While I’m lucky enough to be able to read in German, that doesn’t mean that I always source my own books in the language. Like most of my readers, I largely rely on presses in the UK and the US to suggest writers I might like (of course, when I do find one, I have the advantage of access to all their work, whether it’s been translated or not…). That’s the case today, where I sample the work of a writer for the first time, courtesy of a book brought into English by Two Lines Press – and after enjoying my first taste, I may well be going online to pick out a few more of his books very soon 🙂
Der Schlaf der Gerechten (the Two Lines edition, The Sleep of the Righteous, is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole) is a collection of stories by deceased German writer Wolfgang Hilbig. Hilbig grew up just outside Leipzig, in what at the time was the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), but after a few run-ins with the authorities, he emigrated to the West in the mid-eighties. The stories in this collection are divided into two groups: the first brings together pieces reflecting on his childhood while the second has the adult writer returning to his home town to see how much (or how little) it has changed. However, all are linked by a sombre tone and a preoccupation with memories of the past.
We begin with ‘Ort der Gewitter’ (‘A Place of Storms’), which, at close to forty pages, is an extended poetic description of one long summer in the narrator’s childhood. From the very first page, the writer is at pains to stress the isolation of his home, the level crossing down the street representing the edge of civilisation, yet in this immediate post-war era, there’s a palpable sense of change as order is restored:
Der Frieden, das war deutlich, wurde von den Uhren beherrscht, die Uhrzeiten hatten die Macht übernommen, und sehr schnell war zu bemerken, daß man der Macht der in ordnung gebrachten Zeitabschnitten nicht mehr entging.
‘Ort der Gewitter’, p.19 (Fischer Verlag, 2005)
Peace, that was obvious, was controlled by clocks, the hours had seized power, and it became clear very quickly that escaping the power of these orderly slices of time was impossible. *** (my translation)
Nevertheless, ‘Ort der Gewitter’ still describes a childhood very different to that experienced by most modern children. The young boy spends his days roaming the badlands on the other side of the tracks, learning to swim in the flooded open-cast mines (which are heated by the never-ending fires of left-over coal and peat…), avoiding the older boys who might cause trouble – and the Russian soldiers lurking in the background.
It’s a wonderfully leisurely piece, a work which could stand proudly by itself, and the beauty of the story lies in its tone. Hilbig cleverly uses the haze of the summer days to reflect and perhaps obscure his hazy memories, and there’s a Proustian element in its use of smells and sounds to evoke memories, with the ever-present dust and the choking ash, waste from the winter fires, cloaking the scene. There’s an irony of sorts in the title as the storms crossing from the east tend to avoid the town, leaving the inhabitants waiting for the refreshing rain that won’t come until the summer is finally over.
Memory also plays a large role in the following stories. ‘Die Flaschen im Kellar’ (‘The Bottles in the Cellar’) sees the narrator walking into a cellar full of bottles, feeling like an intruder, and the dread of having to clear it out (a task of Augean stables proportions) leads to a grotesque story involving rotting fruit and a weakness for alcohol. ‘Kommen’ (‘Come’), on the other hand, sees the narrator reflecting on time spent outside his home. Tormented by the hysterics of the women of his house, the boy loved to escape to a nearby peninsula, where he would soak in the mud in the summer sunshine, shutting his home life out for a few short hours…
The dark elements come to the fore in the title story, a short and decidedly unsweet piece. We see a boy and his grandfather lying in a bed, kept awake by the heat and the sweat of guilt, a secret binding them:
Schwitzend ruhen wir Seite an Seite, in einem alten Ehebett, und die quadratische Schwere der Finsternis liegt uns auf, umklammert uns, und sie preßt uns aneinander, mit einander ergänzenden Körpern liegen wir, zwei Verschwörern gleich, die sich mit ihren Atemzügen Zeichen geben.
‘Der Schlaf der Gerechten’, p.76
Sweating, we rest side by side in an old double bed, and the square weight of the darkness covers us, surrounding us, and it squeezes us against each other, with our bodies complimenting each other we lie there, like two conspirators signalling to each other with every breath. ***
Gradually, we’re given hints of a dreadful crime, of which one of the two is guilty – but we’re not told who. It’s true – there is no sleep for the wicked…
The second half of the book focuses on the writer-narrator as an adult, with all three stories taking him back to his home town. In ‘Der Nachmittag’ (‘The Afternoon’), the summer of his childhood memories gives way to cold and fog as the writer returns to a place time seems to have forgotten. This sense of time standing still is exacerbated by the broken station clock, still telling the same time as in an old photo the narrator finds, which then cleverly leads to a story of a man on the run – our first allusions to the infamous Stasi (State Police). A little less abstract is ‘Die Erinnerungen’ (‘Memories’), in which the writer suddenly recalls his old job as a stoker, and the old man he once worked with, on one of his morning walks. The two strands allow Hilbig to compare the town of his youth to the backwater he has returned to.
These two are just a warm-up for the main act, though, introducing us to themes and ideas which will be used again in the final story, ‘Der dunkle Mann’ (‘The Dark Man’). This is a superb sixty-page novella beginning with a call from a mysterious stranger, who demands to meet the narrator to tell him something of interest. The irascible writer hangs up but is unable to get the incident out of his mind, and it’s little surprise when, on a trip to the East to visit an old friend, the man gets in touch again.
Yes, the wall has fallen, but the files remain, and for every successful East German, there’s a fear of what might be found:
Wie lang war inzwischen die Liste der Personen, die als prominent galten, oder die sich selbst für prominent gehalten hatten, und die nun plötzlich als Zuträger dieser Staatssicherheit enttarnt worden waren oder die sich, der Öffentlichkeit zuvorkommend, selbst enttarnt hatten, wodurch sie freilich noch prominenter geworden waren.
‘Der dunkle Mann’, p.135
By this point, there was a long list of people who were well-known, or had considered themselves to be well-known, and who had now been uncovered as snitches for the Stasi, or of those who, preempting their discovery, had unmasked themselves, whereby they had actually become even better known. ***
In this case, there are no files, but the man has something else to use as bait, and he attempts to lure the writer closer and closer. However, the story we’re hearing is that told by the writer, and the more he says, the less sure we are as to which of the two men is really the darker…
Der Schlaf der Gerechten is a wonderful little book, confessional, descriptive and evocative. There are hints of the soul-searching of Sebald, the involuntary memory of Proust and the darkness of Krasznahorkai as the writer attempts to process the experiences of his youth and later life in his home town, a place he’s attached to by invisible chains. But don’t just take my word for it – here’s a back-cover blurb from the Berliner Zeitung:
Wolfgang Hilbig beschreibt Gerüche, Staub und Hitze so, dass der Leser riecht, schnieft, schwitzt und die letzten Seiten mit rußgeschwärzten Fingern umblättert.
Wolfgang Hilbig describes odours, dust and heat in such a way that the reader smells, sniffs and sweats, turning the final pages with soot-covered fingers. ***
At any rate, I’m sold, and I’m off to peruse his back catalogue. Why? Because I can 😉