“The Sleep of the Righteous” by Wolfgang Hilbig [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller at Community Bookstore. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (Germany, Two Lines Press)
Wolfgang Hilbig made his English-language debut last year with the publications of I (Seagull Books) and The Sleep of the Righteous (Two Lines Press). Isabel Fargo Cole, the translator for both titles, brilliantly renders the bizarre beauty and breathlessness of Hilbig’s German, its lyricism, its repetitions, its many shades and shadows. Of course, to call Hilbig’s prose beautiful or breathless is to fear a misreading, for it’s a beauty bloomed in ruin, a breathlessness bound to suffocation. Landing on the BTBA’s longlist, The Sleep of the Righteous should win for its seven visions of an East Germany gone mad, back when the wall was not yet a relic, Stasi roamed wolflike through the streets, and a longing for escape blurred against the feeling of abandonment.
Hilbig finds poetry in paranoia, and his stories are strewn with wreckage and warning. Writing for the Boston Review, Tyler Curtis carefully locates Hilbig’s unease as a product of the East German surveillance apparatus: “[The] very fabric of The Sleep of the Righteous is an instantiation of this anxiety, an exercise in memory, and a meditation on the struggle between concealment and excavation.” Indeed, paranoia, particularly in its political guise, tends towards multivocality, collapsing distinctions between past and present, presence and absence, self and other—sometimes all at once. At their very best, Hilbig’s sentences are many-headed with these horrors. The harrowing story “The Afternoon” features a writer (always a writer, with Hilbig) who seeks to describe the arc of a Stasi arrest which happened long ago, but feels as if its happening outside his door right now. Between sitting down to compose and lingering on the arrest, the writer falters:
“How can you sit at a table and write, I said to myself, and set down the impression of a completely inert town, when you’re constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?”
The scene is scattered: table, town, hunt, all held haphazardly together by the writing act. The tension between representation and reality seeks an ethical answer; the writer’s present chronicle might stand in as a savior, called forth from the shadows of a man’s memories of his town to bear witness, but the writing act is overwhelmed, finally, by the past’s political terror, and off the story goes into the arrest. It’s a question asked of the present and the past at once, and left unanswered by both. Witness, for Hilbig, isn’t enough, even when it’s the only thing we have, and the only thing his writing can offer. But the writer must conjure these images, tormenting as they may be, or else we’d have no narrative to contend with.
The Sleep of the Righteous arrived to several comparisons (from Two Lines’s jacket copy, from the LARB) to the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and, surprisingly enough, the comparison stands. Not that a riff on Poe is altogether unheard of—Bolaño sneaks more than a few into his stories—but it’s rare to encounter a mimic done well. In particular, the story “The Bottles in the Cellar” reads like pulp horror from the Eastern Bloc, uncanny enough to renew Poe’s same sense of panic, at least in this reader. The young man in the story, drunk off his family’s cider, finds himself increasingly unable to conceal his theft by refilling pilfered bottles. Humorous enough in its excess—“I had not filled them, the bottles, I had not yet disposed of them; on the contrary, I had bolstered their superior might with more and more fringe groups”—the story soon sobers, so to speak, against the threat of alcoholism: “[In] my body there was a curse like the very being of the bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open ever greedier maws within.” Of course, it all ends where you’d expect—in vomit:
“It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an Earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple.”
Vomit transforms into an image of the void. Hilbig’s horrors have the ability, like Poe’s, to explode the mundane (vomit from drink) into the cosmic (“an ocean, frozen”; “an Earth, plummeting”). But unlike Poe, whose stories hinge on allegory and metaphor to engage with the American republic, Hilbig refers again and again to the malaise and suffocation of life in East Germany, as set up in the story’s opening lines: “The old contraptions, survivors of two wars, held and held…no one generation gained the upper hand, and finally I accepted the fact that I didn’t belong to them.” The postwar generation under Communism cannot make their lives inside the glories and terrors of the past, but instead must suffice with drink and other petty pleasures that they find beneath the boot.
“The Dark Man,” the final story in the collection, twists the struggle for survival against the state back onto the state itself, or what’s left of it after the fall. The narrator, another writer, makes a trip back east to visit his mother, and begins receiving mysterious phone calls from an unknown man who demands they meet. Eventually, the story reveals that the unknown man is a former Stasi agent who was once tasked with reviewing the writer’s mail, from which he discovered an affair. At their first meeting, he describes the impenetrability of the writer’s style, even in correspondence: “A haze of writing . . . and can you even still see the life behind it? Is there actually still flesh behind the writing? Or just more writing?” As fitting a formulation of Hilbig’s style as any I’ve set down, the agent’s description cuts to the bone of the East German’s moody methodology. Living under surveillance amounts to hiding, encoding, encrypting, and who better to house the heart away from harm than a writer and his words. And though he labors hard through these seven stories to admonish the role of the writer, Hilbig always returns to the centrality of writing to resistance. Put another way: our words are the thoughts and things in our heads, graver than a gun which can be wrenched from our grasp, and their preservation is synonymous with survival—because what good our words without our heads, or our heads without our words?
Best I think to leave the last to the author of the introduction, perennial BTBA-winner László Krasznahorkai: “Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature. He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination. Unforgettable.”