West German literature has a wealth of novels set in former eastern provinces--those regions east of the Oder and Neisse rivers ceded to Poland or the Soviet Union after 1945. It appears that just such lost provinces possess special literary appeal. These novels--one need only consider Gunter Grass' Danzig trilogy--manage quite well, as a rule, without resorting to resentment, sentimental glorification, or even open political revisionism. This is a welcome contrast to the political statements of certain expatriate associations that continue, even very recently, to insist on their "rights" and dream of returning to their old home.
Horst Bienek's novels belong to this context. The author was born in 1930 in Silesian Gleiwitz (now Gliwice), fled in 1945 to (East) Berlin, was imprisoned six years later as an accused spy and after four years of work camp settled in the Federal Republic of Germany. In the early '70s, he began a comprehensive attempt to literarily reconstruct the conditions in his native city in his youth. "Erste Polka" appeared in 1975 as the first volume of an undertaking that was to grow into the Gleiwitz Trilogy. The third volume, "Time Without Bells" (the original appeared in 1979), is now available in English translation.
Bienek has each of his novels represent a single day in order to achieve a narrative focus and relate private to political-historical aspects. "First Polka" takes place on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Hitler staged an attack--allegedly made by the Poles--on the Gleiwitz radio station, thus beginning World War II; "September Light," the second novel, is set on Sept. 5 of the same year; in "Time Without Bells," it is Good Friday of 1943. Precisely on this day, so important to the predominately Catholic German-Polish population of Gleiwitz, the Todt organization (incorrectly translated, unfortunately, as "Organization Death") arrives to dismount the bells of Peter and Paul Church; the metal alloy is needed for the Endsieg (final victory). Times have grown noticeably more critical after the fall of Stalingrad, the declaration of total war and the so-called "planned" retreat of German troops. So "Time Without Bells" refers to a specific date and, at the same time, symbolizes the ever less tenable circumstances of the last two years of the Third Reich.
"Time Without Bells," however, is not exactly a fascinating political novel. It was more Bienek's intention to minutely describe everyday life in his home town. As in his previous novels, he pieces together like a mosaic the lives of two families, one middle-class and one proletarian; he concentrates on the perspectives of two youths. The reader then must work through a rather numerous cast of characters and countless true-to-the-milieu details in order to discover how the war and imminent collapse penetrate the seemingly impermeable everyday existence. Very effective is the description of a transport of Gleiwitz Jews to the concentration camp at Birkenau, a portrayal that stands out from the other events depicted--a description, moreover, that stands virtually alone in West German literature. Here, Bienek's dry, long-winded, detail-ridden style fulfills an important function.
All in all, the novel labors under what seems to be the author's primary goal of reconstructing the lost home of his childhood, then presenting it in as neutral a wrapping as possible--as a document. But perhaps such novels are important and necessary: They preserve, without sentimentality and provincial narrow-mindedness, the past reality of a lost region and so represent a piece of literary historiography.