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Wolfgang Hilbig

Das Provisorium

S.Fischer Verlag, February 2000, 318pp.
ISBN 3 10 033623 8

One of the most important writers to have come out of the GDR, Wolfgang Hilbig has been compared to Kafka for his precision and dark humour. The central character and first person narrator of this new novel shares some of his own background. Like him, C gets a temporary visa to travel in West Germany but unlike him he doesn't go back. Instead, caught between two countries, lives, political systems and relationships, he undergoes a crisis of identity. Prevarication and emotional cowardice precipitate a slide into alcoholism and impotence (both sexual and literary) and, above all, a career of obsessive and desperate flight - from Nuremberg to Leipzig to Berlin to Frankfurt, then back again to Nuremberg, almost without pause or purpose. Much of the novel is taken up with this desperate piece of wreckage swigging schnapps on trains or planes, or killing time in stations, hotels and bars. The narrative moves freely between various levels of the past, and pinpoints two moments of crisis in particular: one, the explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in 1986; and two, the realisation that the emigrée writer Hedda Rast has finally left him, which occurs during a reading and is followed by C being beaten up and robbed while in an alcoholic stupor.

The obsessive centre of the novel is C's own consciousness and one of its most fascinating aspects is how such a self-absorbed, manipulative, and chronically self-pitying character can be made to captivate the reader's attention so completely. The answer lies in the vividness of the descriptions and also in the author's insight into what this sort of sordid non-living involves. West and east and their inevitable meeting are equally well portrayed, and the result is a compelling meditation, ironic yet never superior or dry, on the nature of identity at the close of the twentieth century. The prose is beautiful (Hilbig is a distinguished poet). Language to take your breath away.

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