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By Wolfgang Hilbig, from “I”, published in 1993 by S. Fischer Verlag and due out for the first time in English in July from Seagull Books. Hilbig was born in eastern Germany in 1941 and emigrated to West Germany in 1985 because East German authorities would not permit the publication of his books. Before he died, in 2007, he published three novels and three books of poetry and won Germany’s Georg Büchner Prize. Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole.

Most of W’s perceptions were acquired by looking from outside into the interior of lighted dwellings; what he saw was filtered through double panes and veiling curtains . . . while he, outside, was in a different atmosphere, the fog-swirled atmosphere of the dark where all movement within the living rooms’ inward light seemed unreal to him, shoddy fictions. He didn’t understand the words that were spoken in there; when not completely inaudible they assumed an utterly different meaning in the glow of the light-bulbs, the violet phosphorescence of the television screens. . . . No, of these utterances’ meanings he knew nothing, he sought their probable sense in the gestures meant to underline the words, he sought to follow the movement of the speakers’ lips and to read off syllables, finally he began imitating the interplay of the lips’ forms to get at the words, the phrases . . . without knowing, of course, how they were received, these sounds, by those who showed him only the backs of their heads. He almost played the role of a person trying to follow the conversation of deaf-mutes. . . . No, his role was that of a deaf-mute, tracking down the secret of those adept in speech. Rarely did he succeed in deciphering a serviceable sentence, or even a few intelligible words. . . . Only one single fact could be assumed with certainty: if more than one person was present behind the window, the capacity for speech was exercised at least once each evening. It was a capacity from which he was cut off, now that he had taken his place in the darkness outside the windows. He had no recourse but to replace the unheard words from inside the rooms with ones from inside his head.

Initially, of course, he’d tried to make out what was actually said . . . as he later found, one could very well agree that what was actually said didn’t matter at all. What was actually said tended to be buried under one or more layers of banal drivel anyway. Didn’t this suggest that the essential thing was to know the completely trivial statements people made? You had to follow the everyday, interchangeable conversations, the mindless gibberish, the offhanded routines, to be able to reflect on the mood of the people. . . . In fact, maybe you had to practically ignore the so-called substantive statements, which might merely be repeating the word supply from TV broadcasts or printed paper, at best reversing its meaning; in other words, these statements were worthless! The people’s other speech supply, the banal, interchangeable talk, that could just as well be invented . . . if you had an expert to do it. Probably you’d have to check now and then to see whether it changed over the years . . . which was improbable: in his experience it stayed the same from the time people learned to talk to the time of their death.

But the business retained an attraction for him, a strong attraction even: it lay in his voyeuristic behavior . . . and in the non-gratification that a voyeur’s behavior yielded. The non-gratification kept his craving alive, it was the motor of his unrest, driving him out into the fog each evening. What those mouths formed was completely irrelevant — and had it been a sheer conspiracy, had those rooms hatched demonstrations or terrorist attacks, it would have interested him only marginally (and he might have even kept it to himself!). . . . At some point the acoustic aspect of the conversations he observed ceased to matter to him: the organs of speech he palpated with his eyes suddenly had the character of body parts in the so-called private area. And from that moment on he increasingly succumbed to the impression that these wonders, these lips, these tongues and teeth, these throats, these moistly gleaming, secretion-filled maws were forming unknown and inconceivable obscenities. . . . The attraction lay for him in the attribute inconceivable.

He would have dearly liked some sort of device, a kind of hearing aid; a curved old-fashioned horn, an ear trumpet from a past century might have been just the thing for him. Of course the boss could have offered him a better tool . . . but he told himself that an instrument would only lull back to sleep his senses, which he felt had now reached an extraordinary degree of development. Besides, he feared the boss would immediately envisage some sort of practical benefit from his skills. . . . Even without an ear trumpet he had learned over time to divine some of what was spoken or yelled behind the windowpanes (in the outlying houses there seemed to be more yelling than speaking . . . conclusions could have been drawn from that). Doggedly he had learned to interpret gestures, facial shifts suddenly led him to extrapolate the state of the country’s economy — the only reason this didn’t bore him to death was that the economic situation affected him as well. More interesting for him was the progress he made reading lips, and still more in penetrating synergies one could describe as cybernetic. . . . In several cases he had managed from the visible reactions of one interlocutor to extrapolate what had been said by the other, presumably female, of whom he saw only a bit of the back of the head. According to his interpretation, almost all these statements could be filed away as negative-hostile.

Next he tested his abilities in the pubs. . . . At an outlying table, undisturbed but faced with as many people as possible, he listened to the thick of the voices that flew every which way, the dense fog of the swelling and subsiding conversations, and he probed their separate strands; he brought order to complex structures that consisted of speech and gesticulation, emotion pent up and released, which flowed down whole rows of faces united in a single opinion; he studied the oscillations of separate themes (usually mere subvarieties of one theme, subvarieties that could be traced on the basis of minor shared features); with all his senses he pursued a certain current of conversation that for some inexplicable reason had suddenly vanished into thin air between one person and the next — though their shoulders almost touched — then reappeared, perhaps an hour later, in a completely different quadrant of the room, and was discussed further (for instance the quality of a local beer that had abruptly disappeared from the shops . . . it had been gone for ten years now, and for nine years its disappearance had been tirelessly bemoaned and its quality extolled . . . and he heard it again and again: Oettler . . . Oettler . . . Oettler! — he knew how the name of this beer was spelled), as though the topic’s glowing core had leaped like an electric arc to a different conversational unit where it was picked up seamlessly, or as though the topic had been transmitted via radio straight across the room . . . and there, just as abruptly, it transformed into the discussion of a player from the town soccer team who had vanished seven or eight years ago, into the glorification of this player who had bailed to the West (now it was getting interesting!). . . . He had the feeling that conversations spread in the manner of odors — and could only be distinguished in the manner of odors — they were produced somewhere, somewhere in the private parts of the face, and then leaped or sailed, perhaps lofted by excessive conversational gesticulation, from one row of pushed-together tables to the next, where for incomprehensible reasons they were not caught hold of, or were even waved away, drifting on over the tables of another group (seemingly a completely independent conversational unit), amid densely rising clouds of smoke and fusillades of beer (which obscenely formed lips sprayed into the air with the word Oettler), or in the diminishing volume of a multitude of voices, until they were able to take hold and reignite, and the new verbal scent seemed to be gratefully received, a new union of throats breathed it for a time, and coughed it and wiped it all around, and an hour later put the odorous cloud to flight again. . . . And W didn’t let these odors near him, he needed a certain distance, he needed a partition between himself and what he perceived, a wall of glass, or shadow, or fog. . . .

During this time he’d felt he was learning a completely new language . . . or at least relearning the existing language from the ground up. Since now he no longer took in phrases for the sake of their messages, instead seeking hidden meanings in a dark realm behind them, and at the same time was forced to consider the language of gestures that carried each phrase (probably only falsifying it still further!), for him all speech had gradually become a conspiracy. And the more he attempted to penetrate this conspiracy, the more urgently a suspicion rose within him: everyone made themselves understood by means of language, everyone but him. . . . He didn’t know these means, these means that lay behind the message, which itself emerged banal and pointless. Suddenly all phrases had turned impenetrable . . . precisely because the words in them clove together by such force of habit that they kept repeating the same trivia. More and more he lived with the sense of having to break through a wall to arrive at the same understanding that came easily to everyone sitting behind this wall (behind the wall understanding was interrupted only occasionally by the jitter of the refrigerators). All his life he had talked just like them . . . he’d only written differently; he hadn’t even noticed what he’d been doing there. Now he’d been declared a writer, and suddenly the language he had once cohabited had become a room from which he was shut out.

Perhaps he could penetrate the closed rooms of this language from below . . . from underground, through its basements, through its floor?

Of course he shared none of these thoughts with the boss, whom he suspected would agree with him; for the boss, too, it would only stand to reason that people who talked to each other constituted a conspiracy . . . which could be countered only with identical means. But the boss didn’t take it all that seriously; whenever they ran into each other in the town’s fog, he had good advice to offer. . . . You have to listen to the man on the street, he said, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s not a writer here who can deliver that like you can! And when we’ve heard enough we’ll kick him to the curb, said W.

The boss looked flustered, unsure whether to take these words as a joke. . . . W didn’t know himself. But the boss noticed at once that W had troubling thoughts on his mind, and barraged him with more and more ostensibly comforting phrases. Do you think I’m not feeling okay, or what? W asked him one day. What is it you’re constantly having to cheer me up about? You know, a writer . . . actually, any thinking person in this day and age can’t always feel okay. Maybe only rarely, even, but that’s how it’s got to be, and it’s better that way, the boss replied. And then he brought to bear one of his key sayings, which left little to be desired in terms of universality: You know, you see best when you look from the dark into the light! And not the other way around. . . .

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June 2015

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