The (relative) lack of review copies dropping through my letter box recently means I’ve had a little more time to spend on some of my own acquisitions. In fact, today’s post sees me finally finishing a book I started a couple of years back, with a review of the third of a set of related novellas by the German writer Wolfgang Hilbig. For anyone who has tried the others, this will be very familiar, but where we focused on women and streams in the first two stories, this time there’s a slightly different emphasis – namely on trees…
Die Kunde von den Bäumen (The Tidings of the Trees) is a novella very much in the vein of Hilbig’s earlier works Die Weiber (The Females) and Alte Abdeckerei (Old Rendering Plant). We begin with a writer at a desk, sharing his desperation at his inability to write:
…ratlos meine Papiere umsortierend, die nur einen einzigen Satz aufwiesen, der ohne Nachhall bleiben mußte: Die Kirschallee ist verschwunden…
p.222 (Fischer Verlag, 2010)
…helplessly rearranging my papers, showing just one single sentence, which remained without an echo: The avenue of cherry trees has disappeared… *** (my translation)
For years, the narrator/protagonist has been unable to add to this text, and the sheet of paper lying ready to be used has in time come to be covered with the dust and ashes that sneak in though the window the writer is gazing out of.
Then we are taken for a walk, a stroll down an avenue of cherry trees that is actually a trip down memory lane. Every day, the writer flees the town, walking in the direction of a village that no longer exists, eaten up from beneath by the abandoned mines, but this is not his destination. Our friend is instead headed for the town’s rubbish tip, the place where things the locals no longer want are dumped. However, there are people here, too, living amongst the town’s refuse and memories, and the writer finds himself strangely drawn to these outsiders, preferring to sit and watch them rather than getting on with life back in town…
Die Kunde von den Bäumen, at around seventy-five pages, is the shortest of the three novellas included in this collection (part of Hilbig’s collected works). For such a short tale, it’s crammed with ideas, themes and motifs, even if it begins simply as the despairing laments of a man with terminal writer’s block. The early pages have him puzzling over how to describe a tree when he finds himself unable to depict anything like the real thing. There’s a certain irony in what follows:
Was gibt es Langweiligeres, dachte ich, oder Anmaßenderes als Bücher über das Verfassen von Büchern! (p.209)
What could be more boring, I thought, or more pretentious, than books about the writing of books! ***
Luckily, that’s not the case here – there’s far more to the work than a man searching for le mot juste 😉
Just as much as the content, it’s the form it takes that makes Hilbig’s story stand out. In a slightly unusual structure, the writer uses a first-person point of view for the most part, only to occasionally take a step back and address his protagonist as Waller. This shift into the third person can be jarring and drags the reader out of the moment, allowing them to see the writer as he sees himself.
However, this is far from the only confusing element to the tale. The story actually takes place in different times across several decades, with the narrator taking us back to his younger days, describing his lengthy walks away from the town, before abruptly returning to the present with the image of a man sitting at an old desk in front of a dusty piece of paper. Even more confusingly, as he gazes out of his window, and dust storms sweep across the tip, he often sees, for a split-second, a man perched in the trees, which (as we later learn) is actually his younger self – who sits there looking down at a rather familiar figure in an old hut…
Of course, Waller’s obsession with the rubbish tip, and the folk he watches there, is nothing new for Hilbig’s readers, with connections to the rubbish bins the narrator hides behind in Die Weiber and the chemical filth of Alte Abdeckerei. Here, though, this obsession with dirt is perhaps the main theme of the work. It’s not just the tip and the rubbish he finds there (including some mannequins he has fun arranging into little scenes) that attract his attention, but also the aftermath of the abandoned mine. Like sand in the desert, the ashes are thrown up into the atmosphere by storms, only to settle ever closer to the town in their inexorable march towards civilisation.
The other reason for the narrator’s obsession with dirt is the contrast it provides with the cleanliness demanded by the state, with the obsession with mess once again serving as a metaphor for the writer’s rejection of the life imposed upon him:
Wir haben in einem Land gelebt, abgeschnitten, zugemauert, in dem wir auf die Idee kommen mußten, daß die Zeit für uns keine wirklich relevante Größe war. (p.229)
We lived in a land, cut off, walled up, in which we had to believe that time had no real relevance for us. ***
Unlike most, he turns his back upon what’s expected of him, drawn to the dregs far away from normal life. Having missed the chance to escape (after the construction of a certain wall…), he’s forced to choose the best way to get on with his life, which is a simple choice: adapt or withdraw, rebel or vegetate.
Perhaps the reason why Waller feels so at home in the midst of the rubbish is that this is where the past is buried. Where the town represents a timeless, homogenised (stagnant) society, real life can be found here, on the margins of that stale society. Towards the end of the book, there’s another sudden switch of view, this time to a chorus of the people at the tip, who explain how all the things the town celebrates, the ideas and the slogans, are quietly disposed of one after the other, ending up buried beneath the earth. Those living amongst the filth are the only ones to remember the past, knowing that one day the current regime, as hard as it is to believe, will also take its place beneath the piles of rubbish.
Die Kunde von den Bäumen is a beautiful work, and the tangle of viewpoints and times works wonderfully, creating an excellent story of a man stranded in a place he doesn’t want to be in, and protesting his imprisonment in the only way he knows how. As for die Kunde, the tidings – what are they? In Ingo Schulze’s excellent critical essay accompanying the stories, he muses as to what the title actually means. Are we waiting for news about the trees, or is there something they need to tell us? I’m not sure there’s a clear answer here, but I certainly enjoyed thinking about it, anyway.
And if you like the sound of Hilbig’s work (but your German is a little rusty), well you’re in luck. All three of the novellas featured in my German-language edition, plus the Hilbig short-story collection Der Schlaf der Gerechten (The Sleep of the Righteous) are available from Two Lines Press in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation. In addition, if you’re looking for something a little longer, the novel Ich (I), again brought to us by Fargo Cole, was published a few years back by Seagull Books. I hope you give them a go – I certainly recommend them 🙂