In times when there is no time, the only thing able to maintain even the faintest impression of historical movement is art. In the case of novelist and poet Wolfgang Hilbig, this art was literature which, over the course of four decades, he used to register the obscured past of the East Germany where he lived, and to trace its possible yet hopelessly dim future. Across such novels as the existentialist nightmare of Ich (1993) and the no-less harrowing Das Provisorium (2000), he explored the ability of (totalitarian) political systems to infiltrate the psyches of its subjects and to influence them from within, neutralizing the future they might produce if only they possessed economic and psychological independence. Even after the German Democratic Republic (GDR) collapsed in 1990, he continued to examine this insidious power, showing how the communist state’s formal nonexistence alone wasn’t enough to weaken its grip on hearts and minds.
Yet almost fittingly for a writer who was the victim of fines and censorship during his lifetime, Hilbig’s rich corpus of work is little known outside of his native land; one might say he was ‘censored’ inadvertently by a translation curtain that was breached for the first time only this century. Most recently, this penetration had seen translator Isabel Fargo Cole convert Ich into I, and now, it sees her translate 2002’s The Sleep of the Righteous, a collection of short stories that underline just why Hilbig had won almost every German literary prize going before his death to cancer in 2007.
On a purely aesthetic and stylistic level, Hilbig’s award-winning mastery quickly becomes apparent in his flair for describing the GDR’s fundamentally repressive nature simply by describing the physical environment surrounding its citizens. Upon opening The Sleep of the Righteous and delving into such tales as the coming-of-age “The Place of Storms”, the reader is immersed in railway crossings that mark where his hometown “really had ended” and in streets covered by “an endless reservoir of dust that advanced all the way into the stairwells.” In these figures of Hilbig’s world, there’s a palpable sense of the limits and constraints weighing on the population of East Germany, while in the recurring images of people filling “the ruts in the middle of our stretch of street with ash” from the war, there’s also the suspicion that the GDR’s political system was flawed from the very beginning, since it was built upon the crumbling detritus of conflict and bloodshed.
Without a solid foundation, coupled with naked suppression, there emerges what is perhaps the collection’s dominant motif: the overwhelming conviction that history has ended, that there’s nothing left to do or advance toward since communism has supposedly consummated all human struggle (à la capitalism today). Hilbig exposes this in the temporal detachment and isolation of his age, in how “most of the children were fatherless”, how there was a “dearth of men in town” who might keep the present connected to its past and thereby link it towards a more authentic future, one that won’t simply be a passive embodiment of the party line. In the same “Place of Storms” we hear of how this disconnection from the flow of history was ironically effected by regimenting daily life according to what “was willed by the watches”, so that Hilbig’s protagonists are overwhelmed by “the simulated character of the time in which [they] lived”.
All of the following entries in The Sleep of the Righteous partake of this “unreality of the peace [Hilbig] lived in”, portraying its characters as victims, not so much of overt oppression and violence, but of empty formality and conformism. This is palpable in “The Bottles in the Cellar”, with its faintly surreal recital of “bottles upon bottles” proliferating without any particular logic in its first-person narrator’s home. Here, the empty glass receptacles “led the shadowy existence of deposed tribunes”, their vacuity and the “peculiarly inflexible fashion” of their rampant procreation symbolizing the comparably ’empty’ and ‘peculiarly inflexible’ manner in which people lived in the GDR, multiplying without any particular purpose or individuality.
One of the major virtues of The Sleep of the Righteous is that its stories as a whole almost form a continuous tale, so that the ramifications of this absence of purpose and individuality can be drawn out in later episodes. For example, in “Coming”, Hilbig starkly depicts how the lack of anything special to live for can bleed into interpersonal relationships. He writes of the (unnamed) town’s embattled women who, in response to misbehaving family members, can only threaten to throw themselves into the town’s lake, because not only are they deprived by the state of any positive, material means of incentivizing their loved ones to behave appropriately, but these loved ones can’t be threatened directly, since they have nothing positive to lose themselves (besides the women).
That Hilbig can subtly invoke such familial psychodramas in conjunction with his brutalist portrayal of life in East Germany is a testament to his depth and vision as a writer. Amidst the “salt mines”, “bloodshot eyes” and “backbreaking work of the boiler room”, he carefully illustrates and teases out just how family life can be polluted by the enormous pressures and privations of existence within a dictatorial nation-state, doing so to profoundest effect in the collection’s eponymous story.
In this short but highly impacting tale, he uses the guilt surrounding the death of the narrator’s grandmother to represent the kind of collective guilt everyone appears to feel for being complicit in the routine suffering entailed by the GDR itself. Unsure as to who, between the narrator and the narrator’s grandfather, was ultimately responsible for the women’s demise, his avatar concludes, “No doubt the survivor will be the murderer… whichever of us two dies first will sink into his redeemed grave.” It’s with such finely parceled observations that he reveals that just living in East Germany was proof enough of guilt, since this living necessarily involved perpetuating a system that, almost by default, subjected people to hardship and misery.
This complicity is at its most palpable in “The Dark Man”, a concluding story that uses the trope of the doppelgänger to underscore the divided nature of the self and how power can use one division of this self against the other(s), or even create a new division entirely. In it, a literary type ostensibly modelled on Hilbig himself (as with almost all the other narrators of the anthology) is stalked by his own long-lost twin, a Stasi informer “who was about my size and stature”, with “the same yellow-brown shadow” on his upper lip. It’s through these uncanny resemblances that Hilbig affirms that the Stasi narc and the supposedly innocent, “successful” protagonist are essentially the same. In so doing, he deviously exposes how the subjects of a totalitarian state internalize its laws and conventions, how they come to police themselves in their “hopeless submission to authority” which ‘enmeshes’ them “in an inextricable snarl of half-truths, evasions, and subterfuges”.
Luckily for Hilbig, it appears in the end of the story that his ever-reliable “C.” finally rids himself of these half-truths, evasions and subterfuges, in parallel with (East) Germany ridding itself of its communist experiment. Yet it’s precisely in the apparent liberation of his world that the real, universal importance of Hilbig manifests itself, since as László Krasznahorkai writes in the collection’s introduction, the German’s writing was not simply about the GDR, but “about everyday life” in general. As such, we see the unreality, contrivance and decay of East Germany remain even after the state’s fall, in the newly permitted television shows that have not “the least thing to do with the truth or the reality of life”, and in the “sociopolitical rubble heap of vacant houses, empty shops with dusty windows, and defunct factories”.
It’s in such timeless images that Hilbig — with the help of Isabel Fargo Cole’s remarkably fluent translation — demonstrates his continued relevance and significance for a world that is only just now beginning to catch up with him. The Sleep of the Righteous showcases him as a writer who has an atomic eye for the despair, contradictions, banalities and absurdities of human existence, and who has the corresponding talent for weaving these atomic details into a global, sweeping picture of this same existence.
It may not be a pretty picture, but in an age when the rest of the world is increasingly being given a taste of East Germany’s historied nightmare by mass surveillance and counter-terrorism, it’s definitely one we should face up to. Otherwise we may end up losing the kind of hard-fought freedom Hilbig’s literature has helped to win.