The rights to “Old Enmity” and “Rolling the Bones” are held by Hilbig, the rights to “Old Story” are held by S. Fischer Verlag.

Email Isabel Cole

Wolfgang Hilbig Wolfgang Hilbig

Translated from the German by Isabel ColeIsabel Cole

This spring, it was announced that the author, Wolfgang Hilbig, will be this year's winner of the Bόchner-Preis - Germany's most prestigious literary award. These three short-shorts or prose poems: “The End of the Night (Old story...)”, “Ancient Enmity” and “The End of the Night (Rolling the bones...)”", date from the years 1974, 1986 and 1974 respectively. They have been reprinted in several collections of Hilbig's work.
      Wolfgang Hilbig was born in 1941 in the coal-mining region of Meuselwitz, Saxony; his father fell in the Battle of Stalingrad. Hilbig grew up in a working-class milieu and worked in East Germany's industrial wasteland; his densely poetic texts literally emerged from the boiler-room. He was too independent and his work too apocalyptic to make him a candidate for the new breed of working-class poets fostered by the GDR.
      In 1985 Hilbig moved to West Germany, but has remained a profoundly East German writer. His mordant view of capitalist society and post-reunification politics has raised some hackles, but he commands too much respect to be written off as a mere provocateur. With his integrity and intensity, he has become one of Germany's most important living writers. His early work, of which the enclosed pieces are typical, stands as one of the GDR's richest literary legacies.
      Hilbig's work has been translated into a number of European and Asian languages; the only major work of his to appear in English was the novella “Knacker's Yard”, published several years ago in Grand Street (Issue 48). Isabel Cole's translation of several excerpts from his most recent novel “The Interim” appeared in the Spring, 2001 issue of the “Edinburgh Review” and in the May 2002 issue of the “Chicago Review”. Another excerpt of “The Interim” is forthcoming in the Fall issue of the Northwest Review.

The End of the Night (Rolling the bones...)

     Rolling the bones at a big round table in the inn.
      Rare luck, I win every game, on a roll, the pot is alcohol, but I must pay everything myself, for the other five chairs are empty, I have no opponents. So after each round I must down six shots, and the pitiless innkeeper keeps bringing new trays of filled glasses. I must throw for each of my opponents, and I cannot leave, my feet are trapped in a layer of rocks piled up to my shins, holding my legs, the table legs; the whole floor of the room, up to the walls before me, behind me, is covered by this talus layer, I hope it won't start to rise like the water in thrillers. By morning the alcohol will have dulled the pain in my feet... and already day is breaking, hail O Sun... it rises harsh yellow on the horizon, a magical hue shimmers over the rigid wave-crests of this talus desert. Soon the air over the grey-yellow stones will vibrate as if in the emanations of a glowing stovetop, and as far as I can see, whichever way I turn my head: nothing but a boundless plain heaped with talus, stretching on and on with the curve of the world down below all horizons. And above me, at the zenith, the naked implacable fire... nothing to be done but go on with the game, submit to the luck of these dice, nothing to lose, all the gold of this world is already won.

The End of the Night (Old story...)

     Old story, just before midnight, the clattering mail-coach nears – more dragged than drawn by the panting horses; the lash that danced about their sweat-drenched flanks drove the beasts to a pace unconscionable on these miserable mud-covered roads –; on the sludgy pond of a village square the coach comes to a standstill like a roar falling silent. The travelling gentleman steps out, heedlessly tramping his boots in the puddles, in evident haste, despite which, before turning to the inn, he glances at the sky. Prodigious black reactionary clouds drift threateningly low, the village square, without a single light, is filled with cold wind, soon it must start to rain; no sooner did the horses come to a stop than the coachman fell asleep slumped over on the coach-box. The door of the inn is locked, the windows armored with stout wooden shutters. The characters on the sign above the door are impossible to read; the gentleman sets down his little leather case in the doorway and pounds on one of the shutters with a gloved fist, but there is no reply. – Never, at this hour, would he dare to cry: Open up, open up, give me a bed for just this half a night, it's almost midnight, the horses are exhausted, why, I was announced, and tomorrow I am expected in the city, yes, I am the long-awaited one, my bag is full of ducats... no one would hear him. The gentleman puts his ear to the shutter, hammers at the wood with both his fists, he hears the blows resound throughout the house, the empty house, no doors shut off the inner rooms and hold out the pounding, they are torn down, broken from the walls, no furniture in the abandoned house, the floors covered with rubble, the stairs caved in, the front door boarded up. Seized by icy pain the gentleman hears the echo of his blows die away; as he looks back imploringly at the coachman the clouds part, for one moment a moonbeam strikes this figure whose flamboyantly outstretched arm rests on the railing of the coach-box; from the wide sleeve dangle, quite distinct, the snow-white fingers of a skeletal hand. Never would the gentleman dare address this coachman, mindful of the grisly skull which the dark hat hides. As the darkness returns, and the rain begins, the gentleman feels his wet face, and giving up all hope he thinks: Soon the last night of the old time will be over, and the new... I'll never reach it, no matter that I was already announced. And watching the plundered houses of this village withdraw from me I will be left behind in this dying world with my cold knowledge, oh, with the knowledge that I fell a few human words short of a goal I pursued for an entire century, with the knowledge, finally, that the ears of those to come would have profited from a few words of mine. But now the light to come will gleam with flowing blood, for their ears shall be cut off, their limbs broken, their hearts torn asunder, their bodies shall be burned to ash, and streets paved with ash shall take into the fire the bodies of those to come... and as I grasp this I see the horses will never be whipped on again, the horses turn to stone

Old Enmity

     First I learned to abandon the ears on my head. The left and then the right; that was when bombs struck all around, the houses burned and sent crackling smoke shooting up to the motor drone of a black-glowing firmament.
     I never noticed it, but it was said there was a God who had an ear for me.
     It was the ears I first began to hate in all the noise... they wreak vengeance on me every day since I mercilessly expelled them from the commonwealth of the body; they wreak vengeance with the smell of toxic eggshells, but they burst open nowhere, they hold their noise together. In reality they are obsessed with the thought of hearing my mouth; they buckle with greed, but do not take what they demand.
     The second victim of my hatred is the mouth in my head; equally abandoned, it is entrenched in its egotistical raging... truly, it is a whorl of hatred toward the ear in my head, which emits its own aggressive signals in the form of indifference. – This obdurate ear, depraved by deafness, is both ur-form and malformation, imploding spiral, abstracting model, lettuce leaf of chaos.
     Their relations, now barely to be described as such, consist in the irregular operating noises of a machine which seems mounted between them, functioning as a unit of responsibility which they can shunt back and forth.
     Yet the ear – erect, screwed inward – is still separated from the mouth – dropped and clapped on – by a vast firmament which turns from time to time into a black-red seething Hell. God, who was said to have an ear for me, seems to have nothing but a closed mouth. In my case it was the other way around, but I am separated from both of them, as far as I possibly can be. I have abandoned them and condemned them to knowing the truth: all that reaches me is the groaning of their old enmity.