Nothing new on Bahnhofstrasse! — These are the first words to occur to me upon arrival. With the word arrival, though, I’ve already said too much: there’s something so familiar in the soapy taste of the air that I wouldn’t dream of describing my walk into town as a return: I don’t think of myself coming back; I’ve never been away. No, I never really left the town, sometimes I fled it, that’s all: in truth it was the town that never really left me. The town took me over with its drab devastation, in which some perpetually stalled upheaval seemed in progress, an inexplicable upheaval. I always had this impression, long before the whole country’s upheaval, and it lingered after the country’s authorities had surrendered and fled, after the government and its closest vassals had been replaced: this town seemed in no way to confirm the changing of the system. In a past apparently impossible to fathom now, the town must have plunged into paralysis, and that collapse had survived the regime change.
For years I fled from the town, years that have sped from my grasp as though chased by the furies, and yet never passed quickly enough for me. These are all the years I can recall with ease, quite in contrast to those I spent here in this town. It’s as though in those other cities, the bigger, more attractive ones I chose to live in, I never really settled down. Those cities’ easily summoned images were dimmed by a sense of loss, a sentimental feeling originating in this town to which I return from time to time. It’s here that this barely explicable sense of absence grew on me, one I only really felt once I had settled down elsewhere with the more or less firm resolution to stay. It made itself felt as a kind of living without a background, it was a state of severance, a state without a past, and yet I’d learned to feel severed from the past in the small town afternoons.
Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.
Nothing new in the town of M., then. — Bahnhofstrasse, the station road, is still rutted by construction pits, as it was months before, the last time I came here: in the same darkness in which gusts of wind seem to snatch the faint light from the trembling lamps that mark, at irregular intervals, the edge of what was once the sidewalk. Cold fog with wind and rain knotted in it; now snow seems to mingle there as well. The way ahead of me has metamorphosed into a causeway of shadow, beginning to glitter treacherously. Ahead of me hurry a few bundled-up people who got off the train along with me; the street seems barely negotiable, on both sides the invisible looms. I look about for a better path: the alternative route is also broken up and blocked by railings behind which, in the yellow-red flicker of lamps, construction vehicles seem to sink listing into the sand. Every route has been torn up; evidently, after digging up half the town, all work was ceased; I’ve never known it to be otherwise.
For one fleeting moment – an eddy of wind parts the mix of rain and snow – I can see the clock on the station façade: it shows three! — There’s no mistake, it always told this time, its hands always formed this exact right angle in the upper part of the dial: three o’clock, as long as I can remember. I have a photograph a friend took of me at the lower end of Bahnhofstrasse, twenty or more years ago. Our intention was to record the strange sight of a bulky pipeline: along the side façades of the factory buildings by the road, the pipe, more than a yard in diameter with its insulation, ran straight across the factory windows, blocking both the view and the daylight, so that the lights in the factory halls had to be left on perpetually. The spectacle of this disconcerting stopgap constituted the charm of the photograph for us; it recalled some absurd technological fantasy. — The station stood at the street’s upper end: on the clearly discernable clock above its entrance it was precisely three o’clock!
Eternal afternoon prevails in the town. The photo shows not a soul on the sharply lit street; the trees, evidently sycamores, still in existence then, are bare. Beneath the white-grey autumn sky, the town has been struck by some blow of mysterious origin. At exactly three o’clock on an ice-cold Sunday, when none of the inhabitants were on the street, the town had been transformed into a phantasm. It had frozen to a motionless backdrop; no one noticed, not even that harmless hobby photographer, himself observed only from behind grimy curtains by several perpetually lurking informers. — Ever since then you were excluded, upon entering the city, from a fundamental law of human existence: since then you were excluded from the soft, relentless onward flow of time, which the trigger of an old-fashioned camera had brought to a standstill. There was only one copy of this black and white photo; the negative had vanished in the dusty back rooms of a photo lab whose owner retired long ago.
And ever since then you were transformed into a shadow upon entering this town, this sinister, bleakly motley heap of houses. And if someone had walked the streets at night, only years later might you hear his steps echoing up the walls.
Those were my thoughts when I’d walked across town and sat at last in my little upstairs kitchen. I thought of these steps, scuffing, hasty, sometimes dragging with weariness, and I thought that they had never ceased… they were the only movement in the town. — Outside, human life and living voices still existed! Beyond the bounds of this obliterated town I sensed language still at work, and I believed that with its help certain things could be achieved. New generations will partake of it, I told myself; I’d long been waiting for the moment when young people would at last take on the language. And at last seize the ideas buried in the language, and put them on the line. Perhaps I myself had grown unable to guess at these ideas; for far too long now, words have seemed to give out on me. But in some obscure future perhaps the words will reemerge, I thought. Like lights that flicker and stutter at first, as when long-forgotten wires and connections are suddenly flooded with electricity.
I’ve always spoken of the wrong things, presumably! At least that was my perpetual suspicion… and despite my change of scenery, I increasingly felt I was governed by inertia. Inertia kept me captive, lying constantly in wait, prepared to take full possession of me, to fix me like a botched statue to the spot where I happened to be. — The cause lies here in M., I said to myself. Here, in this town, annihilation planted its foot on me. — And how long ago was it that I began to dissect the doom I called M. into words and phrases in order to achieve clarity about it: how many years ago that I failed in the attempt and gave up again…
When I visited the town of M., all I wanted was to return as soon as possible to a burning lamp over a kitchen table in a tiny, smoke-filled, eat-in kitchen familiar from my childhood. It had two windows facing the yard, and, on the other walls, peeling, blistered, yellow wallpaper displaying a peculiar pattern under the shadow of its discolourations: at first glance one had the impression that lines of dark brown vermin were marching straight up the walls. When I’d heated the coal stove, the wallpaper seemed to sweat, emitting the nicotine lodged in its pores since the beginning of eternity. The windows had warped in the damp; I’d used old towels to block the cold that seeped in at their edges. If possible, I left the lamp over the table burning all the time; its wires were heavily oxidised, porous. Dating back before the war, they refused to conduct electricity when switched on and off too often, and only protracted manipulation of the contacts could start the current flowing again. — In this old cave – in this relic from the early twentieth century – I sat and turned my pages, covered with crossed-out or not yet crossed-out lines. Instead of writing, I smoked cigarette after cigarette and listened to the darkness that hung inert outside the windows. There was nothing to be heard… I couldn’t hear a thing, all sounds were swallowed by the enervating whine of the ancient refrigerator, whose unstable power unit kept starting up at far-too-brief intervals.
My reflections on this town had likely begun at a time now lost in mythic twilight. Indeed I had tried, again and again, to form a picture of the town which, if I was not mistaken, was still out there, which probably still clustered around my lighted interior, frozen and stony and hollow. I had even persuaded myself that this was my sole purpose… and perhaps for that very reason it had become for me a senseless, useless undertaking. Often I believed that first I had to invent the town by describing it… perhaps it could come into existence in no other way. The fact that I had been born in it was not sufficient to prove its existence…
How can one demand of a shadow that he describe the image of a shadow town? — It was absurd questions like that I grappled with. And a long-familiar effect had taken hold: my goal, the image of the town, seemed to recede still further from me each time I believed, thanks to blind chance, that I’d come closer for a moment… the goal sought to evade me! I was accordingly ill-disposed toward my endeavor. — But perhaps there did exist, somewhere in the streets, a certain shadow for whom such an image was possible… weren’t there footsteps in the depths of town, padding steps I strained my ears after? First they had receded, but now they returned again. Weren’t those steps down on the pavement the proof I was seeking? I listened a long time, hour after hour, but there was not much to hear, due to the refrigerator noise – a central, recurring motif brought to me by the run-down things of the twentieth century – which constantly drowned everything out. And the light began to flicker, for seconds at a time, each time the refrigerator switched itself on.
How can you sit calmly at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?
However frightful the deluge of refrigerator noise: I seemed to keep hearing those hasty steps out on the street. From the moment I arrived in M. I was unable to escape the thought. The door to the next room, with the street window, stood ajar, and I heard the clatter and shuffle of well-worn shoes on the crooked stones of the sidewalk. First it was a single person’s steps; soon I thought several others were following him. After a while the single steps returned, and sometimes they strayed into the yard, sometimes coming right beneath the two kitchen windows between which I sat, listening in horror. In a moment I could expect him to call my name… I stood up and extinguished the light. Once I felt safe, I turned the lamp on again: of course it wouldn’t burn; I climbed onto the table, lighting my way with the cigarette lighter, and jiggled the cable until the two fluorescent tubes shone once more. The whole thing repeated until my thoughts were in tatters: that crackling and flaring, and then again the slackening steps, once it had grown still.
Sometimes it ceased, but the hunt in the streets was far from over. He had managed to shake them only temporarily. It seemed he’d hidden himself in a dark corner; my yard served in a pinch to let his pursuers pass by. But all he got was a breathing spell; soon they tracked him down again. They were long since wise to all his ruses, they’d been after him for years; I would have had to count back to say when this story had begun. There was no reason for it… no one out there knew any reason. — And often enough they caught him, presumably they could catch him at their whim. At any time they could corner him and let him run into a trap: he was one man, there were always more of them, they took turns, they could increase their force at will.
I recall all too well how once, in the very beginning, when their malice was still boundless – a few weeks, in other words, after setting their sights on him – they had snatched him off the street and beaten him horribly. It was a winter night, between three and four in the morning, when I heard a voice calling softly outside the kitchen windows and thought I could make out my name. With the last of his strength he’d dragged himself into my yard, where he collapsed in the slush. I had to help him up the stairs; evidently he could hardly see. I helped him lie down on the sofa in the kitchen and administered several shots of liquor. His lips were split, blood dripped from his nose. Both eyes had swelled nearly shut, and shards from his glasses were embedded in his lacerated brows, clearly due to a blow from a truncheon. I tried to get some explanation out of him, but he merely hissed out profanities and curses; he murmured on even after falling asleep.
Not long after this scene he was sent to prison for a year; on his release his papers bore a stamp authorising him to cross the border. He had three days to leave the country; together we went around to the authorities, whom neither of us cared to visit, to gather the signatures he needed, attesting, among other things, that he’d paid his electricity bills, had no outstanding library books, and had taken care of the fee for clearing out his cellar. An hour before his departure we packed his belongings, filling barely half of an olive canvas duffel bag. In the afternoon I accompanied him to the last bus to the district capital, which he had to take to catch the interzonal train to Frankfurt am Main that would bring him across the border before midnight. I refused to believe that he was glad to go. We were silent for most of the way to the bus station, or at least we didn’t speak of how he was leaving the country with no real conviction, and no precise notion what his destination was. He was limping, but insisted on carrying the bag himself; though it weighed nearly nothing, it pulled his slender shoulders askew. Before boarding the bus, he turned his face to me, now pale, and said he’d never set foot in this country again. — You’ve got no other choice, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud; I saw him sitting behind the grimed bus window, staring stoically straight ahead. There was no point in waving again, for as the bus drove off, I saw that his eyes were closed behind his thick lenses; an inscrutable smile played about his lips.
Just a few days later I could have sworn I saw his duffle bag again. I happened to walk down the street where he’d lived, and saw it lying on the sill of the ground floor window, which had never had curtains. I’d often worked myself up about that: he offered an unobstructed view through his window to every sewer rat and every belly-worm employed by the state apparatus. It was all the same to him. — I knocked on the pane; nothing stirred, so I went into the building and hammered on the door of his flat: no one answered; his name plate had been removed from the front door.
Revenge! Revenge, I thought, it could only be revenge that they’d wanted. — But revenge for what? — I still sought an explanation for the story, but there was no chance for an explanation. At any rate, there were always enough people to put together a posse! There were policemen and secret policemen, and any number of overzealous little snitches who would have given anything to play Inspector Maigret. Who even did it free of charge, just to show how much they cared about law and order in this town. How many humble citizens with windows on the street took up their posts behind the curtains at the least unusual noise? I couldn’t imagine that, of all their traits, this one might have changed.
And yet my friend wasn’t even a homosexual or a Jew, he wore his hair only moderately long, and he had no car to commit a parking violation. He was only a humble chemist who’d quit his job at the factory because he was overqualified, and since then stayed afloat by repairing TV sets; word had gotten out that he did a better job than the official service company. He spent his spare time in his tiny apartment, hunched over inscrutable chemical formulas, painting abstract pictures, or developing his own amateur photos. Now and then he’d drink a drop too much. The anonymous letters about him received by a certain section of the municipal council described nocturnal gatherings in his apartment that went on into the morning. I had attended several of those gatherings; the way they talked about literature and music put me in a foul mood, and I went home early.
Now, when I walked past his former apartment, I looked back wistfully on those discussions; my arrogance has long since fled. The little discussion groups had scattered soon after his expulsion. And they had never come back together again, not even now… even less so now, in the time after the system’s collapse, when it actually would have been possible: today there seemed not a person left in town who talked voluntarily about literature. Only the others, literature’s adversaries, had remained. They hunkered behind the haze of their curtains and kept the street under surveillance. But there was no one down there who was not of their ilk.
I had never succeeded in describing the town. Neither from up close nor from afar; I simply hadn’t found a way to look at it, I saw that more and more clearly. — It was he who could have pulled off this description, and in his own way, though quite unintentionally, he had pulled it off. This was what I thought when I passed by his window, behind which he was often seen puttering around; now curtains hung against the polished panes, and inside a TV flickered murkily. My friend had merely released the shutter of his camera one cold fall Sunday, and the snapshot produced at that moment had unmasked the town. Three o’clock: at precisely that second the town had frozen to an image of black and white lifelessness. And they had been after him ever since. — Maybe they’re only after the photo, I thought. If they got it, would they leave him in peace? — But I never really believed that.
I knew what awaited me in M.; I’d given up all hope for change. When I got off the rickety suburban train and crossed the station hall, already seeing several odd, loitering figures who took a striking interest in the bare walls when I passed, and when I walked down Bahnhofstrasse and turned further down onto the main street, not without looking about to see whether I was being followed in due form, then I knew that nothing had changed here. By the marketplace, at the latest, I ceased to care whether they were following me; I knew I was now in the past, in a time that hadn’t moved from the spot. I’d been unable to make out the station clock, but I was convinced that its hands hadn’t moved an iota. Fog, drizzle and snow sank unchanged through the islands of reddish streetlights, as though even the weather were a mere expression of stagnation and the past. When I arrived in my kitchen at last, when the fluorescent tubes burned over the table, when the stove was heated, I spread out my papers in front of me. And as my perplexity grew, I began listening to the night outside.
Now and then I thought I heard steps down in the street: he, he alone could describe the town, but he didn’t, at least not as I would have done. — He was the restless spirit of this town, his presence spectral and indisputable. And when he thought about the town, it was in phrases that came ever faster, ever shorter; short-winded phrases; meanwhile he passed without pausing. They were after him, as they were every night. He fled, began to limp, I could hear it clearly; he was already flagging. He didn’t stop, he went on to the end of the street. There he disappeared, but only for a moment. He could think the town’s story only in fits and starts, without patience, without beginning and end. More and more often he stopped to catch his breath, pressing himself into an entryway, listening into the darkness. He knew they were there somewhere, listening as well. A little further. At the next corner he set down the olive-drab bag and asked a chance passerby for a light. The cigarette glowed in his cupped hand, and he walked on. After just a few steps he threw away the cigarette and ran. He came past the train station, skirting it, straight through the wet shrubs, then slid down a railroad embankment and returned to town via muddy side streets, as he’d often done before. But he couldn’t shake them off; they were always somewhere in the darkness behind him. At some point the church clock on the market square struck, like the reverberation of a second that had slipped into a coma. I counted the strokes, he did not; he ran on.
The photo he had taken years before was in my possession, and really it was I they should have hunted.
This is an excerpt from The Sleep of the Righteous, which will be published, with an introduction by László Krasznahorkai, by Two Lines Press in October 2015.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Wolfgang Hilbig(1941–2007) was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. Though raised in East Germany, he proved so troublesome to the authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of over twenty books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honour.
Isabel Fargo Cole is a US-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Seagull Books, 2011) and The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2013). The recipient of a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2013, she is the initiator and co-editor of No-mans-land.org, an online magazine for new German literature in English.