NOW, IN THE ERA of unabashed and unprecedented mass surveillance, is the time to read East German literature. If anyone knew what it was like to be tracked and informed upon, to be complicit in the surveillance of others, to drown in the banality of everyday life observed and recorded, it was the pre-1989 Germans in the East. Few would defend the government that coerced its citizens into this ceaseless collection of information, but given the colossal nature of the information being collected about citizens today by our own government, East Germany seems quaint. We might even feel nostalgic for such a clear-cut scenario — bad state power being brought to bear on innocent civilians. We can imagine that if we found ourselves in that dreadful, tawdry 1970s East Berlin, we would have heroically resisted. We would have “deconspired” with the state security forces who tried to draw us in. We would have railed against injustice, and felt righteous and clean. New translations in 2015 brought us two extraordinary books by East German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, the story collection The Sleep of the Righteous and his novel about a Stasi informant, ‘I’. Hilbig’s brooding, lyrical prose brings the pettiness and squalor of the security state to life.
Hilbig was born in 1941 and died in 2007, having been allowed to emigrate to the West just a few years before the Wall fell. He was awarded Germany’s most prestigious literary prize in 2002 for his lifetime achievement. ‘I’, his novel about an “unofficial collaborator,” (an unpaid civilian recruited to spy on neighbors and acquaintances) caused a sensation in Germany when it was published in 1993, but despite his reputation in Europe, these two books are the first available in English. Hilbig was a stoker, who wrote in a furnace room between bouts of shoveling coal. As a young man he was asked to join an official workers’ literary society, but was soon deemed unfit for this group. The coal shoveler failed to produce prose glorifying his brutal basement boiler room. But neither does his fiction simply condemn the misery and intellectual poverty of his environment.
No bleakness could be more vivid and crawling with life than Hilbig’s landscapes. Dirt, ash, mold, and the murky liquid from an abandoned mine overwhelm the stories of The Sleep of the Righteous. The darkness of the natural world and man-made decay are much more palpable than any human presence. The Sleep of the Righteous begins with four stories of a boy in a small town in the East. The second half of the book moves into his adulthood, with the protagonist leaving and circling back to the dingy, decrepit town of his youth. The childhood stories are from a divided Germany, the adult stories after reunification. But even as the narrator crosses borders formerly closed to him, the mud, ash, and mildew of the earlier stories have only grown more entrenched. In “Coming,” the child narrator escapes the house at night when he’s supposed to be in bed, causing his female caretakers to shriek in an exasperated chorus, “I’m going to throw myself in the lake!” The nighttime world is described with a visual exactitude the women never merit:
I hastened through the woods where wafts of mist fooled my eyes, like nightgowns fleeing, then over an open field, across the endless rubbish heaps where the empty bottles and flickering snakes of tinfoil echoed the unearthly gleam of the sickle moon, and where deep in the night came a dark red glow as from subterranean fires.
No human is described anywhere with this same sharpness.
Hilbig gives objects clamorous voices that clang over partial and imprecise bits of human speech. In the most stunning story of this unflagging collection, “The Bottles in the Cellar,” empty cider bottles, unused during unsuccessful attempts to harvest the garden apples, begin to take over a house. The apples seem to grow menacingly, only to invade the house and rot. The bottles are themselves imbued with a malevolent life force: “they lay neck to belly, belly to neck, seeming to copulate in a peculiarly inflexible fashion which was lustful all the same and appeared not to fatigue them in the slightest.” The bottles bombard the narrator, brush their cobwebs against him, clank against each other, and seem to command him to drink himself senseless. The vicious physicality of things continues throughout the adult stories. The throb of a laboring refrigerator motor, the recalcitrant flicker of a corroded lamp, a stain on wallpaper that spreads like “lines of discolored vermin […] marching up the wall” all assert themselves so forcefully that the human protagonist seems by contrast battered down. The few figures who appear in the adult stories — a friend chased, beaten, then exiled; a meek mother; a sarcastic, complaining wife; a lover observed in her nakedness but perhaps never touched — can hardly compete with the stridency of these objects.
In these stories and even more so in ‘I’, Hilbig’s sentences wrench themselves along with the aid of dashes and ellipses. Never quite finishing but soldered to each other with intrusive punctuation, disjointed clauses coagulate into paragraphs. The sentences seem to sprout and branch, copulating like the nefarious bottles. In service of a landscape or a character sketch, the language collects its fragments with a layered complexity. An unheated apartment, a bathrobe, the tattered hair of a woman just released from prison — these are described thoroughly, the eye returning to textures, colors, and patterns. These stuttering, throttled, circular sentences take us through explicit arguments and positions on the surveillance the narrator of ‘I’ is forced into. Here Hilbig’s labyrinthine syntax embodies the ambiguity of the collaborator’s situation. The narrator begins in first person, randomly switches to third, then back to first. His name is variously rendered as Cambert, C., or W., and the novel spirals through time as well as names, beginning at the end and then worming its way back to it. Cambert is involved in “Operation Reader,” where he takes notes on a local writer known for epic oral delivery of paragraphless texts. Cambert is egged on in this venture by Feuerbach, his Stasi handler, who has an intense interest in the literary scene.
The brilliance of ‘I’ lies in more than its rendering of the instability and corrosiveness of domestic surveillance. The novel lays out a complex, even cluttered analogy between the writer who comes up with convincing details for his fiction and the spy who similarly composes reports for his supervisors. This analogy is not just implied — it is directly discussed by the narrator and Feuerbach, and many scenes explicitly conflate the act of peering in windows and that of the writer sitting at his desk. The Stasi handler actively facilitates his informant’s literary career, making sure his poetry gets published, and advising him on style and work habits as well as finding him a place to live and otherwise smoothing his path. The correlation between writer and “unofficial collaborator” is laid out over and over again, while the handler, like a chummy literary agent, spouts Beckett and laughs at the pompous title of one of the official workers’ literary organs.
Hilbig takes up the “unofficial collaborator” theme again in the last story of The Sleep of the Righteous, “The Dark Man.” In the opening scene, the narrator, now a successful writer, marvels over his colleagues, who have dined out for years on the tales of their doings now come to light when the Stasi files were opened.
The writers talking on screen about the opening of several tons of Stasi files, talking it up and down—I knew several of them well, was even friends with them—seemed bent on making it the central theme of their literary lives […] Ah! I thought, suddenly they have a real theme!—And they clung to this theme with such an iron grip, it was hard not to suspect that these files, suddenly made public, had saved their literary lives!
Whether they had collaborated with the Stasi or resisted, the earlier era lent a tone of struggle, heroism, or, if nothing else, cathartic remorse to the literati.
The dehumanized and dehumanizing environments Hilbig describes, where bottles and ash have more say than mothers or schoolboys, result from passivity and self-absorption, a failure to see the lives of others as more than observable surfaces. Hilbig excludes or downplays the human, which is a pity, since it’s the capacity to see others as real, whole, and suffering that can transform his bleak terrain, a capacity Hilbig represents only in its absence. We are living today in a world where our own National Security Agency collects, stores, and analyzes all our phone calls and emails. We don’t suspect this but know this, due to Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. The information our government collects about us dwarfs the Stasi’s files.
Since it is done impersonally and remotely, and because of the triviality of much of what is collected, we don’t immediately feel the effects. Hilbig emphasizes the banality of what the Stasi recorded. The informant in ‘I’ tracks down nothing more damning than the location of poetry readings. The narrator of “The Dark Man” fears reading his own Stasi files because of their paralyzing boredom:
I feared the gruel of language, these files’ distinguishing feature, I feared the nausea, these paper monsters’ brain-rotting stink, I feared the gray type, so like that of my own typewriter, I feared my face would break out in scabies if I submitted to reading these inhuman pages.
In Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, Snowden blandly explains the extent of the NSA’s technical capabilities, to turn phones on in our pockets and record conversations, to almost instantly track not only one person but a host of their associates, feats that would have required an army of “unofficial collaborators” back in the old days behind the Wall. And yet we have not mounted any significant protest. Our government’s massive surveillance continues to seem abstract unless we can be moved by it viscerally. To the writer at her desk, who leads a dull, middle-class life, it’s hard to imagine any harm resulting from the minutest reckoning of her phone calls. East Germany not only seems quaint, but almost romantic from our vantage point. Imagine someone actually following a poet down the street!
What the blameless poet may fail to see is how today’s mass surveillance impacts those already criminalized, for their poverty, skin color, or creed. As surveillance technology works into everyday policing, a seemingly innocuous traffic stop connects a license plate number to hordes of other records — unpaid fines, outstanding warrants, unverified “suspicious activity reports.” As Malkia Amala Cyril writes in The Progressive, “indiscriminate data collection […] drives discriminatory policing practices.” If we continue to see surveillance as an issue of privacy rights, the injury seems mostly theoretical. Taken as an ever-tighter hold on those already oppressed, we might begin to count the bodies. Hilbig remains cynical about the ability of writers to rally solidarity. Yet the emotional resonance that literature offers might be one way we can be jarred out of the complacency that has so far greeted our surveillance state.
Angela Woodward’s novel Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction in 2015. She is also the author of the novel End of the Fire Cult and the collections Origins and Other Stories and The Human Mind.