The Sleep of the Righteous
by Wolfgang Hilbig (Der Schlaff der Gerechten, 2002)
translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole (2015)
Two Lines Press (2015)
163 pp

The horrendous, deathly, unquiet, baleful, murderous everyday situations of the petty bourgeois. These routine occurrences do not pass. The petty bourgeois does not pass. A world comes into being through these everyday events and these are the mundane situations that Hilbig lived through during the decades of the East German pseudo-Communist dictatorship.

The Two Lines Press edition of Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous has an introduction by the great László Krasznahorkai (translated by translated by Ottilie Mulzet), and it is easy to see the affinity of prose between the “Hungarian master of apocalypse” (Susan Sontag) and Hilbig, albeit Hilbig’s world is less surreal that that of Satantango (reviewed here) or Melancholy of Resistance (reviewed here).

The Sleep of the Righteous is a collection of seven pieces, short stories perhaps one could call them, but more like fictional essays, and certainly strongly linked by theme forming a novel as a whole, linked by their common theme of Hilbig’s narrators (a similar but not necessarily the same character) navigating their way through East German history. Part I contains four pieces set in the pre-unification East, and the three stories in Part III are post-unification.

In the first, “The Palace of Storms,” the narrator relates his time as a young child, growing up in a post-War East, separated from the West, with “a death of men in town, most of the children were fatherless and would remain so forever,” and in the midst of a devastated landscape of destroyed factories and abandoned mines, and set over a sweltering summer as the locals wait for storms to break and bring relief:

We could claim but a small part of the street; our street, as we called it, stretched town-ward to the point where the pavement began — uneven and jolting, made of square granite cobbles — and out the other way to the railroad crossing, where the town, at least its inhabited part, really had already ended. The sedate, brassy clanging when the red and white gates were cranked down — a sour note made by a tiny hammer striking the inside wall of a shallow, bowl-like mold — was, in a way, the town’s death knell, for past the railroad crossing, at least on the right side, lay vast fields of rubble with looming black beams and ruined walls: the remains of munitions factories where concentration camp inmates had laboured in wartime.

Much of the story focuses on his learning to swim, not, as his mother thinks, in the local pool, but rather in abandoned coal pits, heated by the still burning lignite:

Writing resembled swimming in this sense, once you’d gotten your head above water, once you’d started to swim, it was impossible to stop until you at last felt the sand of the far shore. In similar fashion you swam off with your words, born up by the blood-warm written words as over the surface of a mine pit smelling of coal and rot . . . only there seemed to be no far shore for these words, with the words you had to swim on and on, until the words ended by themselves, until the words went under.

In the second, and perhaps my favorite, “The Bottles in the Cellar,” the narrator is a little older, on the reluctant verge of adulthood: “it grew unmistakably clear that I, once I had ceased to be a child, would be the only serviceable male in the household: it was a divine verdict and every day I was relieved to find that I was a child still . . . but time was passing, and in a week, in two weeks, next winter or the following spring it could happen, I would be grown up.”

And his biggest fear — the “iron verdict” he faces — is that it will be his responsibility to clear the family house of its accumulated clutter from the previous generations, and in particular:

the true calamity was the bottles in the cellar . . . a pile of empty wine bottles stacked with the greatest of care, reaching almost as high as one’s head, covered over the years by thick coats of coal and potato dust that blackened cobwebs kept from sliding off . . . suddenly, when one dared to look, there were many more bottles still, still more of these pyramids had been started, but foundered, they had collapsed upon themselves, dark green glass had poured out beneath the shelves, it seemed the shelves themselves, crammed full of bottles, had been washed up by glassy waves to freeze, unstable and askew, upon a glassy gelid flood that had rushed shrilly singing to fill every corner.

The bottles being the residue of a family cider making attempt gone wrong:

The invincible fruit having made a laughingstock of the juicer and its inventor, suddenly began to flow of its own accord, for its own pleasure the mead of fruit juices flowed and seemed to set even the containers to melting: the fruit washed the yard with a gaze reflecting gigantic swarms of wasps and flies that alone knew no fear of earthly sweetness and whose hordes did not retreat until the juices had turned to vinegar. When the blue vinegar flood transformed the moonlit yard into a tract of hell, when out of false sweetness was fermented the true sourness in which one could hold back one’s tears no longer, in which all human skin began desperately to pucker and to crawl, then suddenly it was as if youth were over and done with.

He concludes:

I wanted to vomit a sleep that brought me no satisfaction because it always had to end again. The sleep that gave me no rest in the nights when, thirsting, half-asleep, half-awake, I listened to the howling of the bottles in the cellar.

“Coming” is an equally fevered piece, as the narrator remembers his adolescent struggles with his mother and aunts:

When I was ten or twelve, when I had given up all hegemonic claims within the family and ceased to respond to the cries of the women. Only then did I guess the exact words they spoke, did I think I understood when they gasped out the seeming non sequitur: ‘The lake! The lake! I’m going to throw myself into the lake!’

And often it seemed to sound like: We’re going to throw ourselves into the lake! — But that couldn’t be; the term we, in this random lot of people cooped in a tiny flat and forced into a group, had fallen completely out of use.

All women uttered this threat, at every opportunity that arose, it was the most devastating declaration of a ruptured, ever-unravelling communal life; these were words that could come only from the women, whose numbers in the house were incontestably superior.”

(In passing, it is worth commenting that Hilbig’s narrator, a boy growing in a world largely depopulated of adult males by WW2, rather sees women as very much other).

The title piece, “The Sleep of the Righteous,” is the shortest (five pages) in the book.

When Grandmother died, it was decided without discussion that I, still a child, would move that same day to her vacated bed, next to my grandfather, so as to banish for good all clarity as to who had killed the old woman.

It was one of us two, that much is for sure: it was a blow from the cast-iron poker, descending with a thud to strike her on the hip, right between kidney and spine, a blow to which, after weeks of hunched shuffling and vomiting of black blood, she ultimately succumbed. How absurd that her end was ascribed to several prunes, soaked in cold water, which she was said to have eaten too greedily; it was the farcical justification that we had all agreed to believe, and no one dared call it cowardly fiction.

. . .

Whichever ever of us two dies first will sink redeemed into his grave . . . no doubt that’s why we hold our breath so often and so long. — The survivor, suddenly isolated, suddenly lacking his consort, lacking his accuser by his side, will fully grasp his guilt, while the innocent one sleeps forever.

This desire to “banish for good all clarity” feels to be another common Hilbig theme (see “The Dark Man”).

Part II starts with “The Afternoon,” and the narrator’s “return” to the town of M…, which remains much as it was pre-reunification. [M… is not named as such in the novel, but Hilbig’s own home town in Meuselwitz, and the town in the book is clearly based closely on it]

I never really left the town, sometimes I fled it, that’s all: in truth it was the town that never really left me. The town took me over with its drab devastation, in which some perpetually stalled upheaval seemed in progress, an inexplicable upheaval . . . in a past apparently impossible to fathom now, the town must have plunged into paralysis and that collapse had survived the regime change.

The town seems locked in a perpetual 3 p.m. — but a gloomy one:

“More and more smoke seemed to spill from the lowlands into the flat clouds, which, even in the afternoon, were nocturnal.”

Memories has a similar theme, with the subject of the story wandering through his hometown as it gradually transforms, and diminishes, post reunification:

The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long-distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet paper or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol into their eyes into a future that was none. . .

His walk is haunted by memories of the past, in particular his time in the boiler room with the “scrawny, somber individual who answered to the name of Grunsch; his first name was unknown, forgotten because it couldn’t be pronounced, and as no one called him by it, perhaps he himself had long since forgotten it.”

The story switches oddly but presumably deliberately between first (“Shut up . . . just shut up! I bellowed”) and third (“For a long time after that C. was bothered by his fit of temper”) narration, which perhaps hints at a dual identity and leads in neatly to the final story, “The Dark Man.”

“The Dark Man” starts with the narrator watching authors on TV discussing the opening of their Stasi files, both those who discover they are victims and those named as collaborators:

It was mostly authors who grappled with this subject or buried it under recurrent torrents of verbiage: no one from the legions of the unknown, those whom, without the protection of fame, the Stasi had truly tormented, ever appeared on television

. . .

Ah, I thought, suddenly they have a real theme! — And they clung to this theme with such an iron grip, it was hard not to suspect that these files, suddenly made public, had saved their literary lives!

He then encounters someone claiming to be his Stasi case agent, but who appears to be almost his double, hinting again at an ambiguous duality in how the narrator’s life could have played out. And the story ends, violently in the same boiler room, as in “Memories”:

“All the things he had known about me – while all I knew of him was that we had been very similar – had suddenly vanished.”

Credit must go to Isabel Fargo Cole for bringing the works, and the power of Hilbig’s prose, so ably into English. And both of the below, written by her on Hilbig, are valuable for their insights including her account of a visit to present day Meuselwitz:

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