Reinhard Jirgl: Abschied von den Feinden

Jirgl, Reinhard (1998), Abschied von den Feinden, dtv
ISBN 3-432-12584-5

Abschied von den Feinden (Goodbye to the Enemies), not yet translated into English, is Reinhard Jirgl’s breakthrough novel. Published in 1995, it won two of the most important German literary prizes and established its author as one of the major and original voices of contemporary German literature. His work has three distinct and important predecessors in German language literature, each of which can be held accountable for one very important aspect of Jirgl’s dark and violent work. Those three are Thomas Bernhard, Uwe Johnson and Arno Schmidt; some of them more obviously influential for Jirgl’s oeuvre than others. This is not to say that Jirgl draws only from these three sources; of course he doesn’t, a writer who wields his language as deftly and powerfully as Jirgl does often draws from a multitude of sources, and not only from German sources at that. Chief, perhaps, among the Anglo-Saxon strand of influence, for example, are William Faulkner and Samuel Beckett, but among modern writers writing in German, I would place the three aforementioned novelists at the fore. We’ll return to that. Jirgl’s themes are restricted to a few areas of interest, like German history and the violence that people assault each other with, openly or in a less open manner. His 2000 novel Die Atlantische Mauer (The Atlantic Wall) for example, contains one of the most harrowing, most well-written depictions of rape I have ever had the displeasure to read, as well as a frighteningly precise outsider’s account of the workings of a bureaucracy.

Typically for Jirgl, it’s hard to grapple with the book, Jirgl is a slippery writer, offering several conflicting angles, down to a fundamental level. Abschied von den Feinden is a book deeply and explicitly invested in history, in questions of historical continuity and guilt; at the same time, it’s a textual machine. By cutting all the names from the text, reducing every character to a function, and every function to schematics, in combination with his typography and orthography, Jirgl suggests reading the book not as a historically involved book but as a textual artifact, as a book whose only level is exclusively textual, with history as one of many other textual elements, a game, in short, without responsibilities. These two levels are not coexisting, unconnected. Jirgl’s powerful use of language, his easy access to direct, even violent expression provides a strong link. Indeed, instead of subjugating history to a literary game, to a careless romp through the shelves, Jirgl goes the other way, he reconnects textuality to the gritty outside of history; his intense fiddling with words, typography and other gadgets serves just that purpose by locating the roots of the, often disturbing, acts he describes in the language they are described in. There are a few great writers who manage to create that link, one of those is Thomas Bernhard. Like Bernhard, Jirgl is an obsessive, like Bernhard, Jirgl creates a set of signs and topics and uses his work to explore them. Bernhard’s work can be put on a chart so that we see how certain topics are refined, developed, and how this is reflected in the language he uses to do this. As I said, the same applies to Jirgl.

Abschied von den Feinden traces a few characters through just over 40 years of German history; basically, we are looking at the lifespan of the German Democratic Republic, the socialist state on German soil, taken over by the other German state, the BRD, in 1990. Jirgl focuses on two inimical brothers and a woman both brothers courted at one time. The two brothers were left by their father, who fled into West Germany. Their mother was raped by government agents who wanted information from her about her supposed contacts to the imperialistic West, her kids taken away, practically orphaned. One of the most impressive sections of the book deals with the younger brother’s time in the orphanage. These sections are constructed with the imagery and language of German modernism, most significantly perhaps that of Hans Henny Jahnn, whose inestimable influence on German post-war avant-garde prose is traceable through major writers like Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann and Hubert Fichte, both of whom, in turn, have left their marks on Jirgl’s work. This may sound like namedropping but it’s actually a desperate attempt to render understandable the insane wealth of literary sources and references that are scattered through this amazing book. His writing is such that the literate reader automatically connects words, phrases and images with other books and texts. A metaphor containing an “Aster” calls to mind Benn’s famous early poem, just as, mentioning a “Tarnkappe” (magic cap or cloak of invisibility), to me, is almost as good as mentioning Christoph Meckel’s poem with the same title, and there’s innumerable smaller and larger ways in which texts surface and add depth to the book; just as in most cases of intertextuality, Jirgl, too, can be said to outsource meanings into the web of text he places his novel in. The specific context of Benn’s early poems, “set” in Germany before the first world war, is interesting to consider in relation to the modern history Jirgl looks at. I have absolutely no idea how the references, this incessant sounding for literary depths, this integral part of the novel would make it into a translation. I guess I’m lucky to speak the language.

To return to the two brothers. After a short time in the orphanage, they are taken in and raised by a pair of refugees, who were chased from what used to be German territories in the east, as people are wont to be chased in the turmoils of history. Since all this review stuff is created from memory (and my memory is awful), I will go ahead and admit I may be mixing the brothers up with another pair of orphans, who, however, only enter the story in its fringes. Structurally, the novel utilizes repetition a lot, thus, years after the father, leaving the two brothers’ mother, another man, the older brother, leaves a mother of two boys. Just like his father, he absconds to West Germany. We do not learn much about what happens to the two brothers once they are grown up. These years are regarded, for the most part, through the eyes of the woman I just mentioned. The two brothers appear, but as minor characters in the larger context of her life. The older brother is the quiet, shadowy presence in the West, whom she writes letters, partly as a defiance of the GDR establishment, the younger brother falls in love with her in the East, sleeps with her and is generally obsessed with her. That is about all that can be said about their history. The brothers are more important as narrative elements than as actual characters. The book is told via a complex arrangement of letters and monologues, and the two brothers’ voices provide the main tonal dynamic.

As to the woman, she is the person who sets everything in motion, who links all the characters, leading the story down from the environs of Rostock, a big city on the northeast coast of Germany, to East Berlin and back again. The story starts in a small town near Rostock (a very specific historical reference suggests this), the same town where the two brothers were raised by the elderly emigrant couple. There a woman’s dead body was found and an injured man who threw himself off a cliff. In a way, Abschied von den Feinden is about retracing the steps that led to her murder, about illuminating that homicide. Since this necessitates illuminating her background, Jirgl embarks on presenting a very memorable life to us, the life of a woman who did not fit the mold of GDR society. This very specific kind of misfit is a very well known part of GDR literature and life. There are literary characters all over the map such as Christa Wolf’s “Christa” from Nachdenken über Christa T. (translated into English; my review here), and the eponymous protagonist from Brigitte Reimann’s marvelous classic Franziska Linkerhand (not translated). Life in the GDR was beset, in a very un-communist manner, by all kinds of bourgeois prudery. Former citizens of the GDR pride themselves today on the easygoing manner with nakedness, for instance, that people in that country displayed, but below that was a strong and strict bourgeois moral code, especially as far as sexuality and more specifically, as far as promiscuity on the part of women was concerned. Very un-communistic, as I said. The woman in Jirgl’s book took what she needed, she slept with many men, especially after the older brother left her, she went to dances and took men home regularly. When a rich doctor, head of a government clinic, takes her home one night, she takes up with him and becomes his wife. She uses him, not in the way that cliché would have it, a woman marrying a rich man for money to live comfortably off the rest of her (married) life. She wants to study and to have the leisure and support to do it. Within the next years she proceeds to write a dissertation; it is in that process, however, that she has a falling-out with her husband.

For various reasons that I need not disclose here, he discards her and when she protests he has her thrown into a psychiatric ward, a punishment that will follow her for the rest of her life, because once pronounced, she finds it to be impossible to cleanse her name from something like that, even if those who pronounced the judgment have been discredited since. It is a general topic in Jirgl’s work but especially in Abschied von den Feinden: once you have been pronounced as outside of reasonable society, you tend to have trouble finding your way back in. Jirgl depicts madness as a classification created as a deposit of the irregular; she is thrown into the asylum not for medical but for private reasons, yet in a way, her punishment fits the institution; the fact that the judgment is upheld after 1990, with the threat of being put away continuously hanging above her, underscores this. Jirgl most effectively explores the inside/outside active in any society by giving a voice to the mob. This novel crawls with sounds and voices, and one of them, the most scathing and revealingly political, is that of the mob.
In the first chapter of E.P. Thompson’s seminal study The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson talks about the rise of the English working class as a political force, as a change from those times

when ‘the Mob’ did not organize itself in pursuit of its own ends but was called into spasmodic action by a faction […] to strengthen itself.

The mob in Abschied von den Feinden, the population of the small northeastern village, is hateful. Not in any special way, but in a way that anyone even fleetingly acquainted with German history will recognize. I’m sure it’s like this in every country, but this is my home turf, so excuse my myopia. These past 60something years we have expended a lot of time and energy convincing the world that we were called into action by some fringe faction instead of acknowledging that we took action, whoever represented us, politically. Once every dozen years something happens, however, that raises the specter of what happened then, that shows how we behave when we find the courage to behave as we really want to. After 1990, the signal event was when, in 1992, a mob burned the houses of asylum seekers in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and many more citizens, up to 2000, stood nearby, watching the foreigners burn and flee, attacking the police, too. Because it’s not about obedience. It’s about doing the right thing, and, c’mon, we know someone needs to pay, Jews, foreigners, take your pick. It is this event that is recalled in the first of many instances that Jirgl lends a voice to the people, to the neighbors of the brothers, their adoptive parents and, at the end, to the woman.

Mentioning Lichtenhagen (alluding to it, rather, names are absent here, as I said) does not actually touch any of these people. There are no foreigners in the village, none of the protagonists is a foreigner. The Lichtenhagen incident is only meant to underscore a certain kind of thinking, a historical continuity, in East and West Germany. The most important German novelist writing on that topic is probably the magnificent Uwe Johnson. He, frequently called “Dichter beider Deutschland” (‘Both Germany’s Poet’), produced a couple of incredible novels about the exigencies of life in one half of Germany. He wasn’t just a superb writer, he was also an excellent reporter both on the mentality triggered by the insane bureaucracy in the GDR and on continuities in German culture. The people and characters that crowd Abschied von den Feinden could come straight from one of Johnson’s major novels. And like him, Jirgl clearly doesn’t like what he sees. The story of the woman and the two brothers drips with anger, venom, even. He pursues his subject with a dedication and an energy that is engaging and harrowing, which would not work half as well were Jirgl not the amazingly great writer that he is. In his actual writing, he demonstrates quite a few similarities to Arno Schmidt, the solitary literary hermit, who is perhaps best known for his experiments with typography and orthography. I will review one or two Schmidt novels within the next month so I wouldn’t want to shoot my load right now, but one of many tricks Schmidt pulls is dismembering words and phrases in a hunt for etymological roots and clues to meanings hidden in the weeds and the undergrowth of language. This is where Jirgl picks up. In a note that precedes Abschied von den Feinden, he warns his reader that he will encounter difficult and different kinds of typography and orthography to add further layers of signification. For example, he does not just use the word “und” (and), he also substitutes it variously by “u:”, “&”, “+” and others. He does not end an exclamation sentence with an exclamation mark, he starts it with it, not just that, he also inserts exclamation marks in the middle of them, for special emphasis. Jirgl uses punctuation as a tool to use not as a rule to obey.

In Abschied von den Feinden, unlike, for example, in the later novel Die Atlantische Mauer, Jirgl proceeds to explain himself. Any of these changes are lucid and self-explanatory, but Jirgl insists upon saddling the book with a four page discussion of the deeper meanings that some symbols add. Perusing this you’ll find that each change, for example the decision to represent the indefinite article “ein” (which doubles as a numeral) sometimes with the actual number “1”, is motivated and can be read as significant. The incredible thing here is that it doesn’t feel annoying and self-important as in Ander Monson’s novel; on the contrary. Yes, Jirgl’s additional notes do not help you read the novel if you read it for the first time. This is why they are in the back not in the front. Jirgl invites us to reread his book in the light of his notes. To see where he tells us that someone is, for instance “thin” and small details like this. Jirgl’s actual use of words, gadgets aside is impressive, astonishing, praiseworthy, and he does not need the tricks and these small experimental thingies, but what’s great about him is that he makes it look worth your while. Nothing looks extraneous or eccentric. Jirgl has made it a part of his work and what a magnificent, wonderful work it is. Much of his later work is contained in this dense book. There is Hundsnächte, of course, which is basically a sequel, but, as I said above, Jirgl is a man with obsessions and Abschied von den Feinden is his first utterly perfect result from his encounter with these obsessions. His writing will stay with you, his characters, phrases and scenes will haunt you. Reinhard Jirgl is a great writer.

I gotta say, though, it has to be a nightmare to translate. He works so much from within his language and culture, building this vibrant, raw bell-tower of sounds, that I have trouble seeing how that would be possible to translate. A translation would need a Jirgl (i.e. someone with Jirgl’s abilities) on the other side as well, for this to work. Yes, I like that. Jirgl as an enigma machine. But do read that book if you have the opportunity to do so. Or something else by Jirgl. He published a new novel this year. Pick him up now and when he wins the Nobel you can gloat.

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7 thoughts on “Reinhard Jirgl: Abschied von den Feinden

  1. Ever since I read my first Jirgl (and alas the only one available in French translation), I’ve been craving for more and now I feel a deep, deep urge to learn German so I can read this book. Thankfully, I hear a second translation (but I don’t know which novel) will come soon. Superb review.

  2. I accuse the intent of your review of provoking those that can’t read German to immdediately start German lessons… I am pretty bummed. Great reveiw btw (as is all of yours I have read)

  3. Pingback: Pyrite: Why you shouldn’t read Ingo Schulze « shigekuni.

  4. Pingback: Jirgl wins 2010 Büchner Prize « shigekuni.

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