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Wolfgang Hilbig: Das Provisorium (The Interim)

Our hero is a German writer called only C. He was born in East Germany and had been a good East German for many years, working in a factory till he was forty. As Hilbig did pretty much the same thing, we must assume that, at least as regards the biographical details, there is a similarity between C. and Hilbig. Incidentally, C was born in M., Hilbig in Meuselwitz.

When he was forty C. decided to become a writer and became, more or les, a good East German writer. He did make a couple of short trips to West Germany (with proper East German authorisation) but tended to decline longer ones. However, when he is offered a year’s stay in West Germany, he is tempted. However, there are various problems. The two main ones are Mona and the East German authorities.

Mona is his live-in girlfriend and, understandably, she is not too enthusiastic about being left on her own for a year. He reassures her that he will be allowed to come and go during his year’s absence and will visit frequently.

What (to me) is interesting is the apparent West German interest in East German writing. At West Germany’s universities, whole teams of literary scholars devoted themselves to GDR literature, apparently viewing it as an alternative to a West German literature they felt had reached an impasse. And possibly they even regarded the GDR as a whole—if you were able to appraise it as critically as the GDR’s literati claimed to—as a political alternative to West Germany.

Initially, his application to leave for a year is turned down but, as this had happened with his previous applications, he does not give up hope and applies again. He is summoned to the ministry and is surprised at how easy it is to get the approval. Indeed, he has relatively little time to prepare, so much so that he misses the train he had planned to take, sleeping in past the allotted time.

However, he finally does leave. His first residence is in the small town of Hanau, near Frankfurt. He finds the fact was, the vast majority of West German writers earned nearly their entire living from readings, with the exception of a few stars and that is what he does. He makes some money but hates doing it: after his readings he rarely went away feeling good. In the vast majority of cases he felt that his performance had been a miserable failure; there was something unspeakably false in the role he played, he was unrecognizable in it.

What he does on these book tours and, indeed, elsewhere, is not visit the towns, which he barely knows, but hang out near the railway stations, as they remind him of the way home. He cannot cope with West German cities he tells us more than once. Cities that other East Germans dreamed about were transformed for him into the scene of a horror story, consisting of nothing but a tiny, dark hotel room where he’d hunker sweating and stinking, waiting in desperation for his return flight. Stations are the easiest places to go to so he never gets to see any of the cities. Later, when hotels start having pay-for-view television, he watches porn in his hotel room. For all intents and purposes, he told himself, what had lured him to the West was the porn industry. He will later start going to peep shows.

During that first year he does go home more than once – to see his mother, his friend and fellow writer H. and H’s wife, Martha, whose breasts he particularly enjoys, though he also, occasionally, visits Mona. We get a fascinating description of one such journey, not least because not many people travel in that direction. Indeed, the East German ticket collector shows some surprise that he is returning.

However, the visa is only for a year and when the year is ended, he decides to stay on and cannot return because he should have asked for authorisation to extend the visa. He had considered doing so but never got round to it. It seems as though he is stuck in West Germany. He imagines he could just go back to the East – after all he is still a citizen – but fears the repercussions.

The key theme of the book now becomes clear. He is a man without a home, a man unsure of himself, a man who does not know where he belongs, where he is going nor what to do.

This problem manifests itself in many ways. As mentioned, he likes to hang out around railway stations, checking the timetables and departure boards. He watches arrivals from East Germany. One particular case, a young man who shouts and screams with joy on arrival (Down with East Germany!), gets so carried away that the station police have to intervene. This, coupled with the graffiti on an East German prison wall, when he was once briefly arrested – Long live capitalism! – makes a bit of an impression on him. Indeed, he has become well aware that many of his compatriots are eager to leave.

Other signs of his problem include his tempestuous relationship with Hedda, his girlfriend, whom he had very briefly met on one of his previous very short visits to West Germany. They seem to have an on-again off-again relationship. She also has someone else. Clearly, he is far from being an ideal partner. To make matters worse, he becomes impotent.

There are his moves to different cities as he never seems to fit in with wherever he is and, moreover, as mentioned, he never gets West German cities. When we first meet him he is in Nuremberg. He has been there two years but has still not properly unpacked or acquired any furniture and his small flat is, as the title tells us, an interim arrangement.

He spends much time drinking, crawling round the various city bars, so much so that he ends up in a sanatorium, taken there by a friend. It seems, among West Germans, East Germans have a reputation for drinking. He hates the sanatorium and soon checks out.

His writing also does not go well. He writes a few scraps on bits of paper but then discards them. In East Germany, most people were news junkies but this seems less the case in the West. He gets detached from the news and only picks up major events such as Chernobyl and Gorbachev. Then he starts buying newspapers but rarely reads them. They pile up on the the table beside him.

He becomes cynical about Communism, particularly in the light of Chernobyl which has clearly been underplayed by the Soviet authorities. But he is also cynical about Gorbachev. He had learned Russian at school but could never cope with and, as Hilbig wittily points out, sometimes confuses words such as Chernobyl and Perestroika.

In short he does not fit in, does not know where he belongs. He is critical of East Germany: He knew that country over there, that GDR, was a marginal, backward enclave where literature didn’t actually mean a thing; all the hoopla about literature in the Eastern Bloc was a hypocritical show but also West Germany: the acclaim he’d garnered for his allegations against the system and conditions over there revolted him just as thoroughly. He didn’t belong in this literary society that was concerned with nothing but acclaim.

He does not belong anywhere: But had he ever belonged…on either side, here or over there? To tell the truth, he would have been outraged to be pigeonholed anywhere. The problem is exacerbated by being in different West German cities where he feels even less that he belongs and where he is aware, because of his accent and, indeed, his drinking, that he is earmarked as East German.

It is not just the geographical location but also the era. He remembered once calling the twentieth century the century of lies. The entire century was one big train of lies…His life as a poet was built on lies, his stories and poems were based on lies…perhaps it was even a lie that he was alive!

This is a superb portrait of a writer who has totally lost his way. He is unsure of who he is, where he should be, how to manage his relationships, both sexual/romantic and more general. Drink and pornography are all that are left to him. He has lost touch with the news. While he has bought lots of books, particularly about the horrors of the era,(he has a set of boxes of books called Holocaust & Gulag.), he does not seem to read them. Despite it being the era of CDs, he has bought an old gramophone and buys lots of vinyl records but rarely listens to them. As he himself says he felt like a character in a novel who’d been deserted by his creator. This may well be Hilbig’s masterpiece and we must be grateful to Two Lines Press and translator Isabel Fargo Cole for bringing us this work in English.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Fischer
First English translation in 2021 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole