THE FEMALES BY Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
At one point in The Females, the narrator thrusts his hand into a garbage can and feels “a fleshy hairy mound . . . a labial circle . . . firm and sucking, around [his] lower arm.” The most erudite critic would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the experience of reading this slim novel, penned by the East German author Wolfgang Hilbig in 1987. Cast adrift on the sea of the narrator’s consciousness, we grope for meaning in the depths, and what seizes us throbs not with love or even lust, but with something primordial, libidinous, Freudian. The Females offers a dizzying tour of a psyche tormented by totalitarianism, distorted by loneliness, and beset by impulses far more complex than any mere sexual urge.
But why on earth is the narrator putting his hand in trashcans? He’s been reassigned to garbage duty after losing his factory job; but more importantly, the factory women he used to ogle—all the women in the city, for that matter, and all the female nouns in German, too—have disappeared. And he’s desperate to find them. His quest for anything remotely feminine leads him to phallic champagne bottles, memories of a poor performance review, and speculation that he’s “hidden in the bowels of [his] mother . . .” Yet somehow, despite his relentless and disturbing visions, one can never quite imagine the narrator harming anyone but himself. Hilbig teases a thread of tenderness from the midst of his madness—tenderness that renders the prose uncannily irresistible.
Hilbig’s genius, long obscured from the Anglophone eye, has only recently gained visibility thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole, who launched a slew of Hilbig translations in 2015. Her efforts have introduced English readers to the fruits of a literary career that racked up nearly every major German literary prize, yet so irritated East German officials that they readily endorsed Hilbig’s exodus from the Soviet Union in 1985. He died in 2007. Yet for English readers, Cole’s commitment to his legacy and meticulous prose have granted him a sort of resurrection.
— Review by Mekiya Walters