'I' by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
For most English speakers, the name Wolfgang Hilbig does not ring a bell. Largely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, his 1993 novel 'I' is now the first of his writing to be available to English readership. The collection The Sleep of the Righteous is to follow later this year. Hilbig died in 2007, but is still gaining recognition in his home country, Germany. He was born in 1941 in a small Saxon village close to Leipzig. Much like the Protagonist of 'I', Hilbig was for a large part of his life a stoker by day and a writer by night. He was brought up by his mother and grandparents, his father having fallen in Stalingrad. As an industrial worker in Communist Germany, he was set up to become the poster boy writer of East Germany's Socialist Unity Party. However, he did not follow suit. Nowhere in his books and stories do we find the heroic proletarian, nowhere do we see the socialist glory his statesmen surely would have liked to have seen. Instead his words mirror the gloomy drag, the constant feeling of surveillance and suppression underpinning everyday life for the millions living in East Germany. It was this, his continual unwillingness to speak to the party's doctrines, which finally led to his leaving the GDR for West Berlin in 1985.
'I' is the story of M.W., a man who despite having a social background and interests strikingly similar to those of the author himself, gives in to becoming an informant to the East German secret police, the Stasi. The story portrays a system whose objective was singular: absolute security, "to make everyone [...] into collaborators [...] So that all could be watched by all -- that was a security worthy of its name." 'I' is a story carried by the gloom and tristesse reminiscent of the 2006 Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, with M.W. spending many of his days in total reclusion, living his life through the subject he is tasked with surveilling. In real life, his affair with his landlady, Frau Falbe, is one born of convenience rather than passion, and lacking any form of closeness. The one person he somewhat opens up to is his Stasi superior Feuerbach, who in the final parts of the book comes to sexually abuse him. In the East Berlin underground, M.W. lives a solitary life, following and living through the mysterious author he is out to shadow, and desiring the young woman his subject is seeing.
On the surface Hilbig's novel might appear to be a Soviet-era spy novel, but it really isn't -- Hilbig is no Tom Clancy. 'I' is not the book for a reader looking for an enthralling, suspenseful holiday read. It is a novel that lives more through its prose, symbols, and ambiguities, than its plot. Hilbig's writing is ambitious and multi-layered, just like his protagonist. His dark, Kafkaesque world is carried by language at times surreal, which makes us aware of unknown threats lurking in every alleyway and behind every corner. Hilbig develops this world with meticulous strokes of the pen. We follow his protagonist through long lonely days, through pseudo stakeouts during which he hides himself away in the basements and cellars of Berlin, removed from the world "up above [...] the level of reality." Often we sit with him in darkness as he listens and writes, knowing that, "There was one single character who had to reckon with surveillance down here: I myself... surveilled by me myself."
"I" has many names. Born as M.W., Hilbig's protagonist comes to adopt his new Stasi alias, "Cambert," and takes to referring to himself as either M.W., W., Cambert, or simply C., sometimes even speaking of himself in the third person. M.W. quickly detaches himself from the unfortunate events that forced him into the service of this inhuman machinery. He at times continues to struggle with his new self, but comes to find freedom and power in his changed position and ultimately sees it as a way to cultivate his writing. For a time, his vocation as an informant and his calling as a writer blend into one another. The border between the writing of reports and the writing of fiction or poetry fades, much like the border between his different Egos. It is in this sense that we may understand the title of Hilbig's novel, with its original German title Ich translating as both "I" and the Freudian "Ego."
On the surface "I" is a Künster- and Wenderoman: guiding us through the Cold War artist and writer milieu of East Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg. But underneath, it is a novel about identity crises and M.W.'s partially imposed, partially willing metamorphosis into the Ego of his Stasi alias, which ultimately comes to rob him of what he initially set out to cultivate: his writing. 'I' poses the question of the artist's identity and freedom under the totalitarian regime of Communist Germany. It is Hilbig's Gedankenexperiment of picturing a possible self, an Ego, which has given in to becoming an informant to the East German secret police. This version of himself, M.W., fails to act against the pressures he is confronted with. Whilst recognizing the role he plays as the system's henchman, he still remains quiet and obedient of all that is asked of him. "We were the shadow of life, we were death... we were the dark side of man turned flesh, turned shadowflesh, we were hatred isolated. 'I' was hatred..."
'I' is a powerfully eloquent read which wraps us in the stratified world of its main character's perceived impotence against an almost invisible omnipotent state. It is a book of atmosphere and prose, which at times fails to keep us interested in the character's ultimate fate or the rather slowly developing plot. Nonetheless, 'I' is an impressive piece of writing, which manages to combine a multitude of genres and questions in one single novel. It is the kind of book you feel you need to read a second time in order to fully grasp.
'I' by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole