When the Nation That Shaped You Is Falling Apart

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Book Review|When the Nation That Shaped You Is Falling Apart



Wolfgang Hilbig
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  • Nov. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

By Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

The lone happening worse than surviving nether a totalitarian Communist authorities is outliving one. That seems to beryllium the half-serious gravamen of “The Interim,” a caller published successful 2000 by the East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) and present translated into supple, vivid English by Isabel Fargo Cole.

It’s not a wholly absurd grievance. Not everyone does good with the benignant of state afforded by the escaped market. Hilbig’s antihero, C., for instance, is an alcoholic — an particularly florid 1 aft helium wins support from the East German authorities to judge a fellowship successful West Germany, a fewer years earlier the autumn of the Berlin Wall. He’s the benignant who buys 9 cans of brew and 9 miniature bottles of digestive bitters successful the Bonn bid presumption but is shy astir disposing of the empties. In an aboriginal chapter, a landlady’s hubby checks him into rehab; helium doesn’t stay. In the West, helium besides becomes a compulsive visitant of peep shows, which didn’t beryllium successful East Germany. As a heterosexual who becomes impotent erstwhile his involvement successful a pistillate shifts from conquest to affection, it turns retired he’s an perfect customer.

C. astir apt wouldn’t person been comfy successful his tegument nether immoderate economical system, however. In youth, Hilbig tells us, helium resented his body’s “raw, indestructible, practically implacable health” for being unsuitable for a poet, and now, successful mediate age, helium seems arsenic repelled by the “damp, sticky, useless body, bloated, neglected” that helium sees successful the mirror. (Hilbig has a weakness for what mightiness beryllium called the secretionary Gothic. After a nighttime connected the town, peeled-off apparel go “a putrid heap of indefinable worldly hostile to humanity.”) C. takes bitter pridefulness successful being a writer, an individuality helium feels the authorities agelong tried to contradict him, but helium hates to admit to strangers successful the West that he’s an “author”: “It was arsenic if you’d said: I’m an Obersturmbannführer!”

Indeed, helium suspects that aft the Nazi and Soviet atrocities of the 20th century, the benignant of self-involved complaining that is his writerly banal successful commercialized has go “ludicrous,” and helium recoils successful disgust erstwhile helium comes crossed a scrap of his ain prose describing however wounded writers are nowadays by their nonaccomplishment of “significance and resonance.” The nonaccomplishment and the coiled look to person been real, however. C. brings with him a hunger for books, which helium hadn’t been capable to satiate successful the East — portion downing his train-station digestive bitters, helium buys a four-volume paperback variation of Walter Benjamin’s implicit works “for a ridiculously debased price” — and helium is shocked to realize, soon aft emigration, that “books had nary much worth present successful the West.” There, arsenic Hilbig puts it, the state of the property has degenerated into “the state to instrumentality thing that could beryllium thought, nary substance what its nature, and process it truthful it was acceptable to beryllium sold.” (Fair enough, a autochthonal of the West is apt to reply. And possibly besides a small excessively easy?) C. soon sinks to what helium perceives to beryllium the West’s level and ends up utilizing books successful the “Holocaust & Gulag” conception of his idiosyncratic room to cleanable up the greeting vomit aft his nightly binges.

C. tin beryllium entertaining erstwhile helium seems to beryllium playing up his mopey aforesaid arsenic a clown, but the communicative circles and circles, similar a drunk’s conversation, and a scholar sometimes feels a small cornered by it. It can’t beryllium casual for a writer to admit that his sensibility was shaped irrevocably by a satellite that was profoundly compromised and is nary longer applicable — Hilbig writes of C. that “down to his encephalon cells and nerves, down to his unconscious reactions helium was a effect of the interim state” of East Germany — though it has to beryllium said that this is much oregon little the plight of immoderate writer who has had the misfortune of surviving his youth.

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