The garbagemen, Waller said to himself, are the only ones who never forgot anything! They couldn’t forget, for their job was the constant processing of the material of the past.
The late Wolfgang Hilbig (1941 – 2007), via Isabel Fargo Cole’s magnificent translations and via Two Lines Press, is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors, with The Sleep of the Righteous (review here) and Old Rendering Plant (review here; Cole won the Helen & Kurt Wolff Prize for her translation) both two of my favorite, 5-star, reads of the last three years. Indeed, I would say Hilbig has assumed the mantle of the must-read writer in translation, previously held by writers such as Saramago, Sebald, Marias, Bolaño, Lispector, and Krasznahorkai, among others. The great news is there is plenty of Hilbig’s work left to translate.
The Tidings of the Trees shares the strengths of The Old Rendering Plant: both are deeply allegorical texts that despite being only around 100 pages contain more substance than any 600-page tome. Indeed the two works as well as Die Weiber (English translation forthcoming in 2018 as The Women) were published together in German in a posthumous, 2010 edition.
The Tidings of the Trees is largely told in the first person by an East German man named Waller; although, strictly, what we are reading is the report of an unnamed narrator to whom Waller is telling his story, and who occasionally interjects his own comments on Waller’s demeanor.
Waller (like Hilbig) was twenty, when the Berlin Wall was built, and the novel itself is narrated twenty years later, although incidents from the 1960s and the present day tend to merge into one in his account and indeed in his own thoughts: “Twenty years had passed like no time at all, and I’d lost the ability to sort separate episodes in my memory into their true into their true time frames.”
The novel is set in the area around a village W. (I believe based on the real life town Wuitz), which was abandoned as it was turned into an open air lignite mine. A line of cherry trees, those whose tidings give rise to the novel’s title, linked the local town to the village during his youth, but the trees are increasingly engulfed by the pollution from the mining, and the area turned into a large garbage dump:
The invasion of garbage escalated, the rubbish began to encircle the whole forest, advance guards of dead material set out to carve the woods into separate plots, and one of the incursions of garbage came down the cherry lane: following the depletion of the strip mine that would take the village’s place, the cherry lane would serve as one of the roads for transporting refuse, the mass of which soon called for a new waste heap – And the air over the expanses of garbage seemed to grow more and more impermeable; the chimes from the church in the village of W. perished in the burning fumes above the ash and fell to earth like poisoned birds.
The building of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent isolation and stagnation of the country is a pivotal moment for Waller, but he observes that for most people:
We lived in a country,cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside . . . outside everything rushed to its doom. Meanwhile we’ve always lived in the past. For us the passage of time existed only on some withered calendar page.
[. . .]
[In the local town] they all seemed exclusively engaged — almost to the point of doing themselves violence — with ignoring a certain date in that summer, getting on with their lives as before despite that date. In the end they succeeded, living on in the old way without recalling the summer that had barely passed, but they could do so only at the cost of forgetting not just that that summer date, but also their life prior to that summer . . . so of course they didn’t know whether they really were living as before, but because they didn’t know, it didn’t matter.
But Waller himself is determined to remember, and to write (“write, I say to myself, or everything will whirl into forgetfulness . . . Write or you’ll be without a past, without a future, nothing but a will-less plaything of bureaucracy.”), except that the ash and the pollution physically and metaphorically engulf his thoughts, and he is for many years unable to proceed beyond a first line, “The trees of the cherry lane have vanished”:
Indeed, I always had the sense of walking on used-up matter, burned-out material, on cinders, on ash, on slag. Forgetfulness covered the earth and smothered the life that still stirred within — if it still stirred — ceaseless waves of oblivion slid layer by layer over the ground; the dead present was digested and voided until it was nothing but history. Yes, I was walking on the true substance of history; dry, sandy material, forever lifeless, that whirled here and there with the fickleness of all the winds and settled grey and ruddy on all that lay within its diffuse motion’s sphere . . . Waller paused for a moment, seeming to ruminate, then suddenly uttered a bleat of laughter.
[. . .]
And the ash, I thought, coats all my thoughts as well . . . the ash has inscribed my papers with its uniform and illegible writing. And I’ve watched these waves of writing rush back and forth, thought Waller, along the lines of the paper, like thoughts that wrote and instantly erased themselves. And in the lower margins, forgetfulness seemed to toss the fleeting eddy of its signature upon the empty pages.
[. . .]
The trees of the cherry lane have vanished; this single sentence, long since extinguished and grown cold, stood there upon the page and they’d given me infinite time to write a second one. That first sentence was like the uniform sifting of the ash, it was followed by a relentless flood of thoughts, but nothing was willing to go down on paper.
He instead finds a refuge of sorts with the, barely human, “garbagemen,” who sort, and scavenge, the refuse, and who, as the opening quote to my review suggest, are the only people who still remember the past.
He finally comes to turn with his past, and realizes what his second line must be — The shame is over! And as the novel ends:
Night falls, and all through the long night I wait for the ghost of the cherry trees to reappear before me.
Highly recommended as is all of Hilbig’s work.