A Responsibility Towards Reality

Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole, ‘I’

Seagull, 312pp, £19.50, ISBN 9780857422347

reviewed by Tristan Foster

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

Wolfgang Hilbig was born on the side of Germany that was, at one time, populated by phantoms. He lived in Meuselwitz, outside Liepzig, working as a boiler-room stoker, and moved to East Berlin in 1978. He died in 2007. Two of his books have recently appeared in English translation for the first time. His collection of short stories The Sleep of the Righteous, originally published in 2002, has received the bulk of the attention, yet his 1993 novel Ich, newly published in English by Seagull Books as ’I’, is equally notable. Described by its translator as ‘a universal parable of state power and paranoia,' ‘I’ is a phantasmal and multi-layered work that is worthy of wider attention.

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.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney and an editor at 3:AM Magazine.