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Literature on Location: Part III [BTBA 2016]

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Stacey Knecht and is basically a follow-up to her earlier posts. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

I was four, not five, as I’d always assumed until this morning, when I suddenly realized that it was 1961 when the Berlin Wall went up, so I was four, definitely not five, when I saw the cover of a magazine lying in a dentist’s office with an image I didn’t understand but which shocked and fascinated me: a color drawing of a figure clawing its way over a barbed wire-topped wall, mouth stretched in a Munch-like howl, blood dripping from its fingers. I’ve often searched for that cover, in vain, on the Internet, as if to prove to myself that this memory from the depths of my past has some basis in reality. It came to mind again this morning, after a very worthwhile re-reading of Wolfgang Hilbig’s darkly humorous “I” (1993, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), about an aspiring writer, W. (or Cambert, or I, or “I”), who works as an informant to the East German secret police and, in the process, loses track of his own identity.

The memory of the magazine cover reminded me, once again—because I’ve been to Berlin many times since the Wall came down—just how much has changed in that city. The very fact that I can hop, literally, back and forth across the former border between East and West—it’s a city like any other, yet unlike any other, because the past can never be entirely erased. In the 1980s Berlin of Hilbig’s identity-fluid protagonist, whose mission, “Operation: Reader,” is to infiltrate East Berlin’s literary scene, the Wall is still standing and the “System” is working overtime to keep it that way. But there are doubts (fissures in the Wall?), even among those within the System, as to how long it will last.

(She stopped typing to glance out the window, where Prague, not Berlin, was thawing to reveal the red rooftops she’d forgotten were lying beneath a week-long blanket of snow. Hilbig’s novel, which she had first read on the train to Berlin, and now, for the second time, in Prague—the city where she always felt closest to what one might call her true persona, and, as fate would have it, her flat was situated in the same street where the Czech Secret Police once had their headquarters—was open to one of her favorite passages, in which W. (Cambert, I, “I”) describes the only place where he feels even remotely at ease:

The basement passages beneath Berlin’s houses are generally clean, and most of them are well lit. And this winter they were warm; the frost barely penetrated to their foundations. There were places down there—I thought of one place in particular I often resorted to—where I’d sat for hours on a wooden crate, smoking cigarettes and listening to Berlin’s vast mass asleep above my head. Of course it was quiet down here, you couldn’t hear a thing; down here probably nothing but explosions could be heard. There was but a quiet hum in the stillness, perhaps only my imagination, or perhaps it was the air in the windings of my ear, compressed by the colossal weight above me. The city above my head was like an enormous generator, its ceaseless vibration barely perceptible in everything stone, echoing that faint faraway hum, inexplicably present in all the cement foundations surrounding me, and in the mind-boggling quantities of red and brown bricks assembled and reaching down and anchoring the city’s sea of houses to the earth. A thousand years long – how long, I didn’t know – the stones had been sunk into the bowels of the earth, and it was unclear how many more thousands of years the city could hold out, could endure, with the inconceivable weight of its foundations driven into Europe’s heart.)

I’ve often wondered, and I’m certainly not the only one, how it must’ve been to live under the Communist Regime in Eastern Europe. How far would I have gone to preserve some semblance of personal freedom? How many would I have betrayed, or would I have kept silent, at the risk of imprisonment, or worse? Would I have left it all behind and fled to another life? As Hilbig writes, “To stay, or not to stay?” It’s easy enough to ponder these things in the comfort of my own surroundings, but I can’t honestly say I have an answer.

(The doorbell rang, twice. A postman she had never seen before stood in the dimly lit hallway, holding out a small package addressed to Ms. Susan Branch. Her name wasn’t Susan Branch, or at least it hadn’t been when she’d arrived in Prague. Thank you, she said, taking the package without clarifying the matter, then quickly closed the door, telling herself that if her deception were discovered, she’d blame it on the confusion brought about by her reading—twice—the novel “I”. Though perhaps she deserved some sort of chastisement for attempting to emulate Hilbig’s style in a blog post. Such hubris! Shaking her head to dispel these thoughts, she tore off the brown paper and held up its contents in the greyish light: Isabel Fargo Cole’s second Hilbig translation, The Sleep of the Righteous! Obviously, someone had been monitoring her recent reading activities. Or Susan Branch’s. But this time, she was grateful. And Ms. Branch, whoever she was, would have to wait. She had it first.)



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