hate in all the noise... they wreak vengeance on me every day since I mercilessly expelled them from the commonwealth of the body; they wreak vengeance with the smell of toxic eggshells, but they burst open nowhere, they hold their noise together. In reality they are obsessed with the thought of hearing my mouth; they buckle with greed, but do not take what they demand.
The second victim of my hatred is the mouth in my head; equally abandoned, it is entrenched in its egotistical raging... truly, it is a whorl of hatred toward the ear in my head, which emits its own aggressive signals in the form of indifference. – This obdurate ear, depraved by deafness, is both ur-form and malformation, imploding spiral, abstracting model, lettuce leaf of chaos.
Their relations, now barely to be described as such, consist in the irregular operating noises of a machine which seems mounted between them, functioning as a unit of responsibility which they can shunt back and forth.
Yet the ear – erect, screwed inward – is still separated from the mouth – dropped and clapped on – by a vast firmament which turns from time to time into a black-red seething Hell. God, who was said to have an ear for me, seems to have nothing but a closed mouth. In my case it was the other way around, but I am separated from both of them, as far as I possibly can be. I have abandoned them and condemned them to knowing the truth: all that reaches me is the groaning of their old enmity. -
www.thedrunkenboat.com/hilbig.html






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