'I' by Wolfgang Hilbig, trans. Isabel Fargo Cole, book review: A vintage tale of life under the Stasi

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When Edward Snowden alleged in 2013 that the American intelligence services had tapped Angela Merkel's phone, the German Chancellor was livid, in part because her upbringing in the German Democratic Republic means that she understands the toll exacted by state surveillance on individuals and societies. About this the late East German novelist Wolfgang Hilbig would have agreed and his publishers are correct to hail his novel 'I', which is appearing in English for the first time, as "the perfect book for paranoid times".

Since Germany's reunification, western impressions of life under the Stasi's eye have been shaped by two popular works: the stylish but fanciful film, The Lives of Others (2007), and Anna Funder's wonderful, heart-breaking memoir, Stasiland (2001), which is nevertheless an example of history written by the winners. Recently, Jenny Erpenbeck and Julia Franck have drawn on their East German backgrounds to write novels about individuals who face losing everything they know in the maelstrom of history. Unlike these works, Hilbig's 'I' was forged in the furnace of the GDR and is narrated by a writer-turned-informer. Hilbig never worked for the Stasi, but was interrogated and imprisoned. This is the reality from which he builds his novel which was, on publication in Germany in 1993, praised as "the first serious literary exploration of the East German surveillance state..."

Initially, 'I' is narrated in the first person but it switches to third person, as the factory worker-cum-writer protagonist, who's variously referred to as "C", "W" and "Cambert", grows confused and alienated. He's living in provincial East Germany in the 1980s when he meets Feuerbach, a Stasi man, who sends him to East Berlin so that he can infiltrate "The Scene" (the literary underground).

The protagonist's fiction-making as both writer and informer isolates him. He loses himself, and his I, in a nightmare world where everybody is watching each other but there's no intimacy.

'I' is a powerful depiction of GDR life by somebody who was both shaped by it and became its clear-eyed critic. But Hilbig's visions of psychological and social turmoil, and his refusal to condemn his protagonist, give 'I' considerable artistic, as well as historical, value. "What was so astonishing," thinks the protagonist, "…about this state… was the hatred which it had fostered, invisible, always, hidden, buried, as it were, beneath this land's eroded air." As Merkel's visceral response to Snowden's allegations indicates, the impact of surveillance is something which its victims feel.

While reading this novel, I recalled my recent visit to Berlin's Stasi Museum where I learned about the witless old men who ruined countless lives. Hilbig's characters remind me of one particular exhibit: a pair of cufflinks belonging to a man who was shot dead while attempting to escape to West Berlin. These cufflinks were moving to look at and impossible to forget, because they restored to the victim his I. Hilbig's novel should prove to be just as indelible.