Wolfgang Hilbig’s “The Sleep of the Righteous”

Reviewed by Dustin Illingworth

Image of Wolfgang Hilbig’s “The Sleep of the Righteous”

One of the more immediate acts of violence visited upon us by history is the ability to shatter the forward progress of cultural narratives. If historical trauma interrupts a collective vision of who we are, and who we are to become, it also alchemizes pain and memory, the coalescing of which comprises the future’s seeming impossibility. In The Sleep of the Righteous, Wolfgang Hilbig aestheticizes this trauma with an assortment of stories situated within the inertia of a postwar Germany reeling from its role in the great wars, a country literally divided against itself. But not being satisfied with a mere requiem for a vanished Volk, Hilbig transmutes a nation’s anguish into scenes of languorous, almost sensual despair, a palpably elemental dread rippling beneath the yellow mud and depleted mines of The Sleep of the Righteous’ hellish topology. This is a work interested in articulating a cultural paralysis by way of what we might call a symbology of exhaustion, wherein an enervated landscape suggests a concomitant collapse of moral character. And though Hilbig’s stories are peopled with a varied cast of frustrated youths, wretches, doppelgängers, and apparitions, it is time itself that emerges as the protagonist, demon, and potential savior of an obscured nation. This darkly glittering collection brings us face to face with the varying forms of Hilbig’s personal chronology: frozen, interstitial, limbic, arrested. In these temporal borderlands, words and genres contract and expand, creating space for both an apocalyptic artistry as well as a nuanced and devastating appraisal of a failed century.

In a brief but effusive introduction to the text, Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has this to say about Hilbig: “He discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world. I admit this is a sick illumination. Nonetheless, it is illumination.” Krasznahorkai, himself no stranger to “sick illuminations,” is an ideal candidate for such prefatory remarks, as both he and Hilbig share certain sensibilities: endlessly unspooling sentences; revelatory prose styles; incandescent moral outrage. They are poets of disintegration, Stygian fabulists in whom one locates a kind of profane radiance. But whereas I read Krasznahorkai’s work as insular and claustrophobic, Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous emerges as something that feels somehow both intimate and cosmic. When Gunsch, the enigmatic boiler room laborer from the story “The Memories,” points toward his home, the indeterminate gesture—its very vagueness—causes his coworker to theorize: “perhaps he’d pointed in all directions, perhaps he’d described a circle whose trajectory lay in infinity.” Hilbig is a writer who similarly points in all directions, an author-seeker trafficking in degradation, pain, and possibility. In “Coming,” the narrator, a haunted youth, visits a wilderness of shimmering moonlit darkness where “you could learn unbeing from sheer being.” This idea—part koan, part incantation—is the closest Hilbig gets to a guiding principle: the desire to overcome, or overwhelm, an historical nightmare through a kind of inverted transcendence.

But, as always, time stands in the way: calcified, congealed, endless. The irony of the boy’s longing to grow older in “The Place of Storms”—to become something more than a “useless, unfinished, in-between being”—is that he cannot see that the adults of the town are similarly incomplete, hollow, and unfulfilled. In Hilbig’s Germany, physical maturation does not guarantee completion; rather, it seems to merely create new possibilities for existential inertia. Time’s curdling creates among his characters a feeling of duplicitous simulation: “Unreality and semblance held sway over all the area,” the boy later states, his identity reduced to a “mere composite of chimerical perceptions.” Elsewhere, in “The Afternoon,” a photo taken at exactly three o’clock becomes a potent symbol for the town’s temporal impotence. The dread of what the narrator calls the “eternal afternoon” is gradually, terrifyingly revealed, a place “excluded from the soft, relentless onward flow of time.” In these stories, time’s arrested movement is not a variety of nostalgia, nor is it ever a mawkish vision of a sentimentalized past; rather, it is the paralysis of a shared historical nightmare: “a second that had slipped into a coma.”

If redemptive potential is scarce in The Sleep of the Righteous, the act of writing is a notable exception. Inscription takes on an aspect of sorcery here, of affixing weight and permanence to an otherwise ethereal reality. For the boy in “The Palace of Storms,” writing is a way to clarify the murkiness of the town’s time-addled opacity; his fantasy is one of documentation, a clarifying of depth and contour so that “the present time might become more real.” For the narrator of “The Afternoon,” writing is a hope for a future he won’t experience, a dream that the next generation will “at last take on the language. And at last seize the ideas buried in the language, and put them on the line.” His town, his people— microcosms of the larger failing of Germany—must be revivified by language, recreated in words, a written record being guarantor of its actuality in a way that his own anemic existence could never be: “Often I believed that first I had to invent the town by describing it... [P]erhaps it could come into existence in no other way. The fact that I had been born in it was not sufficient to prove its existence.” Hilbig’s characters see writing (and rightly I think) as both a tool and a torment. There is the hope of conceptualizing cultural restoration, certainly, but also a fear of writing’s limits, the awful terror of discovering that one’s agony is beyond the means of communication: “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 themselves went under.”

The Sleep of the Righteous is a stunning literary achievement. In Hilbig’s capable hands, the foundering of these frozen souls grants twentieth-century atrocity a kind of ghastly eloquence, one that eventually transcends its historical specificity to articulate the appalling universality of pain, disappointment, and regret. In prose that flashes like black fire, a seething hush gathering in pockets of remarkable beauty, Hilbig circles a renewal that outstrips both the ravages of history and the ruins of the present. That regeneration, he seems to suggest, belongs to literature—and one need read no further than this extraordinary novel to be converted; indeed, to become both acolyte and evangelist.