The Silesian Tetralogy Essay - Critical Essays

Horst Bienek

Critical Context

The Silesian tetralogy is Bienek’s most substantial work. Previously, he had produced only smaller volumes of prose and poetry. His earlier works include Traumbuch eines Gefangenen (1957; a prisoner’s dream book), Die Zelle (1968; The Cell, 1972), Bakunin, eine Invention (1970; Bakunin, an Invention, 1977), and several small volumes of poetry. The time span being re-created by these volumes is the more recent past of Bienek himself, the time and experience of his physical and psychological suffering during early adulthood. Bienek was arrested in the German Democratic Republic by the Russians when he was only twenty-one years old and was sentenced to twenty-five years of forced labor in the notorious camp of Varkuta in the Gulag Archipelago. He was released in 1955, after four years of incarceration. His writing in these earlier volumes centered on the traumatic experience of imprisonment and suffering. It is during this time that he aesthetically relates to Jean Cayrol’s “lazarene literature,” of which traces can still be found in the Silesian tetralogy, especially in the fate of the Jews Montag and Silbergleit.

After aesthetically coming to terms with his more recent past, Bienek found it necessary to take another step back in time, back into his childhood. His autobiographical past coincides with the historical period of Germany’s darkest hours. As such, it forms a complex poetic analysis of Fascism as it manifests itself in the lives of average people in everyday situations. Bienek shows how normal human beings are forced to produce the ideology of a system in themselves, how a general sense of dissatisfaction can be turned against an artificially created image of an enemy, and how people learn to take advantage of the opportunities a system provides—even though they realize that it is not morally proper to do so. The author also shows how these changes create a general sense of uncertainty and thus moral ambiguity.

Motifs in Bienek’s poetry thematically centering on his childhood in Gleiwitz recur in the Silesian tetralogy. These four volumes represent his coming-of-age as a full-fledged novelist in the tradition of Gunter Grass, a contemporary who recovers the ethnic qualities of Danzig during a similar time span.