Wolfgang Hilbig, "The Sleep of the Righteous" [BTBA 2016]
Today’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
The front cover of Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous boasts an enormous column of black smoke rising into the sky. This cover is not only fitting, it’s ideal. Ash, smoke, dust, fog, everything a reader might expect to find from an author plumbing the depths of life in communist East Germany abounds in these mesmerizing tales.
For readers of Thomas Bernhard or Laszlo Kraznhorkai, or even Kafka, the settings are familiar; dark, ashen, bleak landscapes. Blocks of dimly-lit apartment houses line the streets; unemployment, illness and futility flourish. It’s a world where the only occupations which exist are seemingly set in boiler rooms and factories, day-long shifts carting ash to large simmering pits on the outskirts of town.
Describing the neighborhood of his childhood, a character writes:
Between the sidewalks was but a straight track of sand, perhaps once light, now since times unknown black-gray, as though in proof that a mix of many colors ultimately yields darkness. Coal dust and ash had blackened it to the pith, and then had come the reddish mass of crushed brick, the rubble from bombed-out houses that was used to even the surface. After each rain you gazed into a bed of murky, vicious mud; in the dry spells of summer the street was an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into stairwells and seemed to glow in the midday sun; it covered barefoot boy’s skin up to the thighs with the black bloom of inviolability.
Happiness and peace are not options for these characters; paranoia and sickness are guaranteed and little else. Yet for all the gloom and despair the glow of Hilbig’s writing illuminates the hidden shadows and obscured corners of this bleak existence. A stunning translation by Isabel Fargo Cole only confirms the immense talent and depth of Hilbig, one of the most awarded German writers of his time.
Born in 1941, Hilbig’s generation lived divided lives: growing up in the world of communism for the first half and the liberated freedom of the West for the second. Hilbig was always a thorn in the sides of the authorities however, writing exactly what he saw with his own eyes and consequently he was able to move (exiled perhaps) to West Germany years before the wall came down. English-language readers now have the good fortune to read this brilliant author whose stories range from seeing an East-German village through childhood recollections to the day-to-day drudgery of a boiler room. Darkness thrives in these stories no doubt, however there is an affectionate, almost mythic quality to these locations; one sees it’s not so much a place Hilbig is describing as a time—ineffable, inscrutable childhood. Like East Germany, it is the place one can never return to.
The final story, “The Dark Man,” swells with paranoia and dark humor. It begins with a disembodied voice seemingly prank-calling the narrator, who insists that they meet, Only as the story progresses—criss-crossing between Mannheim, Leipzig, Frankfurt, amidst insomnia, sickness and sleeping pills—does the narrator realize the caller is an ex-Stasi official who years earlier had spied on him. A dark comedy, a snapshot of an unhappy marriage and an indictment of the German secret service follows. In other hands this may have been messy or imprecise, but the story is rigorous and focused, thanks in large part to the strength of the translation. Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation is so compelling in fact that the title story reads almost like a prose-poem:
The dark divests us of our qualities. Though we breath more greedily, struggling for life, for some fleeting web of substance from the darkness . . . it is the darkness that forms a mute block above us: intangible matter our breathes cannot lighten . . .
One reads these stories and realizes they’re in the hands of an immense talent. There’s a reason Laszlo Kraznhorkai wrote the introduction to this incredible collection, a reason Hilbig is considered the greatest prose writer to emerge from the former East Germany. I’ve mentioned other authors to give a sense of context and aesthetics, however the reader uninitiated to the likes of Thomas Bernhard or Bohumil Hrabal will enjoy the power of these stories on the strength of the writing alone.
It might be generational or simply coincidence, but three of the books I’ve read on this year’s BTBA list have been story collections authored by writer’s whose lives were ostensibly split in half by history. Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine and Calligraphy Lesson by Mikhail Shishkin were writers that both grew up with Soviet communism and witnessed its collapse. Like Hilbig, all three saw the systems they were indoctrinated into fall apart. Similarly, all three collections are tinged by nostalgia and regret, awash with meditations on worlds gone by. Having read these books in a short period of time has only reminded me that our fates and destinies are tied inexorably to forces larger than ourselves. Read as autobiography or fiction, The Sleep of the Righteous will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time to come. It is literature of the first order.