Ever since I first read Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, I’ve tended to talk, write, and think about him in terms of East and West. It’s hard not to. Despite living in East Germany, Hilbig developed an avid readership in the West. And once he was finally given permission to leave the oppressive East, he continued to write with a kind of tortured yearning for it.
As an American, I find this East/West dichotomy appealing. Perhaps it’s because, even after the end of the Cold War, we still hold on to the illusion of the Iron Curtain, dividing “us” from “them.” We still think in terms of “containment,” as if an ideology were landbound, physical. Even Hilbig’s translator, Isabel Fargo Cole, who has lived in Berlin for quite a long time, finds this dichotomy a compelling way to think of him: in an event we did last fall, she talked about her own fascination with East Germany. But this East-West view can be somewhat limiting. It simplifies our understanding of Hilbig, whose dexterity with language revealed elements of his life while at the same time concealing himself beneath it.
That’s just one of the reasons why I’m very pleased to share this Hilbig essay that Tyler Curtis has written for the Boston Review. In his essay, Curtis beautifully reframes the conversation. He reveals Hilbig’s true nature as a nimble troublemaker who eluded the traps set up for him, both in the East and the West. Here, Curtis draws on some excellent research of the historical context to show Hilbig’s role in—and escape from—the GDR political machine, which tried diligently to develop and shape a national, proletarian literature. They threw everything they could at him, censoring him, preparing reviews intended to undermine him, and generally monitoring his movements:
For Hilbig, the state is a game. The Soviet Project is a game. So is the factory, the tenets of Socialist Realism, the dance one does to protect those most private corners of self from Stasi—even fiction, for that matter. Hilbig’s oeuvre is one of defiant play, and the organizing principles of life in the GDR were just that, fictions.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s Hilbig published poems and collected stories almost exclusively in West Germany—without permission from GDR officials—largely avoiding the publications of the East. He was fined and served time in jail (though the imprisonment was, ostensibly, for incidents of violent behavior). A persecuted East German writer adored in the West, he was awarded the Brothers Grimm Prize in 1983, which he agreed to accept in person in Hanau—again, without state approval. This defiance of strict regulations for authors drew the ire of then Deputy Cultural Minister Klaus Höpcke. Not wanting to stir controversy or showcase the author’s repression to the world, the ministry granted him leave to accept the prize, with the caveat that he go accompanied, and observed, by his publisher, and that he was not to level any criticism against GDR in his speech.
And yet these games spread beyond just Germany—they are rooted in society itself. For me, Curtis’s analogy likening Hilbig to an overwhelmed Charlie Chaplin struggling to keep up with the conveyor belt explains why leaving the GDR was not enough to placate the preoccupied, even paranoid author. And this rings very true with the excellent reception Hilbig has received thus far: if it were merely a case of geography or political regime, Hilbig’s writing from the West (which includes The Sleep of the Righteous) wouldn’t have remained so frenzied, as if the author were continuing to dodge the confines of an elaborate, inescapable game.