In Search of Lost Time
Joseph Schreiber reviews Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Tidings of the Trees (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole)
When the Berlin Wall was closed in August 1961, effectively sealing the final point of exit for East German citizens seeking asylum in the West, Wolfgang Hilbig was just shy of his twentieth birthday. With this action, the GDR became a completely contained state, isolated from the rest of the world. In The Tidings of the Trees (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), the latest Hilbig translation to be released from Two Lines Press, this moment and its impact open a vortex around which the protagonist’s crisis of identity spins. Described as one of Hilbig’s most accessible works, Tidings proceeds on a somewhat different note than last year’s release, Old Rendering Plant, but ultimately it follows a route no less oblique or circuitous. Powerful and more overtly political perhaps, it is also a tale rich with fantastic imagery that openly explores the ability of fiction to preserve the past, mediate the present, and offer hope for the future.
Whereas Old Rendering Plant was a deeply immersive first-person monologue slipping at times into pure stream-of-consciousness, The Tidings of the Trees presents a multi-level narrative with an unidentified narrator who records the first-person account of the central character, Waller, occasionally breaking in to describe the actions and behaviours observed as the story is being related. It can be argued that Hilbig’s protagonists tend to be, to a greater or lesser extent, shadows of himself, and Waller is no exception. He is an aspiring writer of approximately the same age, who lives with his mother and grandmother in a small industrial town surrounded by forests and the physical legacy of strip mining. Like his cohorts he is apprenticed into work at a local factory after finishing school, but over time this work gradually loses its relevance as he becomes more deeply absorbed in a desperate effort to write — to secure his story on the page. At the time of this recorded account, one can assume the frustrated storyteller is about forty years old, an age by which Hilbig had already abandoned the factory for a writer’s life and relocated to East Berlin. Our hero in this novel is finding that transition much more agonising, and yet for Waller, as for his creator, writing is an act of defiance and self-preservation:
Write… write, I say to myself, or everything will whirl into forgetfulness. Write so the thread won’t be severed… a thousand stories are too few. So the flow won’t be broken, so the lamps over the desks won’t go out. Write or you’ll be without a past, without a future, nothing but a will-less plaything of bureaucracy.
However, no matter how long he sits hunched over a desk, the words fail to come. The empty pages and scratched-out lines drive the would-be writer out, night after night, in search of his own story.
Waller’s regular expeditions lead him to an area on the outskirts of town, where an expanding field of garbage and ash has encroached on a roadway once lined with cherry trees. It is an abiding groundlessness that draws him here; for twenty years he has felt he has had “no place to sit”, as he puts it, nowhere to belong. This desolate area holds an attraction and, he hopes, the key to his own nebulous history, now strangely distorted by his alienation from community engagement within a society where collective historical amnesia has long been encouraged. The expanse of refuse which had originated as a disused strip mine, filled in initially with the rubble of bombed-out buildings, then successive layers of garbage and ash, carries an aura of stagnation and weighted silence. In this Waller recognises the ghosts of the past, his own included. But more specifically he is fascinated by the garbagemen who scour the discarded remains to salvage whatever they can. First presented as wraith-like spectres moving over the landscape, they are depicted as outcasts, as scavengers who have formed their own inaccessible culture. Yet, as Waller’s account proceeds, he is pulled closer into their orbit.
The other focus of his habitual visits to this location at the edge of the ash heap is an ongoing search for the cherry trees that he remembers from an earlier time. He was searching for them, he advises us, even when they still existed, and he continues, having come to the conclusion that, in most instances, reality “has been debased to a worthless product of language.” It is as if Waller imagines his mission to find his own story — that is, to grasp sensible hold of his own memories — as part of a greater effort to preserve and capture the memories of a time and place nearly forgotten. To that end, the proud and beautiful cherry trees stand as symbols of everything he has lost — youth, promise, and hope in the future. They haunt him. And he is determined to attempt to write them back into existence:
And the story might tell of a time ten years ago, or might date back two or three decades; the sentence I set down at the top of the page — twenty years or two days ago — made no difference whatsoever: The trees of the cherry lane have vanished! There can exist, it seems to me, an infinite series of stories telling how this happened. … I can fit only a fraction of them beneath that opening sentence. Or perhaps a barely graspable shadow of ash, light as a breath… for the cherry trees to return, I’d have to tell all the stories about them.
This endeavour to tell even a handful of the possible stories of the trees, has, over time, become entwined in Waller’s memory and imagination with a series of possible stories about the garbagemen. His willingness to embrace uncertainty contributes to the magical and disorienting qualities of his tale. He is not simply laying out one story, unwinding one single thread, but rather telling multiple variations of his own stories to find, he hopes, some truth, and release the barrier that has blocked the flow of words onto the page.
The Tidings of the Trees is a tale of dislocation, in time and space. Waller struggles with temporal context, not only in writing, but in recounting his story. His account stalls several times. His interlocutor notes that it seems as if he is uncertain about what time frame he should follow. He frequently repeats his conviction that twenty years of his life seem to have lost their meaning, passing in a haze, one moment blurred into the next, leaving his memories and time confused. He continually attempts to re-enter the story at different points because his own internal chronology is unreliable. The only clear point of reference he can hold to is that fateful summer when the borders closed, the “summer of the Wall.” From that point, his life began to take on a fictional tone. His thoughts became confused as reality started to slip its moorings. While everyone else seemed to move forward and forget how life used to be, Waller found himself tangled in a grey zone. And it has continued to become greyer.
Once East Germany is firmly sealed off, he is struck with the disheartening sense that his future is fixed, pre-written. This is the initial trigger of his retreat from town and factory life. If one feels trapped in a rigid, scripted narrative, the only rebellion is to attempt to seize control of one’s own story. For Waller, the answer seems to lie in writing. Yet, as his fellow citizens settle into a pattern of State-dictated ideals, routines, and conventions, he realises that they defy his attempts to craft characters and build stories around them. Where can he take them? The GDR encouraged a form of worker’s literature, a celebration of Socialist norms and values, but for Waller, as for Hilbig, art cannot be thus constrained. “Normality was normal”, we are told, “because it had lost its stories… [and] only when the mask of normality was torn off did reasons for stories exist once again.”
Stories, then, in the context of this novella, serve multiple functions, individual and societal. In the garbagemen, our dispirited writer sees a metaphor for the process of the preservation and maintenance of the past. As these marginalised individuals dig through the ash to retrieve discarded objects — utensils, tools, clothing, and an unseemly number of mannequins — Waller imagines that they are essentially performing a communal act of remembering, of keeping alive a history that would otherwise be buried and lost. Afraid that he too is at a loss, that critical events have slipped from his memory’s grasp, he is drawn to these enigmatic characters who are, he believes, incapable of forgetting. He finds himself moving among them, slowly assuming a similar appearance, and ultimately taking refuge in their storage shed during a storm:
Here I was… I’d been here for a near-eternity, and already I was almost a ghost… a monster, shaped from the substance of eternity, a sculpture of ash muffled in ancient ghostly garments… and the garbagemen, who believed in mythical creatures, had long ago accepted me as their ghost, slinking around me breathlessly and on tiptoe; and they’d consigned the citizens from the shop windows to the garbage, for I was the true artwork of their time, I was the statue which alone fulfilled all their time’s aesthetic requirements, their time that was no time at all… the trees of the cherry lane have vanished; this single sentence, long since extinguished and grown cold, stood there upon the page, and they’d given me infinite time to write a second one.
In classic Hilbig fashion, the narrative regularly loops back on itself, images are revisited again and again, and a restless, searching energy courses through the prose. Yet unlike the fluid, meandering flow of Old Rendering Plant, there is a greater variation of pace and tone, and a distinctive urgency and poetic passion to Waller’s discourse. Place is also a vital presence, but with Tidings, an emptiness or absence dominates. The vast field of refuse, home to little more than coarse shrubs, is a denuded environment. However, as the resting ground of discarded objects with a link to the past, it contains an existential element. This is realised not only through the actions of the garbagemen, but in the accumulated ash that hangs in the air, and clings to Waller and his surroundings. And then, of course, there are the cherry trees, natural and spectral at once, imagined alive, destroyed, or gone wild, the lost messengers whose tidings our protagonist so anxiously pursues.
Finally, as the fourth Hilbig translation to be released in English, The Tidings of the Trees is a testament to translator Isabel Fargo Cole’s exceptional acuity to the nuances of the late German author’s idiosyncratic prose. Although Hilbig typically starts with a character in a setting that has roots in his own life experience, once set in motion, his narratives each follow their own unique course. Where a predictable sameness might be expected to settle in, Hilbig’s ability to create strangely engaging characters and evoke distinct environments of oppressive beauty, in concert with Cole’s sensitive translations, ensure that each encounter with his work feels fresh and vital.