The Asymptote Book Club selection for June is a slim volume by (East) German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole. In the original German, this novella appeared in a collection together with other stories such as Old Rendering Plant, but Two Lines Press decided to publish the translations individually. It is also the first Book Club selection which is translated from a language that I read myself, so I was in two minds about it.
But what this book lacks in number of pages or in unknown language quality, it certainly makes up for in terms of depth, with a style that pushes you along to the finale. There is something to be said about allowing the wave of prose and ideas to crash over you in one sitting. I read it in one day, in three distinct gulps, but I also want to return to it and reread at leisure, to observe the nuances.
Although written in 1991-92, after the fall of the Wall, the book reminded me very much of literature written under the threat of censorship: you write about one thing, but in fact what you are really writing about is something completely different. The subject of the book is ostensibly a worker-writer Waller talking about his writer’s block, bemoaning the chopping down of the cherry trees in his home town and describing his childish stand-off with the garbage collectors. In fact, we could interpret this story in several different ways.
One would be the destruction of nature in the brown-coal industrial area of Germany where the author originally came from. Ash and dust seem to permeate every page of the book, threatening to engulf the town, the narrator, the reader. But the ash quickly turns into something else: historical ash, layer after layer, covering the world in the silence of complicity or self-censorship. For there is undoubtedly an overt political message to this book. A whole country and political system is being relegated to the rubbish heap, a whole population has had its thoughts infiltrated ‘by the ghastly substance of the ash, which is nothing but gray stuff, dry and thundery, hard and unfeeling and burned-out’.
Then there are the garbagemen, unknowable, sinister beings, although Waller tries a game of one-man-upship with them. But are they really sinister, or are they the equivalent of the Trümmerfrauen, those almost mythical women who sorted through the rubble after the Second World War and helped to rebuild it? In the meantime, of course, we know that the Trümmerfrauen image is a bit of a myth, that the rubble was in fact cleared by prisoners both during and after the war. To what extent are those mysterious garbagemen themselves prisoners, or are they the guards of the prison camp? Or are they the ones who get to sift through the past, perhaps even seek to preserve it, while governments erase history and people are only too eager to forget. But what is worth preserving – and who gets to decide it?
Hilbig describes perfectly the claustrophobic sense of stagnation of living in a country closed off from the outside world, a soundproof room, and passages such as the one below resonated profoundly with me and explains the sense of ‘protection from the unknown’ that Communism also brought to many:
We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no real relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside… outside everything rushed to its doom.
A book which resurfaced many old memories through its half-hinting, half-deliberate metaphors, and perhaps explains the drive for joining the EU, so I shall add it to the #EU27Project. Hilbig was a vocal critic of the GDR regime, and only got to publish one book there before he was forced to move abroad in 1985. He has, however, won every German literature prize worth having since then.