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‘I’ by Wolfgang Hilbig

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of German reunification this October, the legacy of division still reverberates — not least the excesses of the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi.

The reach of East Germany’s ubiquitous and much feared secret police was staggering: The organization employed a vast network of “unofficial” collaborators — as many as 189,000 by 1989, according to the agency now responsible for Stasi records. Among them were some of East Germany’s most celebrated literary figures, including, it appears, a leading member of its so-called underground scene.

The poet and novelist Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) was never implicated. But in “ ‘I,’ ” the first of his works to appear in English, he imagines the life and thoughts of an East German writer-informant who struggles to distinguish fact from fiction in a murky world of near-universal surveillance.


The novel consists of an extended sequence of interior monologues that move intricately between past and present, first and third person, a small town known as A. and the Berlin of the late 1980s, just before the crumbling of the East German state and fall of the Berlin Wall.

The protagonist, referred to variously as M.W., W., C. or Cambert, ponders his own fragmenting identity, the threatened East German polity, the baffling methods and purposes of “the Firm,” and the parallels between creating literature and composing spy reports.

Published in 1993 in Germany to critical acclaim, “ ‘I’ ” is a supremely dense and difficult novel — a fascinating historical artifact with resonance for our own increasingly surveillance-prone society, but a book more to be studied than enjoyed.

In an afterword, Hilbig’s able translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, describes “ ‘I’ ” as “marked by the tension between Romanticism and postmodernism” — a tension that seems to echo the narrator’s own suspension between past and present. Another German critic likened its protagonist to the unreliable narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.”


Hilbig embroiders his text with literary references — to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Pynchon and others. But its antecedents seem even more varied. Hilbig’s evocation of dread and entrapment calls to mind Kafka. His explicit sexual passages, combining lust and disgust, could have been excerpted from Henry Miller. And the weird contradictions of the East German spy state conjure George Orwell’s dystopian visions.

“We lived in a dichotomy: we were perpetually conducting intelligence, investigations to clarify how far reality had already approximated our imaginings . . . but we couldn’t let ourselves believe that our imaginings could actually come true,” W. explains. He adds, “All we believed in was our disbelief.”

Hilbig’s obvious literary sophistication is coupled, however, with a certain disdain for the reader. The dreamlike time shifts and the protagonist’s own uncertainties make piecing together the plot a perplexing chore, never mind describing it. In the end, one is left with approximation and surmise.

Like Hilbig himself, W. initially works as a stoker in a factory while aspiring to a literary career, a goal supported by his small-town boss, who tells him: “What we urgently need in this country is a literature that runs the risk of being condemned lock, stock and barrel by the Party . . . and I’m saying this even though I myself am in that Party.”

W. becomes ensnared with the Firm at a time when the greatest crime against the state is a desire to leave and escape to the West. (Hilbig published his first poems in West Germany and was permitted to travel to the West in 1985.)


Supervised by an agent known (mostly) as Feuerbach, who appears and disappears in unpredictable ways, W. is tasked with reporting on a missing man named Harry Falbe, who has the same surname as his landlady-lover; on East Berlin’s burgeoning underground literary and protest scene; on a popular writer known only as the Reader; and on a young woman who attends the writer’s readings and may be romantically involved with him.

In the course of his spying, W. wanders surreally through damp, dark Berlin basements, attends literary events, eavesdrops on impenetrable conversations, types out fragmentary poetry and surveillance reports, succumbs to seduction, takes a job in a laundry, and intermittently tries to elude his handler.

At times W. also indulges in literary criticism. Of Beckett, he says provocatively, “what interested me . . . was the sense that Beckett’s characters had always reached their destination by the time the text began. They were already at the end, though they were constantly moving, or purporting to move, or waiting for movement or the end of movement: the end lay before the beginning of the text.” That seems an apt description of Hilbig’s own circuitous and baffling narrative.


By Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole

Seagull, 293 pp., $27.50

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadel-phia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.