The Tidings of the Trees
By Wolfgang Hilbig
Reviewed by John David Harding
Every so often, I will come to the final page in a book and I want to keep reading, I want more. Such was the case with Wolfgang Hilbig's novella Die Kunde von den Bäumen, translated for the first time into English by Isabel Fargo Cole as The Tidings of the Trees.
Born in 1941, Hilbig was a writer whose work engages with, among other themes, the political, social, and personal asperities of a divided and reunified Germany. Because Cole has translated a total of four of Hilbig's works into English (plus The Females, forthcoming in November), English-language audiences now have the opportunity to read work by this relatively obscure master who never aspired to be counted among the literary elite.
"Hilbig was never in fashion," Cole said in an interview with 3:AM Magazine's Joseph Schreiber. "He was a perpetual outsider, a persona non grata in East Germany and a misfit in West Germany, profoundly uncomfortable with capitalist society and the literary circus. He didn't belong to any movements. He was never an easy sell, and he hated having to sell himself."
Originally released in 1992, The Tiding of the Trees tells the story of Waller, a writer and factory worker who experiences a bout of writer's block of epic proportions. In a moment slathered with irony, Waller opens the story by lambasting stories that take as their premise the difficulty of telling stories, which on its face is exactly what this story is about. "What could be duller," he says, "or more presumptuous, than books about writing books!"
But Waller's problem has less to do with how to tell his story than with the limitations of language itself. For him, the written word signifies yet another boundary, a liminal space not dissimilar to the wall dividing his country. Having composed only a single sentence of a story-in-progress, Waller is unable to proceed. Attempts to write a second sentence bear no fruit: "[M]y words, if I could still read them at all, were the falsest conceivable way to express what I actually wanted to name."
Thus unfolds a sprawling, unusual narrative which asks the reader to perceive nearly everything as existing in a state of disintegration: the nation of Germany, the act of storytelling, the efficacy of language, even time itself. In the span of only ninety-four pages, the novella bears this enormous weight through a complex configuration of time and character. The narrative moment—wherein Walter attempts to compose a second sentence of his story—is fractured by recollections as well as descriptions of the narrative act. Set at a remove, these scenes are located both in the present and in the indeterminate past, an effect typical of Hilbig which Cole has described as "temporal dislocation."
Even more fluid than time, however, is the novella's formation of narrator and character. The majority first person narrative is interspersed with third person references to the central character Waller. Readers might wonder, then, whether Waller and the narrating "I" are one in the same, or whether Waller has delivered the narration as a monologue to an unnamed narrator. This ambiguity raises interesting questions about narrative authority. The novella's first two lines illustrate this unique blending of time and voice: "What do I know now, said Waller, of the perplexities that came over me as I tried to write my first stories? Right here I falter: back then I'd never have dared to put it that way." This splintering effect uncannily exemplifies what Waller later describes as his inability to produce "normal character[s]."
In attempting to tell his story, Waller conjures up impressions of a divided Germany. He surveys a decaying landscape continually coated by falling ash, the omnipresent detritus of war and industry. His ruminations primarily focus on three settings: the factory, the garbage dump, and "the cherry lane" connecting his home to the village of W., the road to which was once lined with cherry trees.
Similar to Proust's madeleines, Waller's memories of the cherry trees catalyze his recollections. They are the inspiration for Waller's one and only sentence, which reads, "The cherry lane has vanished." At one time symbolic of relative prosperity for the country and for Waller himself, the trees' absence indicates the national, ecological, and personal traumas inflicted by border walls and war.
Now that the trees are gone, an enormous landfill at the edge of the city becomes Waller's refuge. There, an anonymous group of men known only as "the garbagemen" spend their days tending to the ever-growing mass of trash and debris. To Waller's mind, only the garbagemen take responsibility for the refuse of human beings, whereas the masses prefer their garbage to be out of sight, out of mind.
"[I]n this day and age," Waller muses, "only the garbagemen could bring a poetic thought to fruition . . . It was to them alone that things still spoke of their decay." Herein lies a fitting metaphor for Waller himself as he tries to cull scraps of story from the remnants of his country and his former life.
In many respects, this novella's relevance to the present moment in the United States and elsewhere could not be clearer. Its reenactment of the psychic and real-world damage wrought by political discord, border walls, and human suffering realized by capitalism and warfare—to say nothing of their assaults on the natural world—necessitates our full attention. The cherry trees have vanished: may we heed their tidings before it is too late.