The landscape haunting the seven intermeshed stories that make up The Sleep of the Righteous by the late German writer Wolfgang Hilbig, is decidedly bleak. The fulcrum around which these stories pivots is an industrial town south of Leipzig – run down, defined by its drabness, perpetually unfinished, bordered by mine pits, the ruins of munitions factories, a lake, marshes,and, beyond that, the forest. Before and after reunification, this town remains a place in which time exists on another plane of reality, at least as far as the narrators – all varying shades of the same man with more than a passing resemblance to Hilbig himself – experience or remember it:
“Time persisted here in dogged immutability; the autumnal fog banks that merged beneath an earth-colored sky appeared unlikely to pass for decades to come. And more and more smoke seemed to spill from the sodden lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”
This powerful collection is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on childhood, coming of age or, as it often seems, waiting to come of age, to “rise at last from the state of useless, unfinished, in-between beings”. Set in the years immediately following the Second World War, the town is a place where men are in short supply. The majority of the children are fatherless, their mothers widowed, and few babies are born. Consequently, relationships and social dynamics are skewed. In the opening story, “The Place of Storms”, the young narrator endeavours to negotiate the murky waters between the realm of the “little children” and that of the “older children”. Rumours that his grandfather has a gun boost his status and potential for crossing the divide, while the horrific swim trunks his mother knits him complete with suspenders are a decided barrier. All of the awkward anxiety of youth is played out in the grimy pools of the abandoned mine pits at the end of the street where children wile away the summer hours divorced from the world of the suffering, lamenting adults in their lives.
The stories in the second part are set in the 1990’s, after the Wall has come down. The protagonists are all now grown men, writers, who have long since moved away from this small town, but find that they are unable to stay away. Restless, they regularly return to encounter ghosts, to visit an aging mother, or to escape a disintegrating relationship. No matter how long they may have been away, they never really leave the place behind. But they return to a town that is dying, industries and businesses that have been abandoned, and memories that cannot be escaped. In the final, and longest story, “The Dark Man”, the unnamed narrator is an established author who encounters, on the darkened streets of his old hometown, a stranger who has pursed him and now reveals that he was the Stasi agent responsible for intercepting and reading the writer’s correspondence. He claims to have a collection of letters originally intended for our hero’s former lover, a woman who presently lies near death. The narrator is disturbed, but determined not to let this curious relic of the GDR get the better of him – he denies any suggestion that he and his enemy have anything in common. Yet when he gets back to his mother’s apartment, the man in the bathroom mirror bears a haunting resemblance to what he could manage to make out of the stranger in the dark.
The Sleep of the Righteous is one of those books where you may well be inclined to stop and reread a paragraph several times before moving on, not because it is opaque or dense, but because the language is so captivating; the flow and rhythms, like eddies in a stream of water, swirling, reversing, and moving forward again. The brief title story is a sadly lyrical meditation on the cycle of guilt and recrimination that binds and defines the relationship between a boy and his grandfather who, in a reorganization of sleeping arrangements, end up sharing a bed following the death of the grandmother – a demise that one of them might have inadvertently caused. It opens:
“The dark divests us of our qualities. — Though we breathe more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting substance from the darkness… it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breaths cannot lighten… it seems to burst apart at each answer from the old man, each lament of breath, yet sinks in again swiftly to weigh down still closer, in the cohesive calm of myriad tiny black, gyrating viruses. And we rest one whole long night in this block of black viruses, we rest from the toils of the day: from the everyday toil of circling each other, still and hostile.”
Night after night, grandfather and grandson twist and turn to a nocturnal chorus of queries and accusations, in this poetic evocation of the tensions that underlie the fictions that families maintain to make sense of the very ordinary tragedies that strike close to home.
In his introduction to this volume, Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, writes that in focusing on the mundane, the everyday life in East Germany, Hilbig manages to heighten the oppressiveness of that existence, rendering it all the more horrific as a consequence: “He wrote his astounding novels about a world in which only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” However, the measured, heavily weighted quality that hangs over the stories in The Sleep of the Righteousness, is bouyed by the sheer beauty of the prose and the quiet resilience with which the protagonists respond to the circumstances that history has gifted them. This could be a depressing read but somehow it is not.
Translator Isabel Fargo Cole, in a recent interview in World Literature Today, indicates that this collection is one of Hilbig’s most autobiographical works. His narrators tend to share the same basic features of his background – his grandfather emigrated from Poland, his father disappeared at Stalingrad, and he grew up with his mother in a household dominated by women. The town he mythologizes in his tales is modeled after the same one where he was born and grew up. Yet, it does not feel liked these are connected as part of a continuous narrative so much as each protagonist seems to have a similar launching point from which he proceeds to tell his story. There are overlaps and divergences along the way.
The Sleep of the Righteous is published by Two Lines Press. Along with his earlier novel, I, which was also translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and released by Seagull Books this summer, English speaking readers finally have a chance to experience the sombre magic of Wolfgang Hilbig. And, hopefully, look forward to more.