Wolfgang Hilbig - a master of using obsessive, hypnotic prose to explore the intersections of identity, consciousness, our frail bodies, and history's darkest chapters
Wolfgang Hilbig, Old Rendering Plant, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Two Lines Press, 2017.
What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies―possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone indebted to Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.
“Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature.” — László Krasznahorkai
“Out of the ugliness of history and the wasted landscape of his home, he has created stories of disconsolate beauty.” — The Wall Street Journal
“Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused.” — Electric Literature
“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books
Hilbig evokes a vivid and unsettling atmosphere in his slim but dense novel, the third of his titles to be translated into English by Cole (after The Sleep of the Righteous and ‘I’), a sinuous meditation on a landscape haunted by a horrific past. Set in an unspecified town in the German countryside, the book is narrated by an unnamed middle-aged male, self-described as an “outsider,” who has earned, through his peculiar inclinations, the disapproval of peers and family alike. His singular and alienating preoccupation is with the woodsy landscapes surrounding his hometown, which he takes pains to illustrate in meticulous—and poetic—detail. Through the narrator’s senses, the novel creates a vivid and unsettling portrait of the area’s factories, ponds, brooks, and vegetation. As a child, the narrator says, he roamed this land freely, exploring its particulars while aware of its reputation for danger. Approaching adulthood, he explains, he took an interest in Germania II, an old plant where “animals were rendered to make the fats contained in soap” and that employs dejected and cast-off men. The plant is a representation of the unnamed yet ubiquitous horror of the town’s past; the plant’s stench is so nauseating and inescapable it is taken for granted by the citizens as part of their heritage. What this volume lacks in character and plot development, it makes up for in its ability to capture the uncanny mood and feel of a community burdened by history. - Publishers Weekly
Long after he escaped East Germany to settle in the West, where he continued to reside until his death in 2007, Wolfgang Hilbig remained bound to the darkened landscapes of the GDR. He was not one to downplay the bleak and oppressive qualities of life amid the abandoned mines and crumbling factories of his hometown, Meuselwitz, and his dense, swirling prose evokes a world of strange, suffocating beauty. But his emotional attachment to his birthplace and his complicated misgivings about the benefits of reunification, left him forever torn between East and West—a conflict captured clearly in the stories that comprise the second part of the collection The Sleep of the Righteous. By contrast, Old Rendering Plant, the latest Hilbig offering to be released in English, presents a narrative firmly planted in the GDR that does not travel far beyond the immediate environs of the narrator’s home; yet this tightly defined arena affords the perfect space for a multi-layered exploration of one man’s struggle to define himself against the restrictions and expectations imposed by family, class, history, and circumstance.
Wolfgang Hilbig was born in 1941 in Meuselwitz, near Leipzig. His father disappeared at Stalingrad, so he was raised by his mother and grandparents. His illiterate Polish-born grandfather served as an important father figure, encouraging his aptitude for sports. However, as translator Isabel Fargo Cole notes in her afterword to the novel I, his early obsession with reading and writing soon alienated him from his own family. The works of Poe and the German Romantics held a particular appeal for the budding poet. Following his military service he spent years working in local factories, where, at least on the surface, he epitomized the ideal of the worker-writer that the GDR actively encouraged. Yet, unwilling to follow accepted scripts, Hilbig’s writing was seen as too challenging and obscure, and it soon drew the unwelcome attention of the authorities. Ultimately the desire to write would win out, but the tension between duty to work and to literature became a central theme that he returned to again and again.
In Old Rendering Plant, an extended monologue that slips in and out of passages of pure stream of consciousness, this tension is implicit. Originally published as Alte Abdeckerei in 1991, this novella is a meditation on the formation of identity in an environment that contains a complex network of buried secrets. The narrator is looking back from a vague and indeterminate adult perspective at that point of transition from adolescence to maturity. His is a restless narrative; memories and waters sweep by as he traces and retraces a path along a brook that, bordered by stands of willows, carves a channel through the fields on the outskirts of his hometown. As a child he found refuge in this landscape filled with magic, possibility, and adventure, armed with a wooden sabre and an imaginary foe. It was a place to feel safe and protected.
One of his favorite playgrounds was, against all adult admonishments, found in the fragmented ruins of a coal plant. Here he waged countless fanciful battles until one evening he slipped and fell off a concrete platform. He was fortunate to land in the grass, but later that night he remembered hearing people staggering across the platform above him, and he awoke to find on his right leg evidence of the substance that had caused his fall: “a dried mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.” This incident marks the beginning of a loss of innocence, the first intimations of the existence of dreadful truths that, as the narrator ages, begin to take on a greater, more complicated and disturbing significance. As the narrative unfolds, his reminisces and reflections trace his movement toward a reckoning. Gradually, as layers of memory are stripped away, he approaches an clearer understanding of the forces that have driven him. It’s not a comfortable space he finds.
The narrator is a solitary personality, both as a child and as a man, given to wandering the pathways on the edge of town during the hours that mark the transition from late afternoon light to early darkness. He speaks of his family without affection, referring to them as “my relatives.” He passes from childhood into manhood almost imperceptibly, when the adults in his life no longer show interest or concern about his habitual lateness, his tendency to come home after dark. There is only one mention of an anecdote involving a friend, someone he visits on a brief, aborted attempt to break free of the house and town in which he grew up—during that visit, an encounter with the bloated corpse of a dead rat, which he is not even entirely certain is not an illusion or dream, sends him hurrying home. It is perhaps the thought that the horror he hopes to escape is bound to his being, rather than his environment, that frightens him so.
Central to the narrative is a rendering facility hidden among the ruins of the former coal plant. The narrator’s fall from the cement platform was his first direct indication that something nefarious existed there, but he had always been aware of the signs of its presence:
As a child I knew it was the smell of the milk-colored current that washed down the brook, bubbling and steaming like warm soapsuds in the evening. I knew that the smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and the mist that rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh . . . old, useless flesh relinquished to the waters, washed its smell through the land to the east, I knew this as a child. Tallow sheathed the snarls of grass on the brook’s edge, ancient fat clung indelibly to the slopes of the embankment; it was a brew of rancid fatback, even covering the paths, boiled-out horns, bones cooked to the point of disintegration . . . the old river-willows luxuriated in this nourishment; countless bluebottles, ill from overfeeding, dripping like glossy shapes made of wax, skimmed sluggishly through the foam, and this shimmering foam, rapidly turning black spun lazily on the water by the willow’s dangling roots.At a later point—he is at a loss to even specify exactly when, the experience was so intense that it remains trapped in a level of reality between dream and waking—he happened to witness cadavers and sick, terrified animals being unloaded at the site. This plant, nestled among the ruins, was named Germania II after the mine that had once supplied the old coal factory, and it becomes, for the narrator, the source of such complicated questions and emotions that he finds himself unable to pass beyond the bridge and railroad embankment he encounters on his regular sojourns. The smells, memories, and anxieties that arise at this location routinely force him to turn and wearily head for home.
The rendering plant was rumored to employ society’s discarded men. At a time when radio reports of missing persons, and rumors of dangerous foreigners hiding in abandoned buildings, were commonplace, the workers belonged to a stratum of mysterious characters, unnamed and unseen by the light of day. The particular autumn forays that form the pivotal thread of this monologue are motivated by the narrator’s concerns about what his own future holds. He is remembering his final year of school when, with graduation approaching, he has a critical decision to make. This is where his fanciful nature, his defiant poetic spirit, begins to stir as he briefly considers becoming a gardener, inspired by the end of Candide rather than by any fondness for the tilling the soil, and entertains an idyllic life as a miller. He seems oddly determined to disturb his family and his teachers, ultimately announcing his intention to work at Germania II. With a mix of horror and fascination he develops an obsession with the process of rendering carcasses to make soap, and attempts to seek out the elusive workmen. But there is something more complex at play.
This is, at its core, a search for identity and the expression of individuality. The question of where one is heading, is necessarily a question of where one has come from:
my strange interest in bad places was an unacknowledged, unclear interest in our origins . . . because I had not actually experienced the affronts that went with the soil we had sprung from.— On reflection, we were actually exiles. Of course, only in the indefinite way in which all our names were sheer hubris . . . all our names, titles, and nouns. So we were not exiles based on some neat solid idea, but exiles out of instability . . . out of ineptitude, ignorance, antisocial tendencies; we hadn’t been torn from our roots, we had lost our rights, we were in exile because we’d never had roots or rights; we’d never even sought to find them, perhaps we constantly sought the world’s most noxious regions in order to rest our rootlessness, like gray vegetation, feeding on the ground’s nutrients but giving nothing back, we settled in the desolate provinces that were the strongholds of evil, we settled between slag and scrap where we could run riot, rank and uncontested.What, then, do those most reviled of workers say about him, and his people, who are similarly dispossessed? Is it a matter of degree that divides them? Is it destiny? As the narrator’s monologue continually circles back to this place of darkness and all of the memories that point in its direction, he rekindles the oppressive existential crisis that once drew him to fantasize about disappearing into its foul depths.
As the narrative progresses, Hilbig’s characteristic prose, which flows in fits and starts, like eddies in a stream, swirling, reversing, and moving on again, is hypnotic and disorienting. It is easy to get caught up in the beauty and rhythms of his language, momentarily losing one’s temporal bearings. As such, it is especially ideal for this type of lyrical reflective monologue. When, on occasion, he slides into passages incantatory stream of consciousness the effect is exhilarating. Translator Isabel Fargo Cole has a strong sensitivity and fondness for his idiosyncratic style that comes through in this, as in all of her Hilbig translations (including The Sleep of the Righteous and I).
Reading Hilbig, I often find myself stopping to reread a section before moving on. I revel in losing myself in his long, winding sentences and paragraphs that can stretch on for pages. This can, on the surface, draw allusions to Sebald, though, Hilbig’s prose is quite different in quality, and unlike a Sebaldian narrator, the protagonist of Old Rendering Plant, although he sets out again and again, finds it difficult to push beyond the boundaries his memories and fears have imposed. What is similar in the reading experience, however, is that both can stimulate a desire to distinguish points of departure—with Hilbig, to find those moments where reflections, memories, and memories of dreams diverge, reinforcing temporal dislocations.
The narrator’s troubled forays are rooted in his reluctance to bend to the fate that awaits him, choosing a practical apprenticeship and accepting the bonds of adulthood. He harbours a Romantic sensibility that can only find expression in defiance, in word if not in deed. This resistance continues until one evening when he wanders farther afield than intended. Disoriented, he attempts to make his way back to town, only to witness a dramatic event—an apocalyptic cataclysm resulting from the extensive economic hollowing of the land that tears a wound into the darkened recesses of the soul of his nation and ultimately frees one rootless exile whose lonely monologue culminates in a rousing Joycean climax. - Joseph Schreiber
It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly.Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”
But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.
The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh…old, useless flesh.Toward the halfway point of this very brief novel of 109 small pages, the noose begins to tighten around the narrator’s childhood and around the reader. One day the boy realizes he has become an adult (with a nod to Proust’s magic lantern).
Abandoned were the colorful picture books that just yesterday had brought a secret gleam to my eye; scattered were the bright playing cards with their naïve and inscrutable dramas of operatic morality; vanished were the handsome, disinherited youths whom the morning sun helped back on their way after a thousand ramblings in the base smells of the night; destroyed was the magic lantern…The stench emanates from an old rendering plant, which the narrator learns is called Germania II and which Hilbig uses to represent East Germany’s repressive Stasi and its broad network of informers. Germania II is a “toxic organism,” a nightmarish facility that “breathed and throbbed.” There, apparently, animals are butchered and are somehow purified and made into soap. In local bars, the narrator grimly observes some of the workers from the plant.
The burden of their gaze dripped downward, and the weight of their knowledge dug into the pavement where their shoes stuck fast in decay, in burning dirt…dug still deeper, down past the echo of their shuffling in sand, while above their brains expired amid the vagrant clouds…their pupils were dark tears, like eyes of polished ebony.The narrator’s innocent childhood idyll ultimately turns into an apocalyptic vision when the old rendering factory is swallowed up by the earth in a violent and fiery collapse, which Hilbig describes in language reminiscent of the Book of Revelations.
Like a hotbed of malice and crime afflicting the flesh of this district, one night Germania II and everything in it, alive or already dead, descended straight to Hell. It was as though the earth itself, rising up in one last desperate spasm, had catapulted itself out of a dog-like forbearance, bit open and devoured the glowing ulcer on its skin.Inevitably, the socialist and “closed society” of East Germany forced Hilbig to be attuned to its Orwellian doublespeak. In one hallucinogenic rant that is part Bible and part Joyce, the narrator links the language of the police state with the mass graves that result:
oh over the mass graves of “knowledge is power”… oh over the dark unutterable knowledge of all, oh over the grave of the knowledge of the masses, dark stumbling of words and dark fall of dead vowels snatched like stones from their throats, and snatched from the smoke of their earth: vowel-skulls, consonant-bones, carpus-consonants, pelvis-vowels, knuckle-punctuation.Hilbig’s wild and protean prose is utterly haunting. Every time I would dip back into Old Rendering Plant for a quote or a word, I would find myself rereading page after page, transfixed and tempted to quote the book at even greater length. This is especially true of the passages that turn Joycean, passages that must have been challenging for Isabel Fargo Cole to translate from the German.
Old rendering plant, starry-studded riverround. Old rendery beneath the roofs of baffled thoughts, baffled clatter of old-proved thoughts, old pretendery. Thoughts thought by night, star-studded: old clattery, the constellations covered. And clouds, old noise: smoke-brain behind the cloud-brow, windy roof of cloud racks covering the stars. But below is the fishes’ winding light: like star-script, winding, fallen chirring from the air. Past the corners of close-huddled houses, past streets, falling faster, vanished.It’s not at all surprising that Hilbig (1941-2007), who lived in East Germany and was both harassed and jailed by the Stasi, wrote in a kind of coded language that obscured what he was really saying. Ironically, the rich, evocative language of Old Rendering Plant leads the reader not toward clarity but into a fog that erases any actual sense of chronology or place. The events in the book span several decades, but the book is written in a kind of memory time, with events from disparate times blending into each other, blurring any and all demarcations. This blurring effect is even more explicit in Hilbig’s later novel “I”, (Seagull Books, 2015) about the inner life of a writer and Stasi collaborator, who says that “over [my body] hung a grey, hectically woven web of language which in fact I could describe as an impregnable fabric of simulation.”
Despite being about a rancid and insidious police state, the writing of Old Rendering Plant is infused with an unexpected, surreal sense of joy, which made me think of something I had recently read by Jan Zwicky in the preface to her book Lyric Philosophy: “What is lyric thought for? For the discernment of lyric truth—the nature of timeless, unlanguagable, resonant reality.” [Her italics.] “Unlanguagable” reality—that, it seems to me, is what Hilbig is after in Old Rendering Plant. - Terry Pitts
The setting of Old Rendering Plant is the German Democratic Republic in which Wolfgang Hilbig grew up. In a veritable perversion of the conventional German Entwicklungsroman model, Hilbig has his first-person narrator envision his “apotheosis” in a job at the rendering plant, which turns dead and dying animals into soap.
The narrator seems ineluctably drawn to the plant when, with graduation looming and absolutely no prospects for higher education, he must seek work. A job at the plant will satisfy his “strange interest in bad places” in which things harmonize with him, as he puts it. We see him, from childhood on, exploring slimy and malodorous places in a hideous has-been industrial landscape, which seems to be all that his whole village and its environs consist of. He is told not to go into these ruins because, in addition to their obvious structural dangers, it is rumored that they may also be hiding some of the many people who have “disappeared.”
The plant itself sits on an abandoned mine whose shafts wend in every direction underneath this moribund landscape. Now that the last tons of coal “had been transported away as reparations, bartered down the ramps of world history,” these shafts have room to spare for the bodies of those whom the succeeding state bureaucrats have displaced. It might strike us as ironic that the mine was called “Germania II”—even more that the rendering plant has been named after it.
While working at the plant does give its employees a bad reputation—literally leaving one with a bad odor that could not be washed away, despite the soap the plant rendered—the above-average wages offset that. The plant’s workforce includes the low-level and quasi-staff of the state security service, whose bosses strove to achieve a society sufficiently “dead” to offer absolutely no distractions for anyone.
All this is narrated in highly lyrical prose—until it tips over into a volatile rant defaming the “People’s Economy” and the bosses who thrive on the country’s cadaverous soil, just like the willows that flourish on the rendering plant’s waste. The narrator, having invited them for a beer at the local pub, purposely lets loose with this rant before those state quasi-staff, and he revels in the “malicious glee” their faces reflect, glad to hear things they could never say.
Until this sharp disruption, the narrator’s progress has been a perfect illustration of the insidious way this regime had of co-opting individuals by totally immersing them in toxins both environmental and social. Is it any wonder that such a regime was happy to grant this author permission to leave for the West? Who could portray it as morbidly? It is a short book but a tour de force nonetheless, and Isabel Fargo Cole has succeeded admirably in giving it to us in trenchantly morbid English. - Ulf Zimmermann
Hilbig sets the ominous tone of a dark discovery from the opening paragraph. The unnamed young male narrator follows a brook that leads him to the outskirts of his rural German town, where shadows and whispers intimidate and beckon simultaneously.
Pulled by curiosity, he is confronted with a plant where animals are butchered. This fact haunts him and ultimately prompts his memory to piece together scraps of an atrocious history. The bluntness of incisive observation—stench, mushy ground, remnants of bones, contaminated water—conveys the fear and disgust of the looming truth about the plant and the ground surrounding it.
It’s difficult to ignore the monolithic barbarity of World War II as Hilbig delves deeper and deeper in the narrator’s memory and the shared memory of those who lived there. The soap that washes away animal flesh seeps up everywhere and flows through the brook, bringing the smell of “old, useless flesh” back to the front of his mind. Hilbig’s prose is fluid; the narrative is unbroken monologue, a terrifying combination of recollection and realization.
This slim, feverish novella is grim. Because the final truth is revealed through a crescendo of memories, it’s less of a surprise about the history of the plant than a horrific confirmation of the truth. Hilbig chooses the abstruse structure of jumping between past and present, memory and reality, nightmares and dreams, all of which reinforce an untethered duality between the abstract and the concrete.
Old Rendering Plant is a work that eulogizes the darkness of Germany’s history through psychogeography and a forbidding narrative. There aren’t many novels that capture this perspective of World War II nor its lingering effects on nature. Hilbig’s brave work illuminates how brutality doesn’t simply end, but leaves witness in its wake. - Monica Carter
In the spirit of Proust’s Swann’s Way — the section of his opus that features this olfactory moment — Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a sensory novel that uses scent to flatten time. But whereas Proust uses a teacake to evoke a French village, Hilbig uses dissolving animal corpses to evoke postwar East Germany. Old Rendering Plant, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press, is about a man’s experience of a decaying slaughterhouse and a river full of toxic sludge. Like Proust’s, Hilbig’s writing has a beautiful and dream-like quality. But Old Rendering Plant is about tarnished ground. Entombed in the visceral smells of the sickly landscape, the unnamed narrator floats through it in paralyzed fashion.
The management at the slaughterhouse asks no questions about qualifications and leaves the past dead and buried. “Germans, Poles, Russians, stateless people, renegades…communists and Nazis,” Hilbig writes. “Here a different darkness cooped them together, the dark swamp that was required for manufacturing soft soap…” After World War II, West Germany flourished. East Germany faltered. Hilbig writes, “The cadaver of the republic has been punctured…you lot would be advised to demand better salaries for the hard work you do, and not to wait for better days. It’s clear that they won’t come.” The trauma of war hangs longer when the economy is stagnant.
In dodging their own deaths, these lowlifes still land in a dead part of the world — a place of withered cabbage fields, where bristled animal fat languishes in the still water. Hilbig writes, “You could tell [the workers] by their smell, even from afar, the unmistakable smell of the firm that they could never wash away.” The narrator refers to the smell as a “gigantic stench that circled wearily beneath the clouds.” He describes the fumes spewing from the “fatty white-yellow broth” of the river. He writes, “Though the cool of the autumn air seemed to mute the stench, I thought I tasted a hint of it in the vegetables that flourished in those gardens.” Hilbig calmly evokes the visceral and horrid qualities of this place, granting them a sort of toxic beauty. These are the smells of home.
A year after Hilbig was born, in 1942, his father went missing at the Battle of Stalingrad. Hilbig grew up with his mother and grandfather, laborers in a multiethnic East German town that saw massive population shifts when borders were redrawn after the war. This is the only world the narrator in Old Rendering Plant knows. As a boy, the factory is a defunct and crumbling coal plant. As a young man, it’s a fat-rendering facility that draws the dark loners. In both cases, he’s warned away. But at each stage of his life he’s drawn back again, carried by the scent. “I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain, but course from my senses straight to my limbs,” Hilbig writes. “I found myself with the certain sense that I’d arisen utterly naked beneath the gray wind-filled sky.”
As the narrator approaches the collapsed (again) factory as a grown man, he comes upon the “rotting concrete foundation, strikingly out of place in the grassy basin.” He thinks about how as a boy he was forbidden to come here by his mother. He went anyway, to whittle toy swords and explore the crumbling labyrinth. Evoking the sensation of the backward plunge through time, the narrator remembers slipping on the exposed edge of a stone platform and falling into the empty fog. “It was not the incalculable length of my fall that terrified me but the idea of a clump of matter, invisible in the dusk, on whose slimy slickness I’d lost my footing.” He gouges his leg slightly. By chance, he sneaks unnoticed past his mother on his way to bed that night. The next day, he sees his leg in the light of morning: “My right leg, my entire calf, covered by dried mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.” Hilbig’s sensations are grotesque but colorful. This isn’t an entirely bleak place. The landscape is lit by bright mold. Neon gas floats in the river.
Hilbig manages to convey the feeling of an infinite history of horror, and also the precarious earth on which each new tyranny is built. All of the nearby villages are undercut by derelict coal mining shafts, “honeycombing the earth’s interior.” The coal is exhausted and the maps of the tunnels are lost to the “shifting bureaucracies of successive power-mad regimes.” Even family legacies collapse back onto the surviving generation. “The castles of each new slave-holding system could be erected on thin crusts, just as the powers that be passed on to their sons and daughters the pitfalls they themselves had earned.” One night, the animal rendering plant falls through the shredded ground. The narrator remarks that the hole in the earth would slowly fill with water, as had happened in other places. The exhaustive depths made these swimming holes dangerous. Children often drowned in them.
In an introduction to Hilbig’s English-language debut, The Sleep of the Righteous, Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai writes that Hilbig “discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world.” One of the great marvels of Hilbig’s densely lyric prose is the feat of translating it, and how Isabel Fargo Cole manages to achieve a buoyant, a musical, a Joycean syntax in transporting this gritty text to English. Cole also translated The Sleep of the Righteous and in an interview on that book, she said she aims to retain Hilbig’s punctuation and syntax as much as possible — that it’s idiosyncratic in German, too. “It has a fragmented quality; the narrator’s voice jumps around or wanders into a labyrinth it can’t find its way out of. Or, in many sentences, images and sensations accumulate and tension builds, and readers aren’t given a chance to catch their breath. These effects are crucial to the narrative voice.”
“What smell flowed with the rivers,” Hilbig writes. “The dizzying smell whose source no one wanted to know, whose existence no one admitted noticing.” But Hilbig’s narrator notices. Hanging inside the sensory experience of his memories, our narrator becomes an open channel to this lush and sickening landscape. “It was as though the water coursed over me,” Hilbig writes, “flowing through my weary brain this way and that, flowing without bounds.” -
Although Wolfgang Hilbig (1941–2007) had toward the end of his life won all major German-language literary prizes, he is still unknown to most American readers. Thanks to Two Lines Press and two recent bravura translations by Isabel Fargo Cole, the East German–born author’s audience is sure to grow. But by how much, given the preference on this side of the Atlantic for easily digestible narrative? Hilbig’s prose demands sentence-by sentence commitment. It gravitates to the dark and dense, and occasionally surreal: transforming metaphor to substance and back again.
Old Rendering Plant, now out in English translation, originally published in 1991, encompasses all these qualities in a non-linear flow of only lightly fictionalized memory.
“I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer, if only hoping to emerge one day from a territory confined, I’ll admit it at last, by the bounds of my weariness.” Thus the nameless narrator, who is at times heard from as a boy, at times as a youth, and fleetingly as a man perhaps in his thirties who has never managed to leave the town and landscape that provoke in him dread and revulsion, but also curiosity and a rebellious fascination. In fact, he never even manages to completely leave the house he was born in, despite feeling almost no connection to his faceless family, who are depicted as a gathering mainly occupied with listening to radio reports of the ‘vanished,’ of ‘missing persons,’ disappearances never discussed nor questioned. “I took it for granted that those who had vanished went on existing in some fashion, the proof of that being that, as I had heard, those who still asked after the vanished suddenly went missing as well.”
The boy spends his afternoons, twilights and evenings following that brook, against all warnings. On each foray he pushes a little way further into a decayed post-industrial landscape swallowed by vegetation. Loathe to return to the lamplit rustling circle, he stays out increasingly late, compelled to continue while repelled by all that surrounds him. “The willows…seemed to metamorphose into fantastic creatures, the spawn of some freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil.”
On returning home the boy lies about where he’s been. He is punished, lectured at, sent to bed without supper, but that is infinitely preferable to being ‘sent to bed, as in the old days…while the evening was still bright… I feared the nights spent half in a sun-flooded chamber.” Not that eventual darkness brings much relief, for “a car with glaring headlights would turn onto our street… A black geometric figure shaped like a gigantic cleaver—I took it for the shadow of an advertising column which the car had to pass—moved in the opposite direction from the window across the ceiling, gliding through the room with a casual flourish, a razor slash from left to right, from nape to front, for I, in nightly anticipation of its appearance, was incapable of turning to my other side.”
In other words, the boy suffers from chronic anxiety and insomnia, and his older narrating self retains total recall of certain sensations and anguished emotions of childhood that most of us, on reaching adulthood, are happy to repress.
Presumably it is passages like the one quoted above, with its swinging giant cleaver, that prompted some reviewers to liken Hilbig to Edgar Allen Poe. Despite some similarities of mood—sour emanations from dour places—in the two writers, the comparison is misleading. Whereas Poe wove tautly structured, gruesome morality tales, Old Rendering Plant depends on equivocation, ambiguity, and uncertainty—the barely apprehended. Poe’s world is populated by willful antagonists who fall victim in ghastly ways to their own excesses and weaknesses; Hilbig’s is scarcely inhabited. The isolated narrator perceives occasional cloudy, shape-shifting groups from a distance. There are no ‘characters.’ The narrator presents himself as a preternaturally sensitive investigator of a forbidden landscape and a half-hidden past, without affections or relationships. There is neither love nor loss, no Eleanora. The pendulum is only shadow-play—but terrifying, nonetheless.
What is it, then, that drives the narrator to explore abandoned, dangerous places at night? And what, if anything, does he eventually discover?
As a child, he struggled to articulate his reasons. “How could I have conveyed that I couldn’t forgo the experience of the hour that most entranced me, the hour of transition, where boundlessness held sway before the onset of night, manifested in unreal hues and noises whose causes were lost…in smells from fissures and shifts in the crust…the hour when I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain but coursed from my senses straight to my limbs…” Finally he grows sick of words. “Hadn’t the term earth arisen solely on the basis of an embarrassed convention…? Wasn’t the use of substantive nouns nearly always a silence about the true substance of things?”
He’s drawn to the transition-time. To disembodiment. And then, there’s the lure of the heart of darkness. He stumbles at first on hard-to-identify remnants of walls, ramps, disused railway beds, half sunken in the ground. Gradually he begins to recognize—in a way that’s as much an act of awakening consciousness as it is physical exploration—actual landmarks. The ruins of an old mill, where violent ‘Easterners’, refugees, are said to still be holed up. The ruins of a coal factory. And finally, like the dreaded and inevitable climax of a nightmare, the old rendering plant, a hell on earth. From hiding, the narrator witnesses ‘a bustle of shadowy uniforms, dragging the creatures from the gaping hold of a filthy cattle car… it was done by plunging, flashing, dripping iron hooks into the animal’s sighing flanks, and the animals jerked and spread their unwieldy legs across the platform, pigs, sheep, cows, all in their death agony…”
It’s this still-functioning rendering plant, called Germania II after a nearby coal mine, that steadily feeds poison into the air and water and ground of the narrator’s world. The stream’s reeds drip with beads of tallow, those aforementioned willows are unnaturally well nourished by the offal-rich stream. Completely identifying with underlying reality, the narrator, when asked what trade he’ll apprentice to, answers that he wants to work in Germania II. His outsider status is now complete. Getting drunk in the pub at the table of the Germania II men, butchers and fire-stokers, he vividly imagines their lives. “Oh, they were implacably aggrieved by the squalor underfoot, by death’s awful incompetence, by the disgraceful forbearance in the depths below them, by the bad decisions made from cowardice, by the corruption of the material down there…” But even this society is closed to him; the men drift away, or never were, and the narrator continues his incessant walking.
Wolfgang Hilbig was born into a working-class family in a small Thuringian town on the border with Saxony, considered ‘the East.’ His father disappeared at Stalingrad when Wolfgang was a year old. He worked for some years as a stoker at a local coal-firing plant, a generally despised job which he preferred because it afforded him long hours alone. It was only toward the end of the 1960s that he had what might be termed a calling—he would devote his life to writing, specifically to poetry. Although his gift for language and originality of mind were soon recognized by peers, the GDR authorities refused to publish his work. It was only in 1979 that the S. Fischer Verlag in the West published his first works, and his reputation began to spread. He was arrested and imprisoned by the regime. In 1985 he was able to move to West Berlin. After his death from cancer a friend remarked, “He was easy to get along with, hardly let on how well read he was, and had a boxer’s nose, because he was a boxer in younger days.” (Source: German wikipedia.)
When Old Rendering Plant first appeared, some reviewers rushed to explain it as an allegory about the crimes and fall of the East German regime and, by the same token, of the Reich that preceded it. But this is an intention that Hilbig himself vehemently denied. It’s true that among the depictions of an ever-decaying land there are allusions to political corruption, and that the book ends with a haunting, truly apocalyptic vision of literal collapse and destruction. However, I’ll take Hilbig at his word. These 118 pages reach far beyond any metaphor of twentieth century history. Hilbig rages and presses against the limits of language. (Commentators’ calling his work ‘Joycean’ surely pleased him; a Joyce quotation serves as epigraph.) There is the ostinato, personal ache of lost innocence. And once Gaia, the helpless mother, is revealed in her terror and corruption, existence itself is on trial.
Readers who embrace the challenge of following Hilbig’s footsteps in Old Rendering Plant will find their vision of the world we live in at least temporarily changed. Or perhaps permanently. Images, like tainted water, leave indelible stains. - Kai Maristed
It is easy to become lost in the dense and convoluted narrative Wolfgang Hilbig unspools in Old Rendering Plant, the most recent translation of his work to reach English audiences. This slight novella invites the reader to wander, with the narrator, through the fields and along the pungent waterways that extend beyond his small East German town. As he rambles on, caught up in his memories of the past and hopes for the future, it’s easy to get swept up—and find oneself disoriented—amidst the industrial ruins where he is forced to confront the dark echoes of recent history and the expectations of the socialist state. It may be, especially for those unfamiliar with Hilbig’s idiosyncratic, stuttering prose, a little unsettling at first, but if one is willing to forego linear narrative expectations, an unforgettable, immersive, atmospheric reading experience awaits.
I read this book last summer to write a review for The Quarterly Conversation. In fact, I probably read it three times over to be able to read and articulate an opening into the narrative, but every time my appreciation of this moody, filmic text increased. As a critic, I derive the most satisfaction from writing about complex, unconventional narratives. My goal is not to give a definitive reading, but to explore the possibilities and questions offered by a piece of literature, while leaving a reader to find his or her own answers (or further questions, as the case may be). It was a sheer joy to write about this book. - roughghosts.com/2017/11/02/lost-in-time-with-wolfgang-hilbig-a-link-to-my-tqc-review-of-old-rendering-plant/
We like to say that the making of poetry and lyric prose is not dependent on a prior narrative and that no particular kind of experience is required for creativity. We see what occurs and then create new forms in order to newly present the world to ourselves. Nevertheless, prior narratives won’t die without a fight. Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) was especially resentful of and resistant to imposed language, as well as compulsively capable of generating his own forms. His long preoccupation with self-invention through narrative culminates in Old Rendering Plant, originally published as a novella in Germany in 1991. The novel comprises a world utterly given to itself, an outburst of urgent invention that mocks its extra-literary backstories – even while the writing trembles with the aftershocks of a history.
Recalling his youth in a landscape that evokes the “barren resignation” of the GDR, the unnamed narrator of Old Rendering Plant begins by describing his solitary wanderings, first following a brook, then picking his way along railroad tracks to the sinister remnants of a coal-fired factory. His family had forbidden him to venture to the bombed ruins near his town, and when he repeatedly returned home late for supper, he was punished. He says, “It was a kind of self-oblivion that made it easy to say whatever came to mind when asked where I’d been.” This puts the reader in the position of a tolerant and understanding elder, the wished-for intimate. The self-oblivion is the outset of self-invention. He continues:
I couldn’t bear to miss the hour when unknown life, rumored to be dead, crept out under the shelter of the shadows, crept out in the hour of the shadows that wandered across the world to obscure it from the eye, in the hour of the obscuring shadows that hid in the grave of night, in the hour when the vanished began their day, in the hour when I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain, but coursed from my senses straight to my limbs …
The language with which he shapes his narrative is offered as an alternative to the words used by parents and government:
Wasn’t the use of substantive nouns nearly always a silence about the true substances of things – and wasn’t that silence so essential to us that it became the basic material of our thinking? What were we really passing over: over silenced things, over vanished things, over the basic substance of ourselves, over the silence in our thoughts?
The stultifying limits enforced by family, class, politics, history and daily events are the classic materials of a bildungsroman, and Old Rendering Plant can be read, and perhaps initially must be read, as recognizable -- a tale of growing-up among intimidations, baleful precedent, and heartlessness. Most of the interaction occurs between narrator and his environment, with passing mention of the war’s air raids, rumors of sudden disappearances, missing people, and the stench – the latter caused by “a brew of rancid fatback,” the accumulated drippings and disposed carcasses from “Germania II,” the plant where animal were slaughtered, their fats rendered as ingredients for the manufacture cleaning agents. When he hears the sound of a train, it signifies “perpetual evacuation of vanished existence.”
Hilbig grew up in Meuselwitz, 60 kilometers north of the Czech border. Subcamps of the Buchenwald concentration camp were located there as well as wartime factories run by slave labor. As a young man, he served in the military, then worked in several small factories: he knew the “wretched labor that contributed to the self-contempt of our class.” In the late 1970’s, Hilbig was interrogated by the Stasi for poems published in the West. Disaffection with the socialist agenda merged with estrangement from his family. In Old Rendering Plant, the narrator says, “What I had long since become, I thus became more deeply: just as much of an outsider in this town, in the eyes of the ordinary folks that is, who perhaps already counted me, with an unerring instinct, among those who had eluded me. I resembled them deceptively in the way I went around -- breathing like someone unable to find a functional airhole …”
Finally, the novel names names, spelling out the tragic history of eastern Europe:
… if you were hired at Germania II your past was dead and buried … once they faced each other hostile and hate-filled – German, Poles, Russians, stateless people, renegades … communists and Nazis … the missing men and their pursuers – but here a different darkness cooped them together …
Old Rendering Plant was described by one critic as an “allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi.” It is not an allegory. And it does not speak to the reader from a lofty plane, looking down in judgment. It speaks upward from the weeds beside the brook. It judges humans very severely, peering beyond the facts of history and down into the psyche – and that is its main pleasure. Isabel Fargo Cole acutely hears Hilbig’s unforgiving tone but also captures his plosive expressiveness, resulting in not only a vast indictment, but the emergence of an irrepressible individual presence. The country’s destruction and the repressive measures of its so-called recovery have provided an opportunity. Hilbig, after all, was a modernist – he loved Poe and Baudelaire as a young reader. It was Baudelaire who wrote, De la vaporization et de la centralasion du Moi. Tout est lá -- “The dispersion and reconstitution of the self. That’s the whole story.” Ultimately, it’s Hilbig’s story, too. - Ron Slate
No one knew well enough what was allowed to be known, and no one knew how to know well enough.
Stripped of its context, the quote above could describe my own reading experience with this brief, compressed novel by Wolfgang Hilbig. In fact it refers to the stifled atmosphere of secrecy pervading the small town of East Germany where the narrator lives. In a single continuous outflow of long, serpentine sentences, the narrator reaches back through his memory, extracting fragments from his boyhood and young adulthood when he explored the forbidden abandoned industrial areas on the outskirts of his town. The aperture of Hilbig’s focus gradually shrinks to a single abandoned coal factory, since transformed into a plant that slaughters and renders animals into soap.
Silbig’s onionskin prose, seamlessly translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole, peels away as the pages turn, rapidly leading one deeper into the narrator’s nebulous world. His forays to the industrial areas unfold in lush, menacing passages describing the unnatural vegetation along the brook, perverted in its growth by an unstemmed flow of effluent from the plant. The stench is overwhelming, yet he grows used to it, even telling himself “the time would come when at last I could it call it my very own smell.” Later he will have two distinct formative encounters with the visceral, olfactory leavings of death. From a very young age he has felt a separation from others, and it is this mixture of fear and fascination with the death-stench that marks this separation. He spends hours alone roaming through these places he has been told not to visit. He is drawn in particular to the gloaming, that time of day before evening falls, “the hour of transition.”
I couldn’t bear to miss the hour when unknown life, rumored to be dead, crept out under the shelter of the shadows, crept out in the hour of the shadows that wandered across the world to obscure it from the eye, in the hour of the obscuring shadows that hid in the grave of the night, in the hour when the vanished began their day, in the hour when I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain, but coursed from my senses straight to my limbs…at that half-time when I learned to express myself in whispers, to think with the dead and the banished, with unsubstantial things, with soils, with stones and rivers, with the speechless, soundless animal beings hostile to humanity. It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly, and slowed my stride or lent it lightness, so that it seemed to vault over imperceptible shifts in the air, or sink through sloping zones of warmth hidden by the haze of the discoloring plain…far more than that, this language was an instinctual response to toppled boundaries, an unthinking grasp of light and dark, a capricious certainty in the soles of my feet when venturing one delicate step from the certain to the uncertain.
His comments on language here are one key to the text. References abound throughout the book to an inability of language to accurately capture experience. He lies to his family about where he’s been because how could he ever hope to explain in words what made him not want to miss the gloaming. Nouns are described as “extinguished,” as having “lost their meaning,” their “frailty” hidden by “obfuscating participles.” They are useless at describing his coveted late afternoons “that were like one single afternoon for me” in a place that seemed “mundane but not describable: the relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions.”
About midway through the novel, his recollections fade from those of a young crepuscular boy-creature to an older youth on the cusp of adulthood. Suddenly he is no longer required by his family to account for his tardiness at meals. Yet despite his advancing age, time as he recounts it in the text continues to undulate with a perplexing fluidity: he’s carried his apartment key for “twenty-five years”; for “decades” he”s stayed outside until after the evening news on the radio; and finally, he’s left his childhood behind, “freed from that existence that had lasted twenty or thirty years.” There is no way to calculate individual points in time as this disjointed narrative meanders on (perhaps as the narrator is “more and more often […] drawn to the scenes of old stories that still seemed unclarified”). Compounding the confusion of this swirling time-sea is the narrator’s admission that he often describes to himself (and subsequently to the reader) events he finds unreal in oneiric terms, yielding an added uncertainty to the veracity of the descriptions related in the text.
The names of the “missing persons” (the official state euphemism for “vanished”) continue to plague him, as they have since his childhood when the excuses he gave his family for his own absences were “variations on my mode of vanishing.” He cannot believe that someone could just vanish and doesn’t understand how others can seemingly accept it with “peculiar composure.” And yet he feels his own destiny may in fact be to vanish, theorizing that perhaps “by developing an interest in the simplest of things, you risked losing your hold on the world…perhaps even vanishing from the world.” In fact, he has been waiting “more than ten years” for a sign—”a breath catching in the kitchen”—that his own name has been called on the radio as one of the missing.
One day he returns to the forbidden grounds of his restless childhood walks, seeking a “fragment of time” the loss of which he can suddenly no longer bear, and within these polluted wilds he discovers the soap rendering plant, known as Germania II, in use—workers unloading dead and dying animals within the bright circle of a floodlight. Now he feels he’s been made complicit by this knowledge of what happens there. He begins to obsess over Germania II, researching soap-making, and finding the concept of soap to be at odds with the brutal violence of what he saw at the plant. He seeks out the plant’s workers, though they exist at the very fringes of society and it is near impossible to connect with them. He even considers, given his own graduation looming and job prospects looking dim, signing on to work at the plant, going so far as to tell his family of his plans. They accuse him of following a path that “shunned the light,” which he accepts though differs with them over its implication, for “they used it because darkness, for them, was a deficiency, because in darkness they no longer saw light…what a dreary life.” As his behavior grows more erratic, his outsider status in the town deepens, as do his self-destructive urges, such as running his mouth to the suspected secret police informants whose interest he has now aroused. Dancing closer and closer to the moment of joining the “vanished species” he’s always known he might one day become, he takes off on one last epic walk. The fate of Germania II lies waiting in the distance.
In that distance he will bear witness to an unjust catastrophe. And in its wake the shadows return. No one knew what they had once represented or the nature of their meaning. No one knew if the nouns required to describe them had “made off, whether perhaps they had fled, had swum away, or had merely been covered by things foreign to the world of nouns.” No one wanted to know the nature nor the source of the stench piercing the “soapy autumn light” of the town. Awareness was elusive, and its attainability was in question.
The closing few pages offer up an elegiac prose poem—a most elegant finish to a novel whose latticework of language is woven so tight and with such intricacy that even multiple readings felt inadequate to the task of separating out and examining the many threads. I have no doubt that I’ll be returning to plumb its depths once again. - S.D. Stewart
His narrative is a restless one, following his memories as they lead him to trace and retrace the pathways that run alongside the stream that meanders through the fields on the outskirts of his hometown:
I had grown increasingly uncertain of my paths. Yet more and more often I was drawn to the scenes of old stories that still seemed unclarified, that I remembered—dimly, obscurely—as though they still involved me. It was a sign of age, I thought, to suddenly recall losses that earlier on—in the insouciance, the restlessness of youth—I would have passed over quickly. Now I was groping in search of losses…the signs were clear: all at once I’d begun hastily changing the goals of my forays, since it was impossible to speak of goals. Probably, though, what I sought was one single place…a place from which, back then, I’d felt I was expelled; or I sought it because something of mine was still hidden there—some poignant thing, perhaps willow wands carved into toy sabers, clear signs—or simply because it was a place I couldn’t find again or no longer encountered on my way back.The world the narrator inhabits, mediated by memory, is one where reality shifts, time loops back on itself, and the natural setting, described in thick, sensual detail, contains a complex network of buried secrets. He is a loner. He describes himself as rootless, like the rest of his family, an exile in his own community. As a result, his extended monologue slips between present reflections, remembered experiences that may be real or dreamed, or both, and occasional flights of lyrical Joycean intensity. For readers accustomed to a clearly articulated storyline, the journey is disorienting. It is easy to lose one’s bearings. The key is to surrender.
No author is able to create an enveloping and immersive atmosphere quite like Hilbig. The suffocating beauty of the landscape merges with the troubled inscape of the narrator, and is carried along in a stream of stuttering poetic prose. It can be quite addictive. However, for all its circuitous diversions, this is not a narrative that leads nowhere. The monologue slowly builds, gradually taking form and shape, ultimately ending with a spectacular, rousing climax. The sort that will have you turning right back to the beginning to start the pilgrimage again.
Old Rendering Plant, so adeptly translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole, who has a special affection and strong sensitivity for Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose, is a book that readily lends itself to multiple readings. At this point, having read it many times, I can pick it up and slip into it midstream and instantly feel the same magic I experienced with my first encounter. And yet each reread reveals something new. There is so much to contemplate, and so many layers of history, experience, and humanity in this slender volume. A reading experience quite unlike any other, Old Rendering Plant clearly deserves to win the Best Translated Book Award. - Joseph Schreiber
My clever idea was to very briefly quote him in the title of this blog, then claim that any extended quotation does him a disservice. I was going to tell you that Hilbig (published by Two Lines Press and gorgeously translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) cannot be fruitfully exampled. He can’t be fractaled. I really believe this to be true, but I don’t have time to reread the book tonight, looking for the word “pace” or “pacing,” so I don’t really actually have a good way to start talking about the way pace works in a few books I’ve read recently. Sorry about that! We’ll all just have to settle for this wonderful paragraph you’re finishing.
Old Rendering Plant puts me in mind of a cruel teacher I had as a child. She would hit us with her homemade ruler, or pull our hair to physically turn our heads to face exactly what she wanted us to see. Other things that very old people teaching elementary school 25 years ago could do—I’m sure you can imagine. Anyway. So she was cruel, but the book doesn’t remind me of her cruelty. It reminds me of her absolute demand of our attention. The complete pacing of her order. The experience of reading Old Rendering Plant is like being led by the scruff of your neck, at a slow and even speed, gorgeous line by gorgeous line. Except you should imagine this experience to be just incredibly pleasant and addictive. I read it start to finish two days in a row. I doubt many people read this in more than one sitting.
I remember reading Patrick Suskind accurately describe smells in his novel Perfume (translated by John E. Woods and published by Vintage) and thinking, “How in the exact hell did he do that?” even before I finished the sentence. A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Knopf) made me ask the same question. The bulk of the novel takes place at a small theatre during a show by an aging, declining, but still relatively famous comedian. Second by second, Grossman and Cohen take us through Greenstein (the comedian) killing, totally blowing it, bombing, kind of almost saving it, arguing with the entire audience, connecting with individual audience members, driving the audience to leave, reacting to their leaving, then repeating the process. If you’ve seen much live comedy, you know the room lives and dies almost syllable by syllable. A Horse Walks into a Bar perfectly shows how tone can change between—or even because of—Greenstein’s breaths. The touch and go (then pause, then rush, then stop completely, etc) pacing here is masterful.
Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories (published by Soho Press and translated by Roy Kesey) comes as a kind of encyclopedic mania, though tempered by the author’s incredible grasp on academic language. The practical uses, the surface-level absurdity, and especially the way that academese in modern philosophy lends itself to ridiculous framing of pet issues: Oloixarac gets it all right. A wild, horny energy propels nearly all of the characters’ actions, but that same horniness serves as a lens through which they—ugly, lonely, and overeducated—contextualize (and repeatedly recontextualize) their lives and ideas. But the trick here is that Oloixarac and Kesey somehow manage to use this specific kind of university jargon at a rapid, whirlwind clip while managing to be funny. Oloixarac is a truly hilarious writer, and Kesey is a deft (and probably funny in his own right) translator. The plodding crap of academese is entirely absent under their watch. It’s all electric movement.
I just realized I didn’t quote anyone, so I didn’t actually need to justify not quoting Hilbig, but if I change it now I worry the whole post’s pacing will be off. Thanks for reading. - Adam Hetherington
Translating the landscape of Wolfgang Hilbig: An interview with Isabel Fargo Cole
olfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous was one of my discoveries of 2016 (see my review), its powerful prose reminiscent of Krasznahorkai at his strongest. Old Rendering Plant is similarly striking, but perhaps more allegorical, with nods particularly to the East German stasi but also to the Holocaust. And the prose, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation, wonderful.
The novel (or perhaps novella — incredibly, given the depth of the work, it is only 110 pages) opens with a self-consciously Proustian recollection of a frequently taken childhood walk, along a brook lined with willows, but with much darker overtones.
I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer, if only hoping to emerge one day from a territory confined, I’ll admit it at last, by my own weariness. And I followed this path as though to the beat of silent wings; when darkness fell, I’d begin to expect some horror, a bloodcurdling cry perhaps, followed by silence … but nothing came, the hush beyond the town and woods was the ceaseless presence of little noises.The reference to the ramp — and the presence of the railroad — perhaps needing no comment, and indeed Hilbig’s text never makes any analogy explicit.
His walk was also bounded by the embankment of a coal train line [ …] at first glance the impression was of a random mound of earth, but on closer inspection one made out decayed fragments of concrete foundations, completely overgrown by shrubs and grass, evidently flooded with coal from toppled wagons and mixed with debris from the crumbling pavement: here a roadway had clearly led up the tracks. I called this rotting concrete foundation, strikingly out of place in the grassy basin, the ramp
[. . .]
It seemed to me some other memory, a memory of much earlier origins, that made me call the bridge’s concrete base a ramp … and the sound of the word ramp contained, to my ear, some of the indeterminate intensity with which certain severely tarnished terms struggled for more frequent usage: a comparable example was homeland, on which one set foot as on a train platform, with a sense that nothing bad should be associated with it.
On one visit there he slipped from the embankment and:
I fell several yards into the silence, fortunately landing on the grass, which grew amid the ruined industrial complexes where I played. It was not the incalculable level of my fall that terrified me but the idea of the clump of matter, invisible in the dusk, on whose slimy stickiness I’d lost my footing and helplessly slipped.Later that night after a tortured dream of hidden voices and other horrors “no sooner had I arisen than my mind faltered as I saw my right leg, my entire calf, covered by a dry mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.”
And beyond the railway line, the willows give way to tall, bare poplars and a border region which the narrator associates with people who go missing or disappear (or are disappeared?):
Beyond the tracks of the coal line, to the southeast of a half-deserted village, deep in that wild basin, right behind a rotten fence, began the zone that was the east, and you could not enter this region unpunished. You could not return unpunished to the womb. Everyone knew that people vanished there.(Later the narrator talks of “names that had been deported because of certain interchangeable attributes […] descriptions that made you end up under the roof of a cattle car”)
The time of the narrator’s recollection and his age becomes, if anything, more unclear and fractures as the narration progresses, as does what he is recalling from life and what from dreams. Most strikingly, on page 23, he unlocks the door of the family house “with the key I’d carried for twenty-five years.” Later he refers to having made the trip along the river “for decades,” and at another point he appears to be a school-leaver entering employment.
Then language too fractures:
The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptionsand
Perhaps what I walked on couldn’t even be called earth, this matter that buckled beneath my steps and sometimes seemed to sigh from its depths with a hollow reverberation. Hadn’t the term earth simply arisen solely on the basis of an embarrassed convention, wasn’t it a noun that passed in silence over matter’s true nature . . . ? Wasn’t the use of substantive nouns nearly always a silence about the true substances of things — and wasn’t that silence so essential to us that it became the basic material of our thinking? What were we really passing over: over silenced things, over vanished things, over the basic substance of ourselves, over the silence in our thoughts?As the narrative reassembles, he focuses on the distinctive smell of the area, a stench which he suggests was another reason for not journeying past the railway line. The milky shimmering of the brook has a rather more sinister origin than the opening, poetic, quote might have suggested:
As a child I knew it was the smell of the milk-colored current that washed down the brook, bubbling and steaming like warm soapsuds in the evening. I knew that the smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and the mist that rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh . . . old, useless flesh relinquished to the waters, washed its smell through the land to the east, I knew this as a child. Tallow sheathed the snarls of grass on the brook’s edge, ancient fat clung indelibly to the slopes of the embankment; it was a brew of rancid fatback, even covering the paths, boiled-out horns, bones cooked to the point of disintegrationAnd even the willows that bend into the river feed, in his recollection, on the flesh in the water:
And I could not go too close to the old willows that sweated out the oil of the meats they fed upon . . . I could not impinge on the circle of their immoderate metabolism, I could not touch them, the old renderer’s willows leaking phosphorescent ptomaine from the lancets of their leaves, for they thrived without letup, the death of the fauna had made them grow strong, potent enough to overwinter in their black-green luster. While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited — all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment — I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil.At this point, around halfway through the novel, he attains adulthood, or perhaps more accurately, his thoughts move from the imaginings of childhood to adult reality. The magic lantern in this passage, of course, an explicit nod to Proust:
Now the night was past, and I could stop speaking in the childlike falsetto; freed from that existence that had lasted twenty or thirty years, it was time for me to enter through their decrepit doors as a man in the prime of his life.Revisiting the area, he see a loading bay and “a bustle of shadowy uniforms, dragging the creatures from the gaping hold of a filthy cattle car, with commands shouted in strained voices,” but this isn’t what one may fear, but rather the rendering plant of the novel’s title, dubbed Germania II by the locals, which produces tallow, for soap, from animal carcasses.
[. . .]
destroyed was the magic lantern…
He decides to befriend the workers at the plant, shunned by polite society, men you could tell by “the unmistakable smell of the firm that they could never wash away,” and here (for all the WW2 references I have inferred) Hilbig’s real allegory becomes clearer — the firm being the Stasi, the rotten corrupting smell that plagues the area the impact of the culture of informers on everyday life.
Then one day — as with the GDR — the rendering plant simply vanishes from the face of the earth:
One night the earth had gaped open and with a terrible din wiped from its face those old sections of the plant that still operated, hectic and light-shy amid the stronghold of the ruins.And at the end the prose again fractures to the extent it turns decidely Joycean — indeed at one point there is a direct quote from Finnegans Wake (“oystrygods gaggin fishygods”):
Old rendering plant, starry-studded riverround. Old rendery beneath the roofs of baffled thoughts, baffled clatter of old-proved thoughts, old pretendery. Thoughts thought by night, star-studded: old clattery, the constellations covered. And clouds, old noise: smoke-brain behind the cloud-brow, windy roof of cloud racks covering the stars. But below is the fishes’ winding light: like star-script, winding, fallen chirring from the air.Stunning!
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Tidings of the Trees, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Two Lines Press, 2018.
Where once was a beautiful wood now stands a desolate field smothered in ash and garbage, and here a young man named Waller has terrorizing encounters with grotesque figures named "the garbagemen." As Waller becomes fascinated with these desperate men who eke out a survival by rooting through their nation’s waste, he imagines they are also digging through its past as their government erases its history and walls itself off from the outside world.
One of celebrated East German author Wolfgang Hilbig’s most accessible and resonant works, The Tidings of the Trees is about the politics that rip us apart, the stories we tell for survival, and the absolute importance of words to nations and people. Featuring some of Hilbig’s most striking, poetic, and powerful images, this flawless novella perfectly balances politics and literature.
The latest from Hilbig (Old Rendering Plant) is a sparse yet challenging novel about a failed writer. Waller is so overwhelmed by the effort of storytelling that he can only write about storytelling itself. After decades of trying to write about his factory coworkers, he retreats to a site from childhood memory, a beautiful wood that has been turned into a garbage dump. There, in a fog of ash, he encounters the “garbagemen,” cast-offs from society who live amid the filth. These mysterious beings are described as frightening, though the bleak, elliptical prose is more preoccupied with language then scares. Waller’s attempts to ingratiate himself to them fail, so he settles for eavesdropping. Personal history is inconsequential here; the political remnants of a shadowy history are far more important. The garbagemen are living in the detritus of an erased nation (coffee grinders and party membership files, among other refuse). The novel picks up steam in an excellent middle sequence in which Waller moves into an abandoned shack, around which hundreds of mannequin bodies are stacked. In a wonderful bit of slapstick, Waller and the garbagemen take turns putting the dummies in crude poses every day in a sort of dialogue. It is a blissful spell of action and humor in a book that sometimes lacks clarity. Despite the short length, readers may find themselves wanting more to anchor them to the story. - Publishers Weekly
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Females, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Two Lines Press, 2018.
What can an irascible East German tell us about how society shapes relations between the sexes? A lot it turns out. Acclaimed as one of Wolfgang Hilbig’s major works, The Females finds the lauded author focusing his labyrinthine, mercurial mind on how unequal societies can pervert sexuality and destroy a healthy, productive understanding of gender. It begins with a factory laborer who ogles women in secret on the job. When those same women mysteriously vanish from their small town, the worker sets out on a uniquely Hilbiggian, hallucinatory journey to find them. Powerful and at times disturbing, The Females leaves us with some of the most challenging, radical, and enduring insights of any novel from the GDR.
Wolfgang Hilbig, The Sleep of the Righteous, Trans. by Isabel Fargo Cole, Two Lines Press, 2015.
Doppelgängers, a murderer’s guilt, pulp noir, fanatical police, and impossible romances—these are the pieces from which German master Wolfgang Hilbig builds a divided nation battling its demons. Delving deep into the psyches of both East and West Germany, The Sleep of the Righteous reveals a powerful, apocalyptic account of the century-defining nation’s trajectory from 1945 to 1989. From a youth in a war-scarred industrial town to wearying labor as a factory stoker, surreal confrontations with the Stasi, and, finally, a conflicted escape to the West, Hilbig creates a cipher that is at once himself and so many of his fellow Germans. Evoking the eerie bleakness of films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker and The Lives of Others, this titan of German letters combines the Romanticism of Poe with the absurdity of Kafka to create a visionary, somber statement on the ravages of history and the promises of the future.
An essay by Isabel Fargo Cole about translating Wolfgang Hilbig from the German http://necessaryfiction.com/blog/TranslationNotesTheSleepoftheRighteous …
Hilbig’s stories trace a journey from childhood to adulthood and the decades-long partition of Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a coal town coated in ash and the “drab devastation” of poverty where “there were no fathers... to make still littler children,” we see a boy grow up and manage to have a childhood reminiscent of Tom Sawyer. Whether it is the mud wars on the beaches of water-filled coal pits, or a boy’s imagination taking hold in a basement full of bottles, the sparks of curiosity and adventure thrive alongside arrests and persecutions. The middle of the book sees the stories transfer to middle age, via a meditation on a photograph in “The Afternoon.” From this point on, we see the same coal town, but now through the eyes of the boy turned adult. The last and longest story, “The Dark Man,” acts as an appropriate finale to the collection. After the Berlin Wall is down, the grown man goes back to his hometown to escape the rock-bottom relationship with his wife. Confronting the death of a former lover and an ex-Stasi agent who haunts him, Hilbig’s protagonist must navigate his own history and that of the childhood and country he thought he had outgrown. Hilbig’s prose is vivid and poetic, and a Kafkaesque touch gives these stories ample atmosphere. - Publishers Weekly
In his beautiful, autobiographical novel, The Sleep of the Righteous, the late East German poet and prose writer Wolfgang Hilbig masterfully reveals the acute self-consciousness of his unnamed but same-self narrator, an emigrant to that porous and shape-shifting borderland that divides reality from perception.
Meuselwitz, the East German coal mining town where Hilbig grew-up, is the nucleus that binds the novel’s seven individual stories. It is a poor town, air thick with the dirt of the mines, neglected and stagnant since the end of World War II. In this depressed, uninspiring place women outnumber men and the kids, many of them fatherless from the war, are bored and listless.
At that time there were a dearth of men in town; most of the children were fatherless, and many remained so forever. Time refused to pass, bearing down on them like a weight that stunted their growth. And the sole liberation from boredom lay in growth, in the adulthood that all the others had achieved some incalculable time ago and no longer wasted a word on. And the books we read, the stories we made up and told, as a rule featured only adults, and for the most part only men. — The mere thought that you were still small made you sick, you sickened with boredom . . . There were no fathers to take pride in your growing up after them.Although the stories in the novel’s second half take place when Hilbig is an adult and no longer lives in Meuselwitz, the town’s atmosphere and the memories it evokes continue to envelope Hilbig like a damp, wool cloak.
The exigencies of life in Germany after unification exacerbate Hilbig’s preference of the past and create a sense of alienation. His wife accuses him of an inability to live independently or take initiative. To her, his passivity is repugnant and incongruous with the new freedoms and market economy. But Hilbig cannot adapt. He recalls his work as stoker in a boiler house during his youth, an occupation in which he was needed, and in which he belonged, because his labor was integral to the factory’s operation. In contrast he now feels outside the system, his life and attitudes superfluous to the engine that is propelling society on its new course.
Hilbig’s incomparably fine powers of description, so eloquently translated by Ms. Cole, are everywhere apparent in the novel as here when under the grip of Hilbig’s childhood imagination even ordinary household objects such as wine bottles assume monstrous qualities:
Oh, the bottles spilled from the ruptured drawers; if, when seeking an object of deliverance such as a hammer or some other tool, one opened one of the still-shut drawers, one again found bottles, arranged in oddly obscene rows and layers: they lay neck to belly, belly to neck, seeming to copulate in a peculiarly inflexible fashion which was lustful all the same and appeared not to fatigue them in the slightest. And indeed, it seemed as though the permanent unions at once gave rise to the progeny which had slipped behind the tables into the Beyond of now-impassible corners where the bottles had long since entered a state of anarchy and rose in randomly scattered heaps: as if baskets full of bottles had been dumped out, from overhead and at a proper distance, in an attempt to bury the other bottles and finally make them invisible.Perhaps more than anything it is the natural world that molds the impressionable young Hilbig’s demeanor and thoughts. In Meuselwitz nature provides but never satisfies. The thick summer air is choked with the dirt and dust from the mines, but the rain showers that temporarily clear the air of grime make muddy streams in the deeply rutted dirt roads; the hot sun ripens the summer fruit, but much of it rots, becoming putrid before it can be used. While he can appreciate the soft, verdant, natural beauty of other places, Hilbig feels compelled to express himself only when he is writing about Meuselwitz with its persistent ugliness, the place that exposes his fears and disillusionments and enables him to write with a heightened sensitivity that reaches the sublime.
Throughout the course of the novel, Hilbig engages in ritual, nighttime walks to his mailbox, and these strolls are the point of departure for journeys of the mind where memories are distorted by time and dreams have the solidity of reality. In these transports darkness is the pervading hue — the coal soot that enshrouds the town, the night’s impenetrable vastness, the calculating, self-loathing and deceitful souls of men — and serves as a metaphor for the weight of Hilbig’s regret and guilt. It is a burden that he will continue to bear because, as the novel’s title story indicates, only the righteous are able to find rest from life’s dark evil and cruelly this “sleep” can be reached only in death.
The Sleep of the Righteous is the second novel of Hilbig’s to be released in English translation in as many months (the first, ‘I’, also translated by Ms. Cole, was published by Seagull in August), and it is a real gift to English language readers that finally, albeit posthumously, we have the opportunity to discover and admire a portion of this wonderful writer’s oeuvre. - Lori Feathers
In times when there is no time, the only thing able to maintain even the faintest impression of historical movement is art. In the case of novelist and poet Wolfgang Hilbig, this art was literature which, over the course of four decades, he used to register the obscured past of the East Germany where he lived, and to trace its possible yet hopelessly dim future. Across such novels as the existentialist nightmare of Ich (1993) and the no-less harrowing Das Provisorium (2000), he explored the ability of (totalitarian) political systems to infiltrate the psyches of its subjects and to influence them from within, neutralizing the future they might produce if only they possessed economic and psychological independence. Even after the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed in 1990, he continued to examine this insidious power, showing how the communist state's formal nonexistence alone wasn't enough to weaken its grip on hearts and minds.
Yet almost fittingly for a writer who was the victim of fines and censorship during his lifetime, Hilbig's rich corpus of work is little known outside of his native land; one might say he was 'censored' inadvertently by a translation curtain that was breached for the first time only this century. Most recently, this penetration had seen translator Isabel Fargo Cole convert Ich into I, and now, it sees her translate 2002's The Sleep of the Righteous, a collection of short stories that underline just why Hilbig had won almost every German literary prize going before his death to cancer in 2007.
On a purely aesthetic and stylistic level, Hilbig's award-winning mastery quickly becomes apparent in his flair for describing the GDR's fundamentally repressive nature simply by describing the physical environment surrounding its citizens. Upon opening The Sleep of the Righteous and delving into such tales as the coming-of-age "The Place of Storms", the reader is immersed in railway crossings that mark where his hometown "really had ended" and in streets covered by "an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into the stairwells." In these figures of Hilbig's world, there's a palpable sense of the limits and constraints weighing on the population of East Germany, while in the recurring images of people filling "the ruts in the middle of our stretch of street with ash" from the war, there's also the suspicion that the GDR's political system was flawed from the very beginning, since it was built upon the crumbling detritus of conflict and bloodshed.
Without a solid foundation, coupled with naked suppression, there emerges what is perhaps the collection's dominant motif: the overwhelming conviction that history has ended, that there's nothing left to do or advance toward since communism has supposedly consummated all human struggle (à la capitalism today). Hilbig exposes this in the temporal detachment and isolation of his age, in how "most of the children were fatherless", how there was a "dearth of men in town" who might keep the present connected to its past and thereby link it towards a more authentic future, one that won't simply be a passive embodiment of the party line. In the same "Place of Storms" we hear of how this disconnection from the flow of history was ironically effected by regimenting daily life according to what "was willed by the watches", so that Hilbig's protagonists are overwhelmed by "the simulated character of the time in which [they] lived".
All of the following entries in The Sleep of the Righteous partake of this "unreality of the peace [Hilbig] lived in", portraying its characters as victims, not so much of overt oppression and violence, but of empty formality and conformism. This is palpable in "The Bottles in the Cellar", with its faintly surreal recital of "bottles upon bottles" proliferating without any particular logic in its first-person narrator's home. Here, the empty glass receptacles "led the shadowy existence of deposed tribunes", their vacuity and the "peculiarly inflexible fashion" of their rampant procreation symbolizing the comparably 'empty' and 'peculiarly inflexible' manner in which people lived in the GDR, multiplying without any particular purpose or individuality.
That Hilbig can subtly invoke such familial psychodramas in conjunction with his brutalist portrayal of life in East Germany is a testament to his depth and vision as a writer. Amidst the "salt mines", "bloodshot eyes" and "backbreaking work of the boiler room", he carefully illustrates and teases out just how family life can be polluted by the enormous pressures and privations of existence within a dictatorial nation-state, doing so to profoundest effect in the collection's eponymous story.
In this short but highly impacting tale, he uses the guilt surrounding the death of the narrator's grandmother to represent the kind of collective guilt everyone appears to feel for being complicit in the routine suffering entailed by the GDR itself. Unsure as to who, between the narrator and the narrator's grandfather, was ultimately responsible for the women's demise, his avatar concludes, "No doubt the survivor will be the murderer… whichever of us two dies first will sink into his redeemed grave." It's with such finely parceled observations that he reveals that just living in East Germany was proof enough of guilt, since this living necessarily involved perpetuating a system that, almost by default, subjected people to hardship and misery.
Luckily for Hilbig, it appears in the end of the story that his ever-reliable "C." finally rids himself of these half-truths, evasions and subterfuges, in parallel with (East) Germany ridding itself of its communist experiment. Yet it's precisely in the apparent liberation of his world that the real, universal importance of Hilbig manifests itself, since as László Krasznahorkai writes in the collection's introduction, the German's writing was not simply about the GDR, but "about everyday life" in general. As such, we see the unreality, contrivance and decay of East Germany remain even after the state's fall, in the newly permitted television shows that have not "the least thing to do with the truth or the reality of life", and in the "sociopolitical rubble heap of vacant houses, empty shops with dusty windows, and defunct factories".
It's in such timeless images that Hilbig -- with the help of Isabel Fargo Cole's remarkably fluent translation -- demonstrates his continued relevance and significance for a world that is only just now beginning to catch up with him. The Sleep of the Righteous showcases him as a writer who has an atomic eye for the despair, contradictions, banalities and absurdities of human existence, and who has the corresponding talent for weaving these atomic details into a global, sweeping picture of this same existence.
It may not be a pretty picture, but in an age when the rest of the world is increasingly being given a taste of East Germany's historied nightmare by mass surveillance and counter-terrorism, it's definitely one we should face up to. Otherwise we may end up losing the kind of hard-fought freedom Hilbig's literature has helped to win. - Simon Chandler
The Sleep of the Righteous is the tale of an East German boy who lives in desolation. His village is dilapidated, crumbling on the edge of a former concentration camp; his summers scorch with draught; his mother never utters his name, but refers to him as “child.” His 1950s boyhood is populated by widows whose Nazi husbands never returned from Stalingrad, by the remaining elderly, and by his peers born in the early 1940s, who sense themselves trapped as endless little children. As the boy confides, “There were no fathers there to make still littler children.”
Wolfgang Hilbig, author of The Sleep of the Righteous and 2002 winner of Germany’s highest literary Büchner Prize, is well-acquainted with the punishing years after World War II. Born in 1941, Hilbig also grew up in East Germany, in a small town called Meuselwitz that functioned as a satellite of Buchenwald concentration camp. His father never came back from the Russian front. Hilbig’s formative years were spent under Communist rule — the “half-baked peace,” as he puts it, that encrusted his community when the Soviets took control. In The Sleep of the Righteous, newly translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole, Hilbig investigates how a nation’s history wraps its tendrils around the mind of an individual.
The first layer of the novel is the personal story of the boy narrator rises up from the landscape of his village. He recounts a hellish hole of a town dominated by coalmines and heat. The town’s main strip mine ignites and continues to burn in the distance for an unspecified number of years while swarms of wasps invade the streets as villagers take to dumping trash onto bombed-out roads. Children, who walk barefoot through the mud on unpaved streets, are stained “up to the thighs with the black bloom of violability.” The clang of the town gates sounds to the boy like a recurring death-knell in this wasteland of apathy and gloom.
The boy wants to grow up — the mere thought of “being small” makes him feel sick — but the circumstances of his boyhood oppress the novel’s adults in equal measure. The anguish of village women focalizes in the boy’s home, where alongside his mother and grandmother a growing number of aunts, cousins, and sisters-in-law seek refuge from widowhood. Sidelined by the war and still alive to pay its price, these women try in vain to reassert their voices, wielding pleas and threats over the narrator when he disobeys their commands. “I’ll throw myself into the lake!” they repeat in chorus, as the narrator stumbles into an adolescence filled with silence, theft, and bouts of disappearance.
The narrator’s sense of encumbrance only intensifies as he matures. Like the women who seek water as their consolation, he too longs to surrender his suffering to his landscape. In moments of agony, he submerges himself in mud hollows until he becomes “indistinguishable from the elements around me,” and he urinates onto the shore, “as though to form a bond between myself and the earth.” While the narrator intends to escape his woes, his repeated yearning to submit to his landscape is more complex. The landscape he embraces is not arbitrary wilderness, but his Land — Deutschland — and his surrender is essentially patriotic, a bond with his nation. Though he tries to flee the desolation inflicted on him by his country, his escape only binds him more strongly to it.
Inside this paradox is a kernel of national angst as potent as the personal, and so begins to emerge the central premise of The Sleep of the Righteous: that the personal and political are one, and that through the personal, the political becomes apparent. Hilbig creates a first-person narrative so compelling that the political is kept at bay, woven so tightly into the life of the text as to camouflage — until the personal surface of the story breaks, and allegory rises from beneath its cover.
Consider one of the most remarkable descriptions in the novel, in which the narrator recounts a household cider operation gone awry. His mother had hoped to ferment the juices from their fruit trees, but instead of reaping this Edenic bounty, she and the narrator buckle as the operation escalates beyond their control:
“Each fall it smothered us all over again in the clouds and fountains of a brew that transformed the kitchen into a simmering steam bath, and after nights we spent dancing around it with scalded fingers, trying vainly to penetrate its workings, it collapsed over and over in a mash of brown applesauce, until at last amidst melted sugar, spuming water, and boiling apple scraps it gave up the ghost…The invincible fruit, having made a laughingstock of the juicer and its inventor, suddenly began to flow of its own accord…The fruit washed the yard with a glaze reflecting gigantic swarms of wasps and flies that alone knew no fear of earthly sweetness and whose hordes did not retreat until the juices had turned to vinegar…When mold shading from green to black finally gained the upper hand, we had long since gone under…”
Once recognized, the vapors of allegory are everywhere. The promise of bounty, the growing intensity of the endeavor, the loss of control, the demise — this is Germany’s story in the second world war. Far beyond the cider operation, the narrator shares numerous anecdotes that reflect pieces of Germany’s narrative arc. In one scene, two strapping horses plunge into a mine pit, shrieking, after the ground crumbles beneath their feet (the fall of Germany). In another scene, the older boys of the village stage battles with clay balls as their weapons, while girls cheer them on from the sidelines (the enduring wartime mentality). One section of the novel is spent in a coal boiler room (one thinks of the death camps).
The political resonance is there, but these narrative footholds are more than allegory, and this is the great accomplishment of Hilbig’s novel. Each metaphor is a window into the psyche of the narrator, a psyche that appears ever more tightly bound to its national history. These allegories are the versions of reality the narrator’s mind has been programmed to recall. He lives inside these broken pieces of history, which reenact their politics around him, and within him, all the time. The personal and political are one.
The haunting implication of this union becomes narrator’s innermost question: who is responsible for the war? The issue arises most clearly in the narrator’s relationship to his male forebears. The boy’s interpretation of his dead father, a Nazi soldier, is informed by conflicting projections cast onto the man who “had such affectionate words for me” in his letters, but also belonged to an era the narrator repels as a dangerous, inscrutable presence. The boy sleeps in his dead father’s bed, and in his spiritual wrestling he denies association with the man: “I saw that I was not my father, that I barely resembled him…though people were constantly claiming I did.” The narrator goes so far as to negate his father, referring to him as “my unreal father, lingering on in an unreal war,” and yet in the same breath, the narrator admits, “I could just as well be living in an utterly different time…” The war is indecipherable to him — quite literally, he cannot even read his father’s letters from the front, written in old-fashioned German script — and yet he lives in the ruins of his father’s failed pursuit.
When a death occurs in his household, the narrator’s moral confusion deepens. Both the narrator and his grandfather become accountable for the tragedy, but it is unclear which one of them is the true perpetrator. They sleep side by side in their bedroom, posturing to each other with one phrase of confused guilt. In the throes of sleep, the grandfather asks the narrator: “Whoo…? — Youu…!” The narrator replies, “Whooo… — Youuu…” This circular question-and-answer wraps its veil of culpability over the pair. The verdict follows the narrator long after the scene ends. As his psychological fabric deteriorates, as he begins to walk in an increasingly surreal world, the questions linger. Himself? His father? His grandfather? A reel of Doppelgänger? Who is responsible for the war? For the death? Who will be punished? Redeemed?
Hilbig imposes the same moral conundrum on his readers. Time and again, we encounter the impulse to empathize, judge, or simply examine characters whose guilt in the war remains unclear. The women of the novel: Were they complicit in genocide, or were they as powerless as the text suggests? The children: Do they grasp the atrocities that Germany inflicted, or, as the narrator claims, do they consider the war “decidedly more exciting” than the peace? The father: Was he an enthusiastic Nazi, or somebody who, as the narrator himself wonders, was “forced to give himself” over to the Nazi cause? The Sleep of the Righteous is especially meaningful in its English translation, which challenges a native English audience to temper our historical bias. Here we have been, on the other side of history: the Allies, the liberators, the victims, the peace-bearers. And here we stand now, asked to empathize beyond these limitations.
The Sleep of the Righteous rests at the elusive crossroads of art and moral necessity. It speaks to the epilogue of a war that has entrenched generations of guilty and innocent humans inside its narrative. Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused. As László Krazhanorkai notes in the novel’s introduction: “Whoever reads Hilbig quickly understands that nothing ever ends, and there is especially no end for the Germans, because those ordinary days contain within them a force: a monster that did not collapse.” The Sleep of the Righteous contours the outline of this monster and asks for us to hear its plea. The war ended long ago, but its echoes are loud if you choose to listen. - Stephanie Newmanelectricliterature.com/the-black-bloom-of-violability-the-sleep-of-the-righteous-by-wolfgang-hilbig-ca8d8c042395
It is gratifying to see Wolfgang Hilbig’s work appear in translation, if posthumously, because of the unique perspective on the former East and the newly unified Germany that he can offer as a genuine representative of the GDR’s “worker class” and gifted writer at the same time. The autobiographical vignettes here span his life from a World War II childhood to the writer’s career in the West.
The Sleep of the Righteous is held together by the desolate little coal-mining town of “M.” (Meuselwitz) that he grew up in, with few men remaining after the war, and where he worked for many years. While he has long since moved away, the town lives on in him with all its environmental and political depredations. In the old days it was the environmental pollution created by the lignite coal notorious for smogging up East German skies compounded by the political “pollution” of perennial spying and snitching. Post-Wall, it is the devastating lack of work that gradually empties these towns, compelling any that sought decent incomes to commute to remote jobs in Bavaria to work. If they do have a job, it’s something like “transporting rolls of pink toilet paper . . . from Munich to Leipzig.”
Not only does Hilbig give us a palpable sense of what it was like to live and write under a regime like that of the GDR but also what it was like for those East German adults to lose their whole world to this rush of radical westernization. But as the woman he lives with tells him, all “you people” know is to wait for orders, and “you let yourselves be annexed with the greatest of pleasure.” Once again, they happily took orders.
The last vignette has a Stasi (secret police) operative—whether actual or mere alter ego doesn’t matter—tell him of spying on his life, to the extent that he seems to remember his past better than the narrator himself. And like doubtless many such Stasi spies, this one claims that he was always much more on the narrator’s side than that of the “Firm.” The only way for the narrator to come to terms with his past is to kill this creature and dump the corpse in one of the boilers of the factory he’d worked in. Who’s going to look?
Hilbig’s sometimes surreal narrative makes disturbingly real how much a political regime can truly engender disease, both physical and psychological, by creating these extremes of suspicion and paranoia—never mind the environmental pollution. Isabel Fargo Cole’s finely nuanced translation renders Hilbig’s idiosyncratic observations sharply and entertainingly. - Ulf Zimmermann
Most languages don’t delineate between “game” and “play.” German’s Spiel, for example, suffices for both. But games are social institutions—exercises in hegemony, cohering with this or that status quo—while playing, well, playing is spontaneity, even subversion. This distinction animates the writing of Wolfgang Hilbig, whose work saw its English debut last year with an autobiographical collection of stories, The Sleep of the Righteous, and a novel, I.
Equal parts paranoid and melancholy, Hilbig’s fiction emerged in East Germany as part of the Bitterfelder Weg, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) cultural program launched to bring together authors and workers so that GDR literature might acquire a more authentic proletarian perspective. The SED sought to encourage the working class, empowered by the GDR’s cultural programs, not just to exercise the industrial strength of the communist national project but to surmount the bourgeois stranglehold on culture. Writers like Hilbig—boiler room stokers from small towns such as Meuselwitz—could then partake in capital-C Culture, and through their efforts define a national literature, dispensing with the alienation of factory workers and artists. A utopia of aesthetics. But where the Bitterfelder Weg and its proponents in Walter Ulbricht and the Central German Publishing House (der Mitteldeutscher Verlag) hoped to augur a flawless, German brand of socialist realism, they found a troublesome consequence in Hilbig.
For Hilbig, the state is a game. The Soviet Project is a game. So is the factory, the tenets of Socialist Realism, the dance one does to protect those most private corners of self from Stasi—even fiction, for that matter. Hilbig’s oeuvre is one of defiant play, and the organizing principles of life in the GDR were just that, fictions. Hilbig saw these for what they were: strictures, confinements. Like an informant for the rest of us, he would pry them open. And while the great worker-poet wasn’t overtly critical of state power, at least initially, he wasn’t one to vapor on about the supremacy of an allegedly more-equitable society, either. Far from it—The Sleep of the Righteous conjures a near-insurmountable bleakness.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s Hilbig published poems and collected stories almost exclusively in West Germany—without permission from GDR officials—largely avoiding the publications of the East. He was fined and served time in jail (though the imprisonment was, ostensibly, for incidents of violent behavior). A persecuted East German writer adored in the West, he was awarded the Brothers Grimm Prize in 1983, which he agreed to accept in person in Hanau—again, without state approval. This defiance of strict regulations for authors drew the ire of then Deputy Cultural Minister Klaus Höpcke. Not wanting to stir controversy or showcase the author’s repression to the world, the ministry granted him leave to accept the prize, with the caveat that he go accompanied, and observed, by his publisher, and that he was not to level any criticism against GDR in his speech.
Hilbig’s work eventually saw East German editions as well, but not without rigorous oversight; the fear that Hilbig might corrupt the young and robust tradition of German socialist realism never quite exhausted itself. Stories and poems were omitted, and the reception of his books was heavily regulated, with small print runs and prepared reviews skeptical of what they pegged as a nihilistic and reactionary worldview. On Hilbig’s supposedly socially irresponsible melancholy, the SED’s Director of the Cultural Department Ursula Ragwitz had this to say:
His worldview and artistic positions are distant from our ideology. By taking up reactionary and late-bourgeois traditions . . . [he] uses dark colors and pessimistic tones to diffuse a nihilistic and melancholy outlook on the world and on life . . . Since he gives voice to resignation, loneliness, sadness, suffering, and a yearning for death, Hilbig’s commitment to humanism can also be questioned.Hilbig’s fame in West Germany grew accordingly with the bureaucratic headache in the East, until, ultimately, Hilbig was permitted to leave to the FRG in 1985. He never returned to the GDR. (Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work (2014) gives a much more thorough account of all this, along with the Betterfelder Weg, and German socialist realism.)
The exhaustive sentences, which open and unfurl at great length, ride with images of decay—bleak, of course, but useful as apertures through which we can explore layers of concealment, poking around for secrets, histories, and modicums of truth among the fictions and fears of authoritarianism. These endeavors can horrify, they can evoke banality, and, even worse, locate horror in the banal. These stories are to a large degree about writing in a repressive state and the inherent cruelty of language, which either obfuscates the truth or betrays it: a mere utterance can lay bare the deepest recesses of self to Stasi, a persistent and looming threat. These are the everyday conditions of surveillance that Hilbig and his generation knew all too well. But even more, the very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation. (Spielen is also German for “to act.”)
The structural foundation of the text is the nature of concealment. The first story opens with a panning shot—of Meuselwitz presumably—and closes in on a young boy’s private life, into which the older boys pry, and scenes of Germans “dumping their ash and their rubbish in the ruts of [the] street by night.” The story ends with the boy, now an adult, musing on writing:
Writing resembled swimming. . . . In similar fashion you swam off with your words, born up by the blood-warm written words as over the surface of a mine pit smelling of coal and rot . . . only that there seemed to be no far shore for these words, with the words you had to swim on and on, until the words ended by themselves, until the words themselves went under.Through the rest of the collection, until the final stories, we navigate these interiorities of self here established, now exposed. In “The Bottles in the Cellar,” a man is overcome with grief about his cellar—more specifically, the stored bottles, which
loomed in the semidarkness of the cellar; suddenly, when one dared to look, there were many more bottles still, still more of these pyramids had been started, but foundered, they had collapsed upon themselves, dark green glass had poured out beneath the shelves, it seemed the shelves themselves, crammed full of bottles, had been washed up by glassy waves to freeze, unstable and askew, upon a glassy gelid flood that had rushed shrilly singing to fill every corner.Hilbig’s fictions maintain an underlying paranoia, and even his sentences formulate a dual openness and obscurity as they run across the pages, like the chasms they are, until ultimately we find ourselves nearing the end, or the bottom.
The penultimate story, “The Memories,” is a model for the entire collection. It opens with a writer, known only as C., a boiler room stoker, writing letters to strangers “composed of evasive, overcautious replies to questions no one had asked. . . . It seemed he was merely answering his own questions.” An inverse of the first story, it works its way back out into the world, to a trip to deposit mail, through the workers in the factory wing (“And shut away within, we probably held the knowledge of all the nameless generations before us that had sat just like this in the dark winter mornings, man and woman, waiting mute and servile for the urgent start of the workday to part them”), and through memories of his grandmother (“C. asked himself at times how many memories were sealed within her, in the withered, forbidding old woman’s body from which nothing emerged to the outside”). Bodies, memories, and boiler rooms are vessels of information, curiosities. Through C. we observe a queering of their banality, those we’ve come to find as strange only in their suppression.
But nothing is so curious for C. as Gunsch, a fellow stoker and an immigrant; he hardly speaks German, and C. and his coworkers know nothing of his life outside the factory. They debate the facts surrounding his private life, and even his words are subject to interrogation. In one instance Gunsch is heard yelling “Holéra! Holéra!”—Romanian for cholera, which C. considers, but isn’t entirely sure. He presumes that he shouted the word “because it resembled the German word Kohle, the term, that is, for the stuff at which they slaved each day, which filled their lungs with black deposits and forced black sweat from their pores.” Language itself lives in a surveillance state—the way meaning is ascribed, the way it plays by the rules of a game we call grammar in order to work. But, how well does it work? Gunsch is still a mystery—almost entirely conjecture—despite his capacity for speech, just as is C. to Gunsch, and C. to us. Perhaps the most befuddling part of this story is the volley between first and third person, sometimes in the same paragraph. Like an open boiler in a factory’s pit, Hilbig takes names, shorthand for the subjectivities contained therein, and flays that very basic certainty of perspective—the fixity of a particular pronoun (be it he/she/they or I)—we so take for granted when reading. His characters are paranoid, if not tortured, and painstaking are the efforts we must make to endure their innermost experience, despite the ostensibly easy access granted by the words that shape it. And here one locates a fundamental sadness in Hilbig’s work: the power of words to betray as well as to bury. As Christa Wolf—herself heavily surveilled, herself an informant—wrote in Accident: “Everything I have been able to think and feel has gone beyond the boundaries of prose. . . . We cannot write the same way our brains work.”
Hilbig’s “late bourgeois” tendency—the idea that radical aesthetics are concomitant with radical politics—was much maligned by his detractors in the Ministry of Culture. But this friction is not an issue of irresponsible representation of the working class experience; it is something inherent to writing, which Hilbig saw as a workshop—a factory, even—in which the raw materials of life are ground down and assembled into text. Language is that codified game in which society, proletarian or otherwise, becomes possible, mediating both our deepest interiors and the so-called objective truths of modern living. Hilbig’s defiant productions craft new systems from the existing practices—labor, surveillance, speech—he was meant to endure during his lifetime.
The Stasi—or the NSA, or digital marketing algorithms, for that matter—commodified the most precious corners of what makes us us. Hilbig, the bastard child of socialist realism, triumphantly turns these offenses back on themselves. He could very well be the writer for our time, more so than most still living, and the Anglophone world is lucky to have this peek into his dossier. - Tyler Curtis
The brutality, betrayals and deadening conformity of East Germany have provided fodder for a long list of celebrated writers. Christa Wolf won acclaim for her nuanced critiques of the now defunct Communist dictatorship, though her reputation took a beating with her admission that she had served as a Stasi informant. Heiner Müller’s scathing dramas challenged the authoritarian regime and earned him scorn as a “historical pessimist.” Then there was Wolfgang Hilbig, born in Saxony in 1941, who shoveled coal in a factory boiler room before discovering his true calling. Permitted to resettle in West Germany in 1985, he began attracting attention for his evocations of the East’s apocalyptic postwar landscape and the dislocations of a Cold War-era émigré who felt like an outsider in both societies.
In “The Sleep of the Righteous,” published in Germany in 2002 and now translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole, seven interconnected and partly autobiographical stories follow the narrator from a fatherless childhood in Hilbig’s hometown Meuselwitz (here referred to as “M”) to the tortured life of a writer in exile in the West (where Hilbig died, of cancer, in 2007).
In the early passages, Hilbig conjures a perverse version of a Tom Sawyer boyhood, mired in a wasteland of war widows, poverty and environmental degradation. In “The Place of Storms,” he imagines his vanished father in the “ice fields outside the city of Stalingrad” and escapes from his family’s sadness in a refuge called “the beach,” a soft bed of lignite beside a water-filled coal pit that’s slowly being consumed by an underground fire. “Neither beginning nor end of this deep-reaching hellfire could be explored without risk to life and limb,” he writes. “Nothing could extinguish the fire, creeping inexorably toward the water; I pictured how one day, not long from now, the strip mine’s shallow water would explode into a filthy white cloud of steam.” In “The Bottles in the Cellar,” a family project to brew cider from the apple trees that fill their garden spirals out of control, offering a nightmarish image of fecundity in an otherwise barren world: “The pavement turned into a swamp of yellow sweetness, honey and syrup oozed out between the disintegrating wagon slats and sank into the gutters in sluggish streams.” Eventually, “the blue vinegar flood transformed the moonlit yard into a tract of hell.”
The second half of Hilbig’s collection unfolds in the years after German reunification, when the citizens of towns like Meuselwitz failed to share in a promised economic revival. “Fog, drizzle and snow sank unchanged through the islands of reddish streetlights, as though even the weather were a mere expression of stagnation and the past,” the narrator observes of a return to his birthplace in “The Afternoon,” a hallucinatory blend of present and past that evokes the luminous prose of W.G. Sebald.
The collection’s final entry, a novella called “The Dark Man,” recounts a fateful journey made to a literary conference in the former East German city of Dresden. On a detour to Leipzig, the narrator pays a visit to his one-time lover, Marie, who is dying of cancer. He also encounters a former Stasi agent who confesses to spending years gathering information about him, even intercepting years of letters written to his mistress. Suddenly, the narrator is forced to confront his own history of evasions and deceptions, feeling a flash of horrified self-recognition: “His face . . . I thought. It was unshaven, I was unshaven too; the nicotine of many cigarettes had left a yellow-brown rim in the stubble on his upper lip; on my upper lip I saw the same yellow-brown shadow.” In this accretion of detail, Hilbig’s masterly work captures the angst of a man unable to escape the wreckage of his past. - Joshua Hammer
“Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”
This powerful collection is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on childhood, coming of age or, as it often seems, waiting to come of age, to “rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings”. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, the town is a place where men are in short supply. The majority of the children are fatherless, their mothers widowed, and few babies are born. Consequently, relationships and social dynamics are skewed. In the opening story, “The Place of Storms”, the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the murky waters between the realm of the “little children” and that of the “older children”. Rumours that his grandfather has a gun boost his status and potential for crossing the divide, while the horrific swim trunks his mother knits him complete with suspenders are a decided barrier. All of the awkward anxiety of youth is played out in the grimy pools of the abandoned mine pits at the end of the street where children wile away the summer hours divorced from the world of the suffering, lamenting adults in their lives.
The stories in the second part are set in the 1990’s, after the Wall has come down. The protagonists are all now grown men, writers, who have long since moved away from this small town, but find that they are unable to stay away. Restless, they regularly return to encounter ghosts, to visit an aging mother, or to escape a disintegrating relationship. No matter how long they may have been away, they never really leave the place behind. But they return to a town that is dying, industries and businesses that have been abandoned, and memories that cannot be escaped. In the final, and longest story, “The Dark Man”, the unnamed narrator is an established author who encounters, on the darkened streets of his old hometown, a stranger who has pursed him and now reveals that he was the Stasi agent responsible for intercepting and reading the writer’s correspondence. He claims to have a collection of letters originally intended for our hero’s former lover, a woman who presently lies near death. The narrator is disturbed, but determined not to let this curious relic of the GDR get the better of him – he denies any suggestion that he and his enemy have anything in common. Yet when he gets back to his mother’s apartment, the man in the bathroom mirror bears a haunting resemblance to what he could manage to make out of the stranger in the dark.
The Sleep of the Righteous is one of those books where you may well be inclined to stop and reread a paragraph several times before moving on, not because it is opaque or dense, but because the language is so captivating; the flow and rhythms, like eddies in a stream of water, swirling, reversing, and moving forward again. The brief title story is a sadly lyrical meditation on the cycle of guilt and recrimination that binds and defines the relationship between a boy and his grandfather who, in a reorganization of sleeping arrangements, end up sharing a bed following the death of the grandmother – a demise that one of them might have inadvertently caused. It opens:
“The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting substance from the darkness… it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten… it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling each other, still and hostile.”
Night after night, grandfather and grandson twist and turn to a nocturnal chorus of queries and accusations, in this poetic evocation of the tensions that underlie the fictions that families maintain to make sense of the very ordinary tragedies that strike close to home.
In his introduction to this volume, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, writes that in focusing on the mundane, the everyday life in East Germany, Hilbig manages to heighten the oppressiveness of that existence, rendering it all the more horrific as a consequence: “He wrote his astounding novels about a world in which only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” However, the measured, heavily weighted quality that hangs over the stories in The Sleep of the Righteousness, is bouyed by the sheer beauty of the prose and the quiet resilience with which the protagonists respond to the circumstances that history has gifted them. This could be a depressing read but somehow it is not.
Translator Isabel Fargo Cole, in a recent interview in World Literature Today, indicates that this collection is one of Hilbig’s most autobiographical works. His narrators tend to share the same basic features of his background – his grandfather emigrated from Poland, his father disappeared at Stalingrad, and he grew up with his mother in a household dominated by women. The town he mythologizes in his tales is modeled after the same one where he was born and grew up. Yet, it does not feel liked these are connected as part of a continuous narrative so much as each protagonist seems to have a similar launching point from which he proceeds to tell his story. There are overlaps and divergences along the way.
The Sleep of the Righteous is published by Two Lines Press. Along with his earlier novel, I, which was also translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and released by Seagull Books this summer, English speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the sombre magic of Wolfgang Hilbig. And, hopefully, look forward to more. - roughghosts.com/2015/11/15/for-all-the-restless-souls-the-sleep-of-the-righteous-by-wolfgang-hilbig/
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.
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.
“’I’ is a different sort of ‘secret police’ story than the West is used to. In place of agents lurking behind every corner, there is a writer and Stasi collaborator hiding in basements, or at his desk. He struggles less with enemies than with himself, caught between competing identities as artist and informer. On a broader level, ‘I’ is a psychological portrait of East German reality, where history comes to us not as a newly disclosed document but as a crisis buried deep in the minds of a nation.”(Wall Street Journal)
He has two antagonists; the first presses him from behind, from the origin. The second blocks the road ahead. He gives battle to both. To be sure, the first supports him in his fight with the second, for he wants to push him forward, and in the same way the second supports him in his fight with the first, since he drives him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two antagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? His dream, though, is that some time in an unguarded moment – and this would require a night darker than any night has ever been yet — he will jump out of the fighting line and been promoted, on account of his experience in fighting, to the position of umpire over his antagonists in their fight with each other. Franz Kakfa, Notes from the Year 1920
As a child, I argued that the first letter of my name should be elevated in status from consonant to vowel. It seemed a reasonable enough proposition: like any vowel, the letter T is used extremely often. Yet my mother, initially receptive to the idea, also brought about its swift demise: it didn't work like that – there was an order. And because there was an order, I understood that I’d lost the argument, and so stopped arguing.
The T continues to trail me. It returns to me now, as I wonder if Wolfgang Hilbig was haunted by any of the letters in his name, the doubled ‘I’ in particular. If those repeated vowels weren't forever asking questions of who he really was, fuelling doubts that had special resonance in the small state he called home – until it one day dissolved – and that, because he was a writer, he turned these thoughts into a book. Isabel Fargo Cole is the translator of ‘I’; I wonder – briefly succumbing to the book's paranoiac atmosphere – if Isabel had any choice in the matter. Much of Hilbig’s writing remained unpublished during the period before German reunification, and that which was published got the writer into trouble. A writer in East Germany was dangerous, and the dangerous find themselves watched. Of course, in English, ‘I’ takes on even greater significance, suggesting the whole morbid choreography of observation in which Hilbig was forced to take part.
The novel begins where all novels must begin – at the cover. ’I’, and its author's name, are pressed onto a painting by the German artist Max Neumann. Neumann paints dogs, shapes, phantoms. Béla Tarr makes films of László Krasznahorkai's dawn nightmares, Neumann paints Krasznahorkai's dawn nightmares. On the cover is one of Neumann's phantoms: a black shadow crowding out the grey wall behind it. The cover makes clear that Hilbig is haunted by the same poltergeists as Krasznahorkai, Tarr and Neumann: something is wrong with these men. The book's first page is void-black.
The narrator of ‘I’ is chatty, as confused as an insomniac, looping his narrative in on itself until it is knotty and frayed. ‘If I might digress this one last time,’ he says on page three — a promise that will be broken innumerable times before the book’s end. And even before this, the narrator imparts his first lesson: to seize power, do so with the co-operation of the powerful. As if our narrator has this kind of control. As if our narrator has access to power that can be seized. This narrator barely sustains control over his own narration: before long, the first person narrator slips away, replaced by a disquieting third. The narrator-protagonist’s name is Cambert. But he is not only Cambert, he is also C., also M.W., also W. In fact, nobody here is just one person. W. is for Wolfgang. W. is for Writer. W. is a writer, or becomes a writer, or is told he is a writer. The narrative tugs the reader by the sleeve into the mind of one whose thoughts and private questions have already strayed into forbidden territory:
He saw anarchy looming—and asked himself whether this wouldn't inevitably bring the collapse of the entire system. Probably the answer was yes … and he knew that thoughts like that took him onto thin ice. With thoughts like that he was practically courting closer scrutiny. It didn't matter that no one knew of these thoughts but he; he thought them only down here in the basement, he’d never thought them up in the light … the sunlight, it seemed to him, would inevitably summon to his brow the agitation that came in their wake, the thoughts would take eloquent form in the deeply downturned corners of his mouth, or the film of sweat on the skin of his face would seem to permit but one conclusion: he had thought of the end…
W. finds himself in the service of the Firm as an UnCol: an Eastern-Bloc contraction of ‘Unofficial Collaborator.’ He is moved to East Berlin and tasked with infiltrating the ‘Scene’ to track the movements of Reader, following him to secret locations and reporting on it to his case worker, the Major, a secretary in the Firm, also known as Feuerbach, and as Kesselstein, a doppelgänger of the boss he had back in his home town of A. Before being an UnCol, W. worked in an assembly hall and wrote in his spare hours, hours which quickly began to encroach on those during which he should have been working. For that reason, he was demoted to the role of stoker in the boiler room. In this land, so much is done for practical purposes: not because of some capitalist drive to produce, but instead to uphold the system. It is done with such effort that, for W., reality and memory, the past and the present, become increasingly difficult to discern: ‘I lived in a world of the imagination.’
With the book’s dust jacket removed, the black of the hardcover rubs off on my sweating hands. Later, it looks as though I've been handling organic material. I wonder if there are marks on my face, if I look like I've been doing some manual work or lurking through the ‘dark paths’ of Berlin with W. in his hunt for Reader. It certainly feels as if these things are true, or as if I have somehow assumed complete awareness of W.'s activities. This is an entirely appropriate sensation: the society that Hilbig depicts, steeped in the paranoiac atmosphere of the former East Germany, is one in which the individual has lost the privilege of privacy. No-one is ever alone. W. knows that his room’s light, switched on when he returns home, was off when he went out. These are the public secrets that are shared so that a false sense of security is avoided. This is the Firm’s favour to W. – you are not alone, so you have no reason to pretend to be. Likewise, the poems being published in West Berlin that are attributed to W. are not his, so he shouldn't pretend that they are. ’I’, then, becomes an exploration of the contradiction that is this state, played out through the contradictions that are both foisted upon the idea of the individual and inherent within its very conception.
Under these conditions, staying or going is the key question: to declare you will stay, to declare you will go, to avoid the question altogether – all arouse suspicion. The narrative of ‘I’ is compelled by this confusion. And yet, at the same time, there is no confusion at all: W. is not a writer, or not the writer he thinks he is. His mission to infiltrate the Scene is not a mission at all, or not a mission to infiltrate the Scene. The Scene is not even a scene: as with the literary mainstream, nothing noteworthy happens in this literary underground. Everything is hidden in plain view. In the same way, W. is both many things and one – depending on what is required at a given time. W. himself has a flickering awareness of this. He is drawn into a paternity case which itself becomes a muddle. The man being tried is not him, yet he is forced to stand before the court in the place of this man then pay child support as the father of this invisible child: ‘He himself was one of these shadows.’
He intuits it most palpably, perhaps, in his capacity as a writer. W. writes reports for the Firm on his forays into the Scene. He dashes off his reactions, weaves fictions, miss-types words, and, in doing so, arrives at secret truths – ‘The Party is always night,' he types, misspelling, in his hurry, right. Feuerbach praises his prose, as if W.’s reports justify his writing abilities and therefore the decision the Firm has made in hiring him, only to edit the sloppy work later on. Upon leaving a café, W. catches sight of himself back at a table in the same room. This vision coincides with more of his poems being published and praised. At this moment, he questions if his writing is in fact his, realises the works are, at the very least, authorised – and that so is the criticism. In an act of rebellion, he resubmits his rejected work, cuts his poems down the middle, reorders them and resubmits them. Instead of being reprimanded for this, he is encouraged: this adds authenticity, erasing suspicions about him – what W. produces is real Unofficial Literature. Of course, none of it is unofficial. ‘The goal of the service was to make everyone … Everyone without exception … into collaborators of this service.’ The Scene, literature, culture, dissent, opposition, the desire to flee – it is all manufactured by the system to fortify the system. The Firm knows W.'s tricks, where he escapes to, what he is thinking. Indeed, they rely on his tricks, his escaping, his secret thoughts: this is the very essence of the system. ‘We know all that much better than you do,’ Feuerbach declares.
Following Cole's pristine translation is an afterword in which she places both ’I’, and Hilbig himself, into context. When the Stasi tried to recruit the writer as a collaborator – not an unusual occurrence – he resisted, and soon found himself in jail. Yet Hilbig was clearly just as preoccupied by the moral issues of joining the Stasi as those of refusing them: by the question of what such a system does to the individual. In one of his drunken rants, Feuerbach blathers to W. about how censorship creates writers. ‘What would a writer be without us … after we’re gone? After we’re gone, they'll all become journal subscribers, those literary gentlemen … Seriously, though, what is a writer after we’re gone?’ The act of censorship, and of being manufactured for a purpose which, on the surface, serves as part of this society's culture, and below that, forms a way of infiltrating a milieu, splices the individual, demanding that he become different things for different purposes. The state has created the collaborators, and their function has made them indispensable. But by having a function, the ‘I’, the ego, is uncalled for. An ‘I’, manufactured when required, is adopted and then discarded. Hence Hilbig's own Underground Man. Literature, too, becomes layered with independent meaning: this literature is not for the entertainment of the bourgeoisie. How can it be when it is, on the one hand, written for the underground literary scene, and on the other, authorised by the state? To complicate matters further, this is also a world in which a light left on in a flat offers no guarantee of either presence or absence: where signs are shorn of their conventional significance.
‘I’d never known this side of me before,’ avows W. In Hilbig's rendition, the individual is a multitude and, under certain circumstances, the individual is many more. W. is also Cambert is also C is also M.W. There are other possible sides to him, unknown ones. W. believes that it is in West Berlin that he can truly be – or, rather, more importantly, only be – M.W., the author of those poems. In East Berlin, the individual is forced into an act of doubling, tripling, multiplying until he is a one-man crowd of phantoms. The story that ‘I’ tells is not an attempt to find meaning across these selves, nor to pick at the ways of reconciling them. This is a narrative that tiptoes around the tension between who we seem to be and who we really are – and whether the distinction in itself is meaningful – in a society where the real and the made-up have equal utilitarian value.
Of course, always, buried under these layers, somewhere, is truth. It is in his self-appointed task of hunting S.R., a female student from West Berlin, that W. finds meaning – a single ‘I’ that he can, maybe, be. The self-appointed task, he begins to think, is the meaningful one. But what’s to be done when your target begins to follow you? The inevitable search for authenticity is, maybe, too, a part of such a system. The real, the imagined – they’d say to your face that the distinctions matter little and they wouldn’t be joking. But the distinctions matter to the protagonist in the same way they matter to the reader. That the Firm peddles in fictions doesn’t mean the real matters less. Indeed, that they peddle in fictions makes the nonfictions matter more. It is W.’s landlady who tells him he is not a writer, that it is all bullshit. He is not upset. Instead, he feels like he is finally taken seriously.
The book's last page is void-black. The story ends where all novels must end: on the back cover is a painting by German artist Max Neumann. Neumann paints dogs, shapes, phantom-men. Here is a phantom-man, a shadow against a grey wall. This time, the phantom is in profile, arms folded. His head is down, as if in resignation. Or maybe because he has just been told what sounds like a joke.
For most English speakers, the name Wolfgang Hilbig does not ring a bell. Largely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, his 1993 novel 'I' is now the first of his writing to be available to English readership. The collection The Sleep of the Righteous is to follow later this year. Hilbig died in 2007, but is still gaining recognition in his home country, Germany. He was born in 1941 in a small Saxon village close to Leipzig. Much like the Protagonist of 'I', Hilbig was for a large part of his life a stoker by day and a writer by night. He was brought up by his mother and grandparents, his father having fallen in Stalingrad. As an industrial worker in Communist Germany, he was set up to become the poster boy writer of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party. However, he did not follow suit. Nowhere in his books and stories do we find the heroic proletarian, nowhere do we see the socialist glory his statesmen surely would have liked to have seen. Instead his words mirror the gloomy drag, the constant feeling of surveillance and suppression underpinning everyday life for the millions living in East Germany. It was this, his continual unwillingness to speak to the party's doctrines, which finally led to his leaving the GDR for West Berlin in 1985.
'I' is the story of M.W., a man who despite having a social background and interests strikingly similar to those of the author himself, gives in to becoming an informant to the East German secret police, the Stasi. The story portrays a system whose objective was singular: absolute security, "to make everyone [...] into collaborators [...] So that all could be watched by all -- that was a security worthy of its name." 'I' is a story carried by the gloom and tristesse reminiscent of the 2006 Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, with M.W. spending many of his days in total reclusion, living his life through the subject he is tasked with surveilling. In real life, his affair with his landlady, Frau Falbe, is one born of convenience rather than passion, and lacking any form of closeness. The one person he somewhat opens up to is his Stasi superior Feuerbach, who in the final parts of the book comes to sexually abuse him. In the East Berlin underground, M.W. lives a solitary life, following and living through the mysterious author he is out to shadow, and desiring the young woman his subject is seeing.
On the surface Hilbig's novel might appear to be a Soviet-era spy novel, but it really isn't -- Hilbig is no Tom Clancy. 'I' is not the book for a reader looking for an enthralling, suspenseful holiday read. It is a novel that lives more through its prose, symbols, and ambiguities, than its plot. Hilbig's writing is ambitious and multi-layered, just like his protagonist. His dark, Kafkaesque world is carried by language at times surreal, which makes us aware of unknown threats lurking in every alleyway and behind every corner. Hilbig develops this world with meticulous strokes of the pen. We follow his protagonist through long lonely days, through pseudo stakeouts during which he hides himself away in the basements and cellars of Berlin, removed from the world "up above [...] the level of reality." Often we sit with him in darkness as he listens and writes, knowing that, "There was one single character who had to reckon with surveillance down here: I myself... surveilled by me myself."
"I" has many names. Born as M.W., Hilbig's protagonist comes to adopt his new Stasi alias, "Cambert," and takes to referring to himself as either M.W., W., Cambert, or simply C., sometimes even speaking of himself in the third person. M.W. quickly detaches himself from the unfortunate events that forced him into the service of this inhuman machinery. He at times continues to struggle with his new self, but comes to find freedom and power in his changed position and ultimately sees it as a way to cultivate his writing. For a time, his vocation as an informant and his calling as a writer blend into one another. The border between the writing of reports and the writing of fiction or poetry fades, much like the border between his different Egos. It is in this sense that we may understand the title of Hilbig's novel, with its original German title Ich translating as both "I" and the Freudian "Ego."
On the surface "I" is a K�nster- and Wenderoman: guiding us through the Cold War artist and writer milieu of East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg. But underneath, it is a novel about identity crises and M.W.'s partially imposed, partially willing metamorphosis into the Ego of his Stasi alias, which ultimately comes to rob him of what he initially set out to cultivate: his writing. 'I' poses the question of the artist's identity and freedom under the totalitarian regime of Communist Germany. It is Hilbig's Gedankenexperiment of picturing a possible self, an Ego, which has given in to becoming an informant to the East German secret police. This version of himself, M.W., fails to act against the pressures he is confronted with. Whilst recognizing the role he plays as the system's henchman, he still remains quiet and obedient of all that is asked of him. "We were the shadow of life, we were death... we were the dark side of man turned flesh, turned shadowflesh, we were hatred isolated. 'I' was hatred..."
'I' is a powerfully eloquent read which wraps us in the stratified world of its main character's perceived impotence against an almost invisible omnipotent state. It is a book of atmosphere and prose, which at times fails to keep us interested in the character's ultimate fate or the rather slowly developing plot. Nonetheless, 'I' is an impressive piece of writing, which manages to combine a multitude of genres and questions in one single novel. It is the kind of book you feel you need to read a second time in order to fully grasp. - Felix Haas
Decades after the Battle of Berlin and the fall of Nazi Germany, sociologists and laymen alike still puzzle over one of the most vexing questions to come out of the subsequent revelations of widespread atrocities: How did millions of people go along with all this? Even more troubling was the question: Could I? Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel, appropriately titled I, addresses this and many similarly knotty quandaries of the human psyche, though within the relatively milder historical epilogue known as the German Democratic Republic. Certainly the most eerie aspect of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall was the elusive Stasi and their network of informants, everyday citizens coerced or intimidated or occasionally even throwing themselves at the opportunity to spy on and catalog the behavior of their fellow everyday citizens.
Cambert, the central voice in Hilbig’s novel, is just such an informant. Before immersing himself in his role as a controversial poet and acclaimed member of the literary underground, he was a self-styled poet who could barely finish a sentence, a voracious reader who never read a whole novel, a thinker forever too intoxicated for lucid thought. He worked as a grunt and lived with his mother until the Stasi came into his life, offering him the opportunity to become what he had always aspired to be, except an almost completely fabricated version.
Ironically, just the simulation of this reality is intoxicating enough for Cambert. He soon finds himself untethered from his former self, forever lost in a hallucinatory state, obsessed with fragmentary details of the life of another, more renowned writer, his mark, known simply as “The Reader.” As his jealousy of the Reader’s accolades spirals out of control, along with his unraveling sense of self, his methods become awkward and bumbled, and he has increasing trouble ingratiating himself to the very scene he was hand-picked to infiltrate.
Left without his past, and lost to his own present, Cambert’s disorienting mental landscapes bring to mind the works of Kafka, or Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, but as told from the other side, from the view of one trapped and obliterated by his governmental duties, the paranoid jailer rather than the jailed, for whom “all speech had become a conspiracy.”
At first, Hilbig’s novel can seem impenetrable. The story follows no conventional sense of chronology and relies entirely on the mental meanderings of a bombastic and unreliable narrator in the middle of a profound existential crisis aggravated by a nonstop bender. Pretensions bleed into self-doubts and back again, encounters may simply be fever-dreams, and no character is consistent or capable of categorization when viewed through the heavily filtered gaze of Cambert. Through this, though, we slowly come to see one sort of psychology that is prone toward joining up with the bad guys: the listless souls, starved for meager power, sticking like burs to the boots stomping the ground around them. - Kristi Steffen
Since Germany's reunification, western impressions of life under the Stasi's eye have been shaped by two popular works: the stylish but fanciful film, The Lives of Others (2007), and Anna Funder's wonderful, heart-breaking memoir, Stasiland (2001), which is nevertheless an example of history written by the winners. Recently, Jenny Erpenbeck and Julia Franck have drawn on their East German backgrounds to write novels about individuals who face losing everything they know in the maelstrom of history. Unlike these works, Hilbig's 'I' was forged in the furnace of the GDR and is narrated by a writer-turned-informer. Hilbig never worked for the Stasi, but was interrogated and imprisoned. This is the reality from which he builds his novel which was, on publication in Germany in 1993, praised as "the first serious literary exploration of the East German surveillance state..."
Initially, 'I' is narrated in the first person but it switches to third person, as the factory worker-cum-writer protagonist, who's variously referred to as "C", "W" and "Cambert", grows confused and alienated. He's living in provincial East Germany in the 1980s when he meets Feuerbach, a Stasi man, who sends him to East Berlin so that he can infiltrate "The Scene" (the literary underground).
The protagonist's fiction-making as both writer and informer isolates him. He loses himself, and his I, in a nightmare world where everybody is watching each other but there's no intimacy.
'I' is a powerful depiction of GDR life by somebody who was both shaped by it and became its clear-eyed critic. But Hilbig's visions of psychological and social turmoil, and his refusal to condemn his protagonist, give 'I' considerable artistic, as well as historical, value. "What was so astonishing," thinks the protagonist, "…about this state… was the hatred which it had fostered, invisible, always, hidden, buried, as it were, beneath this land's eroded air." As Merkel's visceral response to Snowden's allegations indicates, the impact of surveillance is something which its victims feel.
While reading this novel, I recalled my recent visit to Berlin's Stasi Museum where I learned about the witless old men who ruined countless lives. Hilbig's characters remind me of one particular exhibit: a pair of cufflinks belonging to a man who was shot dead while attempting to escape to West Berlin. These cufflinks were moving to look at and impossible to forget, because they restored to the victim his I. Hilbig's novel should prove to be just as indelible. - Max Liu
NOW, IN THE ERA of unabashed and unprecedented mass surveillance, is the time to read East German literature. If anyone knew what it was like to be tracked and informed upon, to be complicit in the surveillance of others, to drown in the banality of everyday life observed and recorded, it was the pre-1989 Germans in the East. Few would defend the government that coerced its citizens into this ceaseless collection of information, but given the colossal nature of the information being collected about citizens today by our own government, East Germany seems quaint. We might even feel nostalgic for such a clear-cut scenario — bad state power being brought to bear on innocent civilians. We can imagine that if we found ourselves in that dreadful, tawdry 1970s East Berlin, we would have heroically resisted. We would have “deconspired” with the state security forces who tried to draw us in. We would have railed against injustice, and felt righteous and clean. New translations in 2015 brought us two extraordinary books by East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, the story collection The Sleep of the Righteous and his novel about a Stasi informant, ‘I’. Hilbig’s brooding, lyrical prose brings the pettiness and squalor of the security state to life.
Hilbig was born in 1941 and died in 2007, having been allowed to emigrate to the West just a few years before the Wall fell. He was awarded Germany’s most prestigious literary prize in 2002 for his lifetime achievement. ‘I’, his novel about an “unofficial collaborator,” (an unpaid civilian recruited to spy on neighbors and acquaintances) caused a sensation in Germany when it was published in 1993, but despite his reputation in Europe, these two books are the first available in English. Hilbig was a stoker, who wrote in a furnace room between bouts of shoveling coal. As a young man he was asked to join an official workers’ literary society, but was soon deemed unfit for this group. The coal shoveler failed to produce prose glorifying his brutal basement boiler room. But neither does his fiction simply condemn the misery and intellectual poverty of his environment.
No bleakness could be more vivid and crawling with life than Hilbig’s landscapes. Dirt, ash, mold, and the murky liquid from an abandoned mine overwhelm the stories of The Sleep of the Righteous. The darkness of the natural world and man-made decay are much more palpable than any human presence. The Sleep of the Righteous begins with four stories of a boy in a small town in the East. The second half of the book moves into his adulthood, with the protagonist leaving and circling back to the dingy, decrepit town of his youth. The childhood stories are from a divided Germany, the adult stories after reunification. But even as the narrator crosses borders formerly closed to him, the mud, ash, and mildew of the earlier stories have only grown more entrenched. In “Coming,” the child narrator escapes the house at night when he’s supposed to be in bed, causing his female caretakers to shriek in an exasperated chorus, “I’m going to throw myself in the lake!” The nighttime world is described with a visual exactitude the women never merit:
I hastened through the woods where wafts of mist fooled my eyes, like nightgowns fleeing, then over an open field, across the endless rubbish heaps where the empty bottles and flickering snakes of tinfoil echoed the unearthly gleam of the sickle moon, and where deep in the night came a dark red glow as from subterranean fires.
No human is described anywhere with this same sharpness.
Hilbig gives objects clamorous voices that clang over partial and imprecise bits of human speech. In the most stunning story of this unflagging collection, “The Bottles in the Cellar,” empty cider bottles, unused during unsuccessful attempts to harvest the garden apples, begin to take over a house. The apples seem to grow menacingly, only to invade the house and rot. The bottles are themselves imbued with a malevolent life force: “they lay neck to belly, belly to neck, seeming to copulate in a peculiarly inflexible fashion which was lustful all the same and appeared not to fatigue them in the slightest.” The bottles bombard the narrator, brush their cobwebs against him, clank against each other, and seem to command him to drink himself senseless. The vicious physicality of things continues throughout the adult stories. The throb of a laboring refrigerator motor, the recalcitrant flicker of a corroded lamp, a stain on wallpaper that spreads like “lines of discolored vermin […] marching up the wall” all assert themselves so forcefully that the human protagonist seems by contrast battered down. The few figures who appear in the adult stories — a friend chased, beaten, then exiled; a meek mother; a sarcastic, complaining wife; a lover observed in her nakedness but perhaps never touched — can hardly compete with the stridency of these objects.
In these stories and even more so in ‘I’, Hilbig’s sentences wrench themselves along with the aid of dashes and ellipses. Never quite finishing but soldered to each other with intrusive punctuation, disjointed clauses coagulate into paragraphs. The sentences seem to sprout and branch, copulating like the nefarious bottles. In service of a landscape or a character sketch, the language collects its fragments with a layered complexity. An unheated apartment, a bathrobe, the tattered hair of a woman just released from prison — these are described thoroughly, the eye returning to textures, colors, and patterns. These stuttering, throttled, circular sentences take us through explicit arguments and positions on the surveillance the narrator of ‘I’ is forced into. Here Hilbig’s labyrinthine syntax embodies the ambiguity of the collaborator’s situation. The narrator begins in first person, randomly switches to third, then back to first. His name is variously rendered as Cambert, C., or W., and the novel spirals through time as well as names, beginning at the end and then worming its way back to it. Cambert is involved in “Operation Reader,” where he takes notes on a local writer known for epic oral delivery of paragraphless texts. Cambert is egged on in this venture by Feuerbach, his Stasi handler, who has an intense interest in the literary scene.
The brilliance of ‘I’ lies in more than its rendering of the instability and corrosiveness of domestic surveillance. The novel lays out a complex, even cluttered analogy between the writer who comes up with convincing details for his fiction and the spy who similarly composes reports for his supervisors. This analogy is not just implied — it is directly discussed by the narrator and Feuerbach, and many scenes explicitly conflate the act of peering in windows and that of the writer sitting at his desk. The Stasi handler actively facilitates his informant’s literary career, making sure his poetry gets published, and advising him on style and work habits as well as finding him a place to live and otherwise smoothing his path. The correlation between writer and “unofficial collaborator” is laid out over and over again, while the handler, like a chummy literary agent, spouts Beckett and laughs at the pompous title of one of the official workers’ literary organs.
Hilbig takes up the “unofficial collaborator” theme again in the last story of The Sleep of the Righteous, “The Dark Man.” In the opening scene, the narrator, now a successful writer, marvels over his colleagues, who have dined out for years on the tales of their doings now come to light when the Stasi files were opened.
The writers talking on screen about the opening of several tons of Stasi files, talking it up and down—I knew several of them well, was even friends with them—seemed bent on making it the central theme of their literary lives […] Ah! I thought, suddenly they have a real theme!—And they clung to this theme with such an iron grip, it was hard not to suspect that these files, suddenly made public, had saved their literary lives!
Whether they had collaborated with the Stasi or resisted, the earlier era lent a tone of struggle, heroism, or, if nothing else, cathartic remorse to the literati.
The dehumanized and dehumanizing environments Hilbig describes, where bottles and ash have more say than mothers or schoolboys, result from passivity and self-absorption, a failure to see the lives of others as more than observable surfaces. Hilbig excludes or downplays the human, which is a pity, since it’s the capacity to see others as real, whole, and suffering that can transform his bleak terrain, a capacity Hilbig represents only in its absence. We are living today in a world where our own National Security Agency collects, stores, and analyzes all our phone calls and emails. We don’t suspect this but know this, due to Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. The information our government collects about us dwarfs the Stasi’s files.
Since it is done impersonally and remotely, and because of the triviality of much of what is collected, we don’t immediately feel the effects. Hilbig emphasizes the banality of what the Stasi recorded. The informant in ‘I’ tracks down nothing more damning than the location of poetry readings. The narrator of “The Dark Man” fears reading his own Stasi files because of their paralyzing boredom:
I feared the gruel of language, these files’ distinguishing feature, I feared the nausea, these paper monsters’ brain-rotting stink, I feared the gray type, so like that of my own typewriter, I feared my face would break out in scabies if I submitted to reading these inhuman pages.
In Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, Snowden blandly explains the extent of the NSA’s technical capabilities, to turn phones on in our pockets and record conversations, to almost instantly track not only one person but a host of their associates, feats that would have required an army of “unofficial collaborators” back in the old days behind the Wall. And yet we have not mounted any significant protest. Our government’s massive surveillance continues to seem abstract unless we can be moved by it viscerally. To the writer at her desk, who leads a dull, middle-class life, it’s hard to imagine any harm resulting from the minutest reckoning of her phone calls. East Germany not only seems quaint, but almost romantic from our vantage point. Imagine someone actually following a poet down the street!
What the blameless poet may fail to see is how today’s mass surveillance impacts those already criminalized, for their poverty, skin color, or creed. As surveillance technology works into everyday policing, a seemingly innocuous traffic stop connects a license plate number to hordes of other records — unpaid fines, outstanding warrants, unverified “suspicious activity reports.” As Malkia Amala Cyril writes in The Progressive, “indiscriminate data collection […] drives discriminatory policing practices.” If we continue to see surveillance as an issue of privacy rights, the injury seems mostly theoretical. Taken as an ever-tighter hold on those already oppressed, we might begin to count the bodies. Hilbig remains cynical about the ability of writers to rally solidarity. Yet the emotional resonance that literature offers might be one way we can be jarred out of the complacency that has so far greeted our surveillance state. - Angela Woodward
Das Provisorium is a novel set towards the end of the 1980s, running to just over three-hundred pages, which follows a writer from the GDR (East Germany) living in the west. Having overstayed his visa, he finds himself in a sort of no-man’s land: he’s unable to go home, and he’s not sure he really belongs in the West. Of course, the main problem is that he doesn’t know if he wants to go home either…
This conundrum provides the work with its almost schizophrenic nature, with the action split between the two states. The writer has a woman on each side of the wall, but he’s constantly on the move, wanting what he hasn’t got, wanting to be anywhere other than where he is. Trapped in this state of inertia and uncertainty, he’s unable to move on with his life, without the strength to decide which way he should jump. More importantly, with this existential crisis bubbling beneath the surface, even his writing is suffering.
The novel starts with a bang when the writer finds himself attacked on a flight of stairs, only to realise (after punching his way to freedom) that his assailant is a shop-window dummy. This scene, typical of his confused state, sets the scene for the struggles he is to face over the course of the novel. Sitting outside a café in Nuremberg, watching the crowds of shoppers pass by, he speculates on the connection between real life and fiction:
Genug Figuren, es wäre eine Überzahl von Figuren selbst für einen dicken Roman. Und es müßte damit sogar die Kritik zufriedengestellt werden können, die Literaturkritik, die sich seit der seligen Postkutschenzeit immer wieder mit der Anzahl der Handlungsträger in Erzählwerken beschäftigt.
p.10 (Fischer Verlag, 2008)
Enough people, there would be a surplus of people even for a big, thick novel. And it should suffice to enable even the critics to be satisfied, those literary critics who have busied themselves since the golden age of mail carriages with the number of characters in works of fiction.
*** (my translation)
The irony of his comments lies in the way the novel develops. It’s certainly by no means a thin book, but it’s one that features very few characters, and only one starring role.
Das Provisorium is a work focusing squarely on the writer and his work. Hilbig describes the struggles of his ‘character’ to write back in the East, showing his efforts to snatch time during work hours and the savage rejections he receives from the snooty state publishers. Eventually, having been given official permission to become a writer, he is able to publish books and make short trips to the West. When he manages to obtain a one-year visa to spend time on research and writing in the West, he believes he’ll finally able to write freely:
Hier aber ging die Literatur den Bach runter, das schien ihm unverkennbar. Die Literatur, die sich weigerte, der Zerstreuung zu dienen, wurde auf dem Markt mit Nichtbeachtung bestraft… (p.70)
Here, though, literature had gone to the dogs, that much seemed undeniable. Works that refused to serve as mere distraction were punished in the market place by simply being ignored… ***
His discovery that in the capitalist world literature has long been repackaged and sold as a consumer commodity comes as a devastating, disillusioning blow.
With his struggles to work, the writer turns to the women in his life in an attempt to provide some focus to his days. Back in Leipzig, there’s Mona, the woman he lived with for years before his move to the West, one who loves him but despairs of his ever doing the right thing by her. Meanwhile, over in Nuremberg, there’s Hedda, a fellow writer he has had a lengthy, turbulent relationship with. It’s in his dealings with the two women that the man’s selfishness comes to the fore. Everything seems too hard for him, and he is completely incapable of keeping a promise, continually using and disappointing both women. Hedda, in particular, becomes increasingly frustrated at his reluctance to commit, and his seeming inability to finally break up with Mona:
Für dich, hatte sie ihm eines Tages vorgeworfen, ist die Liebe nur ein Provisorium! (p.220)
For you, she had accused him one day, love is just a temporary state! ***
Which is true, but the moment she starts to back away, he needs her more than ever. There is one more important female character in Das Provisorium, too, the writer’s mother, and while she’s initially kept in the background, in some later sections looking back on his childhood, we learn more about their relationship, gaining some valuable (and disturbing) insights into some of his issues…
His problems with women are relatively trivial, though, when compared to those caused by his drinking. Very early in the novel, he’s semi-forcibly checked into a rehab clinic, allowing the reader to accompany him through long nights watching the delirium tremens and night terrors of his fellow inmates (and even longer days spent shuffling around the corridors in endless loops). Much of the rest of the novel is spent showing us how he got there, with the hapless writer on a continuous bender, staggering from pub to pub before briefly returning to his latest squalid flat (full of bottles). Yet this addiction to alcohol is connected to his other issues, particularly his inability to write, as he believes that getting drunk is the only way to break through his writer’s block. The sad truth is that he can’t write with it, and he can’t write without it.
Anyone who has tried Hilbig’s work will not be surprised to hear that while Das Provisorium is an enthralling work, it’s not exactly the most accessible novel around. It’s divided into several long sections, filled with very long sentences, and the overall progression of the story is subverted by lengthy tangents, such as an examination of life in hotel rooms or multi-page musings on pornographic movies. Apart from describing the writer’s experiences in general, there’s no plot to speak of, and the reader is taken back and forth in time, leading to the occasional sense of dizziness when we find ourselves unsure as to when (or where) we are. The writer constantly hops from one train to the next, caught in circles between his hotel rooms and the local train station, and the saddest part of it all is that he’s unable to relax and take advantage of the fortunate situation he’s found himself in. Having dreamed of becoming a full-time writer, now that he has his readings, his money and the time he needs to write, it’s all useless – and so he keeps on moving and drinking…
Several of Hilbig’s books have made it into English courtesy of Two Lines Press (including the one I read earlier this year, Der Schlaf der Gerechten (The Sleep of the Righteous), translated by Isabel Fargo Cole), but as far as I’m aware, there’s no English translation of this one as yet. The English title, then, is my suggestion, a near translation of the original idea, and with the words ‘Provisorium’ and ‘provisorisch’ (‘temporary’ or ‘provisional’) peppering the text, there’s much in Hilbig’s novel that is temporary. However, I chose this expression for the double meaning it contains in English; looking back from our twenty-first century vantage point, it’s only natural to see the GDR itself as a temporary state, especially as the end of the novel takes us past the momentous events that ended the eighties.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the novel, though, is how much we can read into it regarding the writer’s own experiences. It’s tempting to start researching Hilbig’s own life to see how much of this was drawn from his own experiences, and whether he too found himself trapped in a familiar, yet foreign, land, drinking himself into oblivion and disappointing the women who loved him. However, it’s best to just forget about the creator and immerse yourself in the creation, an honest, warts and all, view of a man unable to come to terms with a freedom that he doesn’t think he deserves, one that will probably come crashing down on him one day. Das Provisorium is less a novel than a reading experience – whether that appeals or repels will depend, I suspect, on the kind of reader you are… - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/das-provisorium-a-temporary-state-by-wolfgang-hilbig-review/
The Boxer and the Smell of Broom. Ingo Schulze on the Death of Wolfgang Hilbig on June 2nd, 2007