On first sight, Abschied von den Feinden reads like a collaboration between Arno Schmidt and Wolfgang Hilbig – from the former, it takes the idiosyncratic orthography, where numbers replace the indefinite article and ampersands replace the “und”, from the latter it takes the intense and poetic descriptions of East Germany as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland, a vast desolation only broken up by the occasional broken ruin, and from both it takes the strong influence of German expressionist writing and the relentless will not to make any compromises to its artistic vision by bowing to the clay-footed idol of Accessibility.
This probably makes Jirgl sound more derivative than he is, but altough he never attempts to hide his influences, but to the contrary places himself firmly in a tradition of German experimental novelists, he does contribute something unique to that tradition himself, a very distinct voice – which has garnered him a lot of critical acclaim (most notably so far, the Georg Büchner prize – Germany’s most important literary award – in 2010) and almost complete indifference from the wider reading audience (it might not be the most precise indicator but surely it has some significance that on Goodreads his eleven novels do not have a single review at the time that I am writing this and only 32 ratings between them).
One thing that is very characteristic for Jirgl’s oeuvre is his unremitting bleakness – his novels are even more depressing than those of Hilbig (whose characters tend to have at least some human warmth to cling to), sometimes (another comparison!) Jirgl’s novels in their continued doom and gloom are almost reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, just in German and more avant-garde. More importantly, however, Jirgl does things with narrative structure and the narrator you’ll find neither in Schmidt or Hilbig. The former, like most classical Modernists is really a realist at heart and his formal experiments mainly try to achieve a better literary grasp on reality – as a result his narrators are usual firmly grounded and very certain of their identity (as is the reader). Things shift somewhat with Hilbig, whose characters have to grapple with a reality-deforming totalitarian system, and as a result in his novels, “official” reality always threatens to usurp perceived reality, and his characters suffer from the rift between what the regime tells them they should be and what they feel they are (a rift that they very often attempt to close by excessive consumption of alcohol).
What happens in the novels of Reinhard Jirgl, however, is – a result, one assumes of a postmodern esthetic as well as the total derailment of any firm concept of subject and individuality by both the final stages of East German communism and latter day West German capitalism – that the narrator loses all fixed mooring points and that trying to pinpoint him down is to enter a mirror cabinet of endless reflections where any certitude slips away behind just the next corner. Abschied von den Feinden, that much at least one can state with some confidence, is the story of two brothers who grew up with foster parents in East Germany after their father fled to West Germany and their mother was placed (much against her will) in an insane asylum. The older brother had an affair (one hesitates to say that love had anything to do with it) with a woman, leaving her behind when he, too, escaped the GDR. After which, the younger brother develops an obsession (one hesitates even more to call this love) for the same woman. Things don’t end well. That’s not much of a plot, but it does give the reader some basic narrative to hold on to – or rather, to piece together to hold on to, because Jirgl does not tell his story chronologically but scuttles back and forth between past and present, weaving a complex pattern of a tale that covers several decades of (mostly East-) German history.
While the pure plot, such as it is, is relatively easy to figure out, things get considerably more complicated where the precise nature of the novels’ narrators is concerned, and Jirgl does his best to draw the reader into a series of mirroring labyrinthine intricacies where it is pretty much impossible not to lose one’s way. It is clear that the story is told by one of the brothers, but it never becomes quite clear whether it’s the older or the younger one. It also is clear that the narrating brother does not narrate the story in his own voice, but it remains impenetrable whether one brother assuming the voice of the second brother, or whether one brother is assuming the voice of the second brother assuming the voice of the other, first brother. In other words, the reader never gets to find out whether the older brother is narrating in the voice of the younger brother, or whether the younger brother is narrating in the voice of the older brother using the voice of the younger brother. Or maybe vice versa. Or (you probably guessed it by now) possibly all of the above. And as if that was not enough to make any reader go dizzy, there is also another narrator – a collective “we”, the voice of the inhabitants of the East-German village where the brothers grew up (and where several strands of the narrative are threaded together again). And they seem to be telling their story to one of the brothers – again, impossible to tell which one as he apparently fell off a cliff and now has his whole face bandaged (and seems to be temporarily blind, too).
It’s almost a bit too much, and with the novel’s almost total lack of humour, Abschied von den Feinden runs a continual risk of becoming involuntarily funny. But even though it sometimes appears as if the balls might be slipping his grasp, Jirgl does manage to pull off his literary juggling act. There also is a lot of allegorical potential in the relationship between the two brothers (something the novel’s title alludes to as well, I think), which could have easily become very heavy-handed and reduced all the carefully constructed ambivalence into a fable about East and West German relationships – and again, Jirgl manages to strike just the right balance, to keep the allegorical sub-text alive and present without letting it overwhelm and swallow the narrative. Abschied von den Feinden, then, is by no means a pleasant read, but it is an electrifying one, gripping the reader who might not want to be gripped at all. This is in no small part due to Reinhard Jirgl’s writing, which in the end is the novel’s most remarkable and outstanding feature – even while what he describes is always desolate and often disgusting, his landscapes bleak beyond hope, his characters either violent or numbed, cruel or apathetic, he describes his dark vistas with such unrelenting vividness that it is almost impossible to avert one’s eyes, and readers who follow Jirgl’s panoramic desolation will find themselves haunted by its after-images for a long time afterwards.