‘I’
by Wolfgang Hilbig (»Ich«, 1993)
translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (2015)
Seagull Books (2015)
312 pp

I was lost to literature, I had no more business with it nor it with me, my only business now was with security…

The late Wolfgang Hilbig (1941 – 2007), via Isabel Fargo Cole’s magnificent translations, is fast becoming one of my all time favorite authors, with the Two Lines Press publications of the short-story collection The Sleep of the Righteous, and the novellas Old Rendering Plant and The Tidings of the Trees all brilliant 5-star reads for me.

Indeed I commented in my review of the latter that Hilbig has assumed the mantle of the must-read writer in translation previously held by writers such as Saramago, Sebald, Marías, Bolaño, Lispector, and Krasznahorkai, amongst others, and that the great news is there is plenty of Hilbig’s work left to translate.

But the first of his works to be translated into English by Fargo Cole was this ‘I’, the novel titled »Ich« in the original published in 1993. The English edition comes with both an afterword by Fargo Cole but also with (a translation) of Hilbig’s own proposal in 1992 to his publisher’s explaining the novel; together these are very helpful in providing context to the English language reader.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and when the files of the Stasi were opened, many citizens of the GDR were revealed to be “unofficial collaborators” (Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or “IMs”) for the secret services, among them some prominent writers including Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller (see here for a review by Katy Derbyshire, another excellent German-English translator, of Wolf’s own account).

Perhaps more significantly, the Prenzlauer Berg underground literary scene in East Germany turned out to have been heavily dominated by Stasi IM’s, in particular the poet Sascha Anderson. What the west had taken as a key source of dissident art was actually under the direction of the security services, who ensured its output was more artistically than politically challenging.

Hilbig himself was one of those spied on rather than one who informed, but in the novel he puts his narrator in the position of an IM and the “disturbing” question he sets out to answer is:

To what extent can the work of an informer be compared with the literary work of a writer? … Perhaps I said to myself the loss of the ‘I’ experienced by a collaborator, who works in secret on an image of reality, can be compared with that experienced by a writer, who in the course of his work is confronted more than once with the question: Who or what does the thinking within me?

In the novel the narrator is a writer, primarily a poet, who goes by various names: Cambert, W, C.W., M. (which is his real name and which his alias is unclear), and indeed his narration also switches from first to the third person as he writes about himself, or at least the identity he assumed.

Originally working (as did Hilbig) as a stoker in a distant town and a member (as was Hilbig) of the Railway Workers’ Literary Working Group, he is first recruited by the local security services, framed for fathering a child with a women friend whom he didn’t even sleep with, then, as they force him to become increasingly shunned by his fellow workers, encouraged to transfer to Berlin where his new handler encourages him to join, and report on, the literary underground scene.

The narrative is far from straightforward: as well as dropping into the third person, his tale spirals back and forth in time. When he, as often, refers in one section of historic narrative to a particular episode that occurred some time later, he describes it as: “a peculiar episode which thoroughly deranged my sense of time once again. But allow me to treat things in their proper order . . .” Needless to say that resolution doesn’t survive long.

In another passage, he muses about how the German language uniquely permits tortuous thoughts — it is to Isabel Fargo Cole’s credit that her English rendition rather refutes that uniqueness:

Such hysteresis of the genitives probably wasn’t even possible in a language other than German. In this mental language you were reduced to taking one step at a time, only you still weren’t at the goal and had to take another step: if at last you did arrive at the goal of the sentence, you already felt so entangled, and perfectly interpolated in a conspirative sequence, and possibly for ever, that you could only look back, obliterated, in infinite fatigue, to where you once had started – as though hoping for escape you’d keep chasing the end of the sentence, but this end had only revealed the full extent of the impasse.

The urban Berlin setting in theory should differ from the industrially polluted mines and quarries of the Old Rendering Plant and The Tidings of the Trees, but in practice the narrator spends much of his time literally underground, roaming through the connected cellars and basements beneath the streets. And as he spies on others, his own language and identity as a writer, as the quote that opens my review suggests, starts to dissolve:

Most of W’s perceptions were acquired by looking from outside into the interior of lighted dwellings; what he saw was filtered through double panes and veiling curtains . . . while he, outside, was in a different atmosphere, the fog-swirled atmosphere of the dark where all movement within the living rooms’ inward light seemed unreal to him, shoddy fictions. He didn’t understand the words that were spoken in there; when not completely inaudible they assumed an utterly different meaning in the glow of the light-bulbs, the violet phosphorescence of the television screens. . . . No, of these utterances’ meanings he knew nothing, he sought their probable sense in the gestures meant to underline the words, he sought to follow the movement of the speakers’ lips and to read off syllables, finally he began imitating the interplay of the lips’ forms to get at the words, the phrases . . . without knowing, of course, how they were received, these sounds, by those who showed him only the backs of their heads. He almost played the role of a person trying to follow the conversation of deaf-mutes. . . . No, his role was that of a deaf-mute, tracking down the secret of those adept in speech. Rarely did he succeed in deciphering a serviceable sentence, or even a few intelligible words. . . . Only one single fact could be assumed with certainty: if more than one person was present behind the window, the capacity for speech was exercised at least once each evening. It was a capacity from which he was cut off, now that he had taken his place in the darkness outside the windows. He had no recourse but to replace the unheard words from inside the rooms with ones from inside his head.

Initially, of course, he’d tried to make out what was actually said . . . as he later found, one could very well agree that what was actually said didn’t matter at all. What was actually said tended to be buried under one or more layers of banal drivel anyway. Didn’t this suggest that the essential thing was to know the completely trivial statements people made? You had to follow the everyday, interchangeable conversations, the mindless gibberish, the offhanded routines, to be able to reflect on the mood of the people. . . . In fact, maybe you had to practically ignore the so-called substantive statements, which might merely be repeating the word supply from TV broadcasts or printed paper, at best reversing its meaning; in other words, these statements were worthless! The people’s other speech supply, the banal, interchangeable talk, that could just as well be invented . . . if you had an expert to do it. Probably you’d have to check now and then to see whether it changed over the years . . . which was improbable: in his experience it stayed the same from the time people learned to talk to the time of their death.

. . .

During this time he’d felt he was learning a completely new language . . . or at least relearning the existing language from the ground up. Since now he no longer took in phrases for the sake of their messages, instead seeking hidden meanings in a dark realm behind them, and at the same time was forced to consider the language of gestures that carried each phrase (probably only falsifying it still further!), for him all speech had gradually become a conspiracy. And the more he attempted to penetrate this conspiracy, the more urgently a suspicion rose within him: everyone made themselves understood by means of language, everyone but him. . . . He didn’t know these means, these means that lay behind the message, which itself emerged banal and pointless. Suddenly all phrases had turned impenetrable . . . precisely because the words in them clove together by such force of habit that they kept repeating the same trivia. More and more he lived with the sense of having to break through a wall to arrive at the same understanding that came easily to everyone sitting behind this wall (behind the wall understanding was interrupted only occasionally by the jitter of the refrigerators). All his life he had talked just like them . . . he’d only written differently; he hadn’t even noticed what he’d been doing there. Now he’d been declared a writer, and suddenly the language he had once cohabited had become a room from which he was shut out.

Perhaps the key message of the novel to me was how the surveillance state achieved its ultimate goal: having everybody watching everyone else, and even spying on themselves, so that the ‘Ich,’ the ‘I’ dissolves:

Perhaps there was no significance to such a thought becoming known? Actually he had to admit that the service he was in quite naturally engendered reflections of this kind. And this led logically to the necessity .. definitely even the primary necessity . . . of watching the collaborators in service: security was the adherence to an infinite logical consistency! To watch those in the service as they performed their functions, to watch the watchers, to maintain watchfulness towards the watchers’ inevitable thoughts of their own through the knowledge that they were being watched . . . to watch over sleep . . . to watch that in sleep all that drowned was the I, while the watch went on following its logic.

Overall, perhaps, for the English reader, this is a less universal book than the short stories and novellas of Hilbig I have read, rooted as it is in a particular time and place, and somewhat, deliberately, tortuous to read. Neverthless, ‘I’ is highly worthwhile.

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