Horst Bienek Bienek, Horst (Vol. 7) - Essay

Bienek, Horst (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bienek, Horst 1930–

Bienek, a novelist and poet who was born in Poland and now lives in West Germany, is best known in America for The Cell. Bienek wrote and directed a film based on this novel, which was awarded first prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1971.

Someday I hope it will be possible to say, face to face to Horst Bienek, Thank you for your poems and your novel; then I would like to be able simply to sit down and be silent with such a man. So much life, such truthfulness and vitality, a cunning intricate grace drawing on bible symbols; a master of the common patrimony.

To read him in prison, as I am doing, is a little like reading the book of Revelations in the grave…. (p. i)

Prison is the willful suppression of conscious and sub-conscious life, into a single noisome mess. You hear interiorly all day the sound of the mad chopper falling; men are being amputated from all the ways of being men. Chop, goes joy; chop, valor; chop, the light of eyes; chop chop, the two hands of service. A basket case is trundled back into the world; he is stamped, like government inspected meat: rehabilitated.

Death pushed up so close, death so multiplied, grown so great, so vainglorious, so colossal, so technologically and platonically perfect, so in command (effortlessly it seems) of first, second and third worlds, so sublimely indifferent to ideologies, rhetoric, youth, intelligence, sexual liberation; does not the encounter with this world-encompassing Goliath occur, in its classic, modern form—in prison?

But where death abounds, life more fully abounds. This is our hope—a hope which lights The Cell of Bienek.

What a strange sense of fraternity arises in the heart, as one reads his pages! A universal brotherhood—that of prisoners. (p. ii)

Daniel Berrigan, "Introduction" (originally published in Commonweal, 1972), in The Cell, by Horst Bienek (copyright © 1972 Daniel Berrigan, S.J.), Unicorn Press, 1972, pp. i-v.

Horst Bienek, the author of The Cell, spent four years in the forced labor camp at Vorkuta, in Siberia, as a political prisoner. He utilizes this experience for his novel. Unlike many European novels about prison—the genre of the "lazarine" novel is as yet little known to American literature—his account is free of sentimentality and self-pity. While Dostoyevski's House of the Dead, whose objective tone this novel shares, is populated with many characters, Bienek's book deals with a prisoner alone in his cell. He is an underground man but, in this case, involuntarily so. Imprisoned for all reasons and for none, he accepts his solitary fate and resists flights into madness as well as despair.

This is a poet's novel, every word needs to be there, every repetition and every variation on a sequence of words contribute to a closely knit pattern of thought. At times the prisoner speaks with animated wit, at others with poignant supplication. From a flight of fancy and indulgence in rhetoric, his voice returns to a sober account of his reality. The novel lives from these tensions.

The book is best read aloud. Even should the reader be unable to read it as poetry should be read, he will soon hear the prisoner's hoarse and rapid whisper. Bienek creates this effect of breathlessness by unfamiliar punctuation and run-on sentences. To suggest moments of confusion in the prisoner's mind he, at times, omits interpunctuation altogether, sentences blending into each other as thoughts intermingle. The German Bienek uses is conversational but dry, matter of fact, almost bureaucratic on those occasions when the prisoner records his experiences in his cell. It is as if the bureaucracy that imprisoned the man has contaminated his consciousness. When speaking of abstract problems of justice, of values, the author parodies clichés of quasi-intellectual speech. When the prisoner recounts his dreams, his hopes, his fantasies, his nightmares, Bienek's language becomes poetic, at times so much so that one could speak of a passage as a prose poem. A reader familiar with recent German literature will not miss the parodies of, for example, Hesse or Rilke. But such play—and Bienek delights at times in verbal fireworks—never distracts from the unity of the character, for this too fits the prisoner's mind. (pp. vii-viii)

Ursula Mahlendorf, in her "Translator's Preface" to The Cell, by Horst Bienek (copyright © 1969, 1972 by Ursula Mahlendorf), Unicorn Press, 1972, pp. vii-viii.

In Horst Bienek's The Cell … there is little sense of historic sweep. It is an almost stiflingly private account of one isolated unit in the machine or organism of repression—quite literally a cell, but one so sealed and compartmental that its occupant cannot even respond to his neighbours except by intuition. In it, a wholly anonymous individual attempts to learn the discipline of incarceration, to learn in effect that he must not torture himself with either memory or expectation.

As a result, the narrator concentrates largely on the gradual deliquescence of his own body and the attendant disorders of mind, refracted through a tiny range of figures all bounded by the cell walls. There is no sense of outrage, but no concession to fatalism either, and the consequence is a chillingly ascetic monologue, broken only once by a fantasy of companionship which soon turns bitter and of a piece with its surroundings. The lunatic torture of solitary confinement can seldom have been better evoked—even Koestler allowed the reader some relief. Here the pressure is relentless, not least because of the sexual images which are the more potent for their random and irrational occurrence. Ursula Mahlendorf's introduction suggests reading the book aloud, and to try it is to find one's voice rising in pitch and speed just as one feared it might. (p. 229)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 8, 1974.

In The Cell by German poet Horst Bienek, there is no rebirth, and no death either, for this cell is a literary device, a conveniently heavy form into which to pour a short nouveau roman. The idea of the cell, in which, unfortunately for the reader, the writer is constantly imprisoned, is designed to boggle the imagination with thoughts of eternity (the book has the cheek to start at the beginning again just as you make it to the end), binary deprivation (the hero has a cipher of a neighbour called 'Alban' with whom he keeps in touch by tapping on the wall of his cell), society (the prisoner's body is covered with the obligatory suppurating abscesses) and marriage (well, Alban sort of moves in then disappears or something). All this would be all right in its own laborious way if the avant-garde style he uses wasn't bankrupt.

I felt Bienek should have followed the example of other conceptual writers with no flair for creating time who write their books about themselves writing books. That might have approached the subject with some honesty. The fact is his imagination is simply not up to doing it in the first degree …; or he has no sense of the moment when words leave their potential weight behind them and return to the gentle but useless world of abstraction. One has only to think of the actual derangement of a mind like Holderlin's to get a nasty taste in the mouth. (p. 455)

Hugo Williams, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 29, 1974.

One will not forget [The Cell] for a long time, will be by far a sadder man, almost inclined to cry out with Othello: "Oh, monstrous! monstrous! Gone is the romantic tradition of the happy prison, the cage de la gaieté, in which "the walls of the cell … protect poetic meditation and religious fervor," where "the prisoner's cell and the monastic cell look strangely alike …," to quote Victor Brombert. Gone is the prisoner who regains his "freedom with a sigh." What is left for the rotting prisoner are hopeless condemnation and dehumanizing horror, for the reader the frightening realization that this boundless barbarity did happen in our own day and time. Our only consolation is the knowledge that a tremendous capacity for pain and suffering and an unfathomable strength enabled prisoners like Bienek to return alive and write again…. (p. 216)

Hans G. Heymann, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Spring, 1974.