C. is a wretched grump, an anguished patron of bars, brothels, and train stations. He is also an acclaimed East German writer. Dogged by writer’s block, remorse, and national guilt in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he leaves the monochromatic existence of the GDR for the neon excess of the West.
... translated into supple, vivid English ... Hilbig has a weakness for what might be called the secretionary Gothic ... C. can be entertaining when he seems to be playing up his mopey self as a clown, but the tale circles and circles, like a drunk’s conversation, and a reader sometimes feels a little cornered by it. It can’t be easy for a writer to recognize that his sensibility was shaped irrevocably by a world that was deeply compromised and is no longer relevant, though it has to be said that this is more or less the plight of any writer who has had the misfortune of surviving his youth.
Our 'hero' takes us on many liquor-fueled Mobius Teacup Rides between East and West Germany, keeping the limbo bench warm on the sidelines of love and lust, looking for someone, something, or some country to blame for his writer’s block, impotence, and irresponsibility. Told in such a comedic, controlled scatter to keep the reader comfortably teetered on a seat’s edge, if sitting’s a thing said reader’s into.
That this is a book centered around an occasionally lascivious male writer with occasional musings on his life’s connections to fiction could, in the hands of a different writer and translator, be dissonant. In this case, though, they’re illustrative, offering a better sense of C.'s alienation. Part of that is due to the sting of Hilbig’s words in Cole’s translation ... And there’s a sense of despair that runs throughout the book—including C.’s own penchant for self-destructiveness, the reader’s knowledge that C.’s national status quo is about to be upended, and the recurring references to the Chernobyl disaster. The end result is unexpectedly gripping—an unconventional inquiry into one man's morals and sense of home ... A searing trip into the recent past and into one man’s inner landscape.