Have you ever felt an essential sense of wrongness in everyday life? Disorientation can be a powerful literary tool, and it’s one that the late German author Wolfgang Hilbig understood well. In his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s 2002 collection The Sleep of the Righteous, László Krasznahorkai described Hilbig’s vision as one where “only the weak, the sensitive, those incapable of bargaining and in no way heroic, can sense the chaos and the surrealism.” These stories deal with fragmented psyches, everyday anxieties, and the political and societal legacies of East Germany. There are horrific leavings in the wake of each of these things; Hilbig’s talent, then, becomes making them narratively compelling without shortchanging their horror.
Some of the stories in here map the stresses of life under extraordinary circumstances atop more quotidian routines. The narrator of “The Bottles in the Cellar” gazes upon a number of, well, bottles in the cellar, “the prerequisites for an ambitious cider production launched in the household at one time.” But from there, the minutely focused images become more hallucinatory. What had been carefully arranged becomes an onslaught, and the narrator seems enmeshed in a sort of agricultural reimagining of a task out of the Greek underworld.
…the emptier the bottles became, the more unfillable, and the more numerous the emptied bottles became, the more new bottles I had to procure to be emptied. The more bottles I emptied, the more intense was my desire to do so…in my body there was a curse like the very being of bottles: for a fullness in me did not lead to satiety, but flung open even greedier maws within.
Irrational paranoia, the inexorable grip of history, and body horror–this is what one can look forward to in Hilbig’s fiction. That’s not to say that Hilbig’s work doesn’t have a sly humor about it as well. In “The Place of Storms,” which opens the collection, the narrator notes, “I recalled reading of a similar scene in a long book I’d never finished”–a book involving a captain named Ahab and a certain white whale. And there also some fantastic exploration of language within the context of a specific society, as the narrator of “Coming” recalls being a child and hearing the voices of women crying out.
And often it seemed to sound like: We’re going to throw ourselves in the lake! – But that couldn’t be; the term we, in this random lot of people cooped up in a tiny flat and forced into a group, had fallen completely out of use.
That shows up again in “The Memories,” in which distinctions among the ways that German can be spoken are made explicit, with one character’s Polish-infused dialect noted: “the German Gunsch spoke was laid waste in a way C. knew from his grandfather.” Running throughout the entire collection are a series of musings on the way that language–that German, in particular–works; that Cole’s translation is able to convey this sensibility into English is equally impressive.
In “The Dark Man,” The Sleep of the Righteous’s longest story, and the one that closes the connection, Hilbig deals more explicitly with the political legacy of East Germany. Mysterious phone calls, doubles, and government surveillance all play a part: the narrator ponders the post-Cold War phenomenon of high-profile figures having been revealed to have informed to the Stasi. The narrator himself has sought out his own files, but has been unable to locate them.
I literally feared these files–not that I’d learn they’d secretly made me out an an informer or a denunciator, something everyone who undertook to read their files had to reckon with, for the Stasi’s mind worked in mysterious ways–I feared the gruel of language, these files’ distinguishing feature, I feared the nausea, these paper monsters’ brain-rotting stink, I feared the gray type, so like that of my own typewriter, I feared my face would break out in scabies if I submitted to reading these inhuman pages.
The narrator leaves his home on a journey to see an ailing friend with whom he’d had a brief affair–and, slowly, what had been a realistic narrative becomes overcome with a bleaker sensibility. Guilt, both political and personal, comes to the forefront, as do questions of the narrator’s reliability, as the story moves towards a wrenching, ominous conclusion.
The stories of Hilbig’s collected here elude easy description. Sometimes they feel decidedly specific to a writer of his generation and nationality; sometimes, there’s a timelessness to them, a sensibility of anxiety and regret that’s impossible to shake. Whether you’re examining them as a distillation of totalitarian-era literature or viewing them as dispatches from a very specific mind, there’s a lot to appreciate in Hilbig’s work–and even more to unsettle.
The Sleep of the Righteous
by Wolfgang Hilbig; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press; 155 p.