One of my major literary discoveries of last week was “Two Lines Press” (@), a program of the non-profit Center for the Art of Translation (@) based in San Francisco . Theirs is a vision and mission I immediately appreciated. They state on their website:
As the barriers between cultures continue to come down and more and more authors are finding inspiration in foreign lands, there’s all the more reason for us all to read the world.
…great literature isn’t created by the background of the culture in which its produced but by the talent of the writer that produces it (and the translator that brings it to English).
Two Lines Press hopes to give “American readers” the opportunity to read some of the great work from outside their borders but I think an enterprise like this deserves recognition all over the English-speaking world. In the catalog, I found titles from China, Peru, Brazil, France, Slovenia. I decided to start with a German novel quite simply because the book description included the word “doppelgängers”.
The book in question is The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) – a prominent chronicler of life in the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic or East Germany (1949-1990) – published by the influential publisher S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt in 2002 and expertly translated into English in 2015 by Illinois-born, Berlin-based Isabel Fargo Cole (read an interview with Cole on World Literature Today).
The novel consists of seven autobiographical vignettes in which a nameless narrator describes his experiences as a child and adolescent in an industrial town (Hilbig’s Meuselwitz) in East Germany and later, as a writer in West Germany. In the first half of the book, Hilbig paints a haunting apocalyptic picture. Children are fatherless, the landscape is wasted, forever covered by ash and coal dust. Here one can see “the remains of munitions factories where the concentration camp inmates had labored in wartime.” The war of the century that divided Germany against most of the world has ended but now the nation is divided against itself. In these Eastern terrains that are controlled by an oppressive dictatorial regime, time refuses to pass. It bears down like a weight that stunts growth. “Unreality and semblance” holds sway. Nature is so polluted that its fecundity – its produce of fruits and syrups – turns into a nauseating, monstrous excess that cannot gratify the body’s appetites.
Consider these words from the chapter “The Bottles in the Cellar”, wherein the narrator is annoyed with the bottles left behind after a failed domestic project of cider production:
Droughts laid waste to my throat, my stomach walls burned like desert sands…in my body no desire ever could have been appeased: in reality I never could vomit, and there wasn’t a drop of alcohol that didn’t have its proper place in me. It was something else I wanted to vomit, something imaginary: perhaps it was an ocean, frozen to glass to the very bottom, perhaps it was an earth, plummeting through the night like an overripe apple. Or 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.
The physical diseases – of the landscape and the body – exist alongside acute psychological dysfunction. A Kafkaesque sense of alienation, absurdity and anxiety pervades the narrative. There are horrifying encounters with the Stasi (the official state security service), who make it a point to suppress all artistic activity – muffle all conversations on literature or music. Since any effort and event can so quickly be erased, it is difficult to hold onto memories. The initiatives of writers, especially, can be easily thwarted, brought to the verge of failure for the gaps in the mind – “the incoherencies, the impossibility of reconciling spaces and times…”
Perpetual state surveillance wreaks havoc on the head. In the chapter “The Afternoon”, Hilbig writes:
How can you sit calmly at a table and write…when you are constantly tormented by the knowledge that someone out there in the dark is being hunted, and may this very moment be running for his life?
Finally, in the last section “The Dark Man”, the narrator confronts an individual who claims to have spied on him for years and knows him inside out. The latter is so filled with the information of the former that the two have become one same person. The narrator records:
His face…I thought. It was unshaven, I was unshaven too; the nicotine of many cigarettes had left a yellow-brown rim in the stubble on his upper-lip; on my upper lip I saw the same yellow-brown shadow. He was about my size and stature; he wore a jumpsuit of dark, glossy material, dark-blue or black…I felt there had been many more similarities between us…when I thought of my wife, the image she had of me – and never wearied of confronting me with – perhaps it was really an image of him.
Who is this double? A phantasm? An alter-ego? We cannot really tell. His aggravating presence forces the protagonist to commit an act of violent destruction.
Wolfgang Hilbig’s writing is bereft of idealism or heroism or moral revelations. His view of life and the world remains bleak and he is not driven by an ardent desire to right the wrongs of his era. The title of the novel well encapsulates Hilbig’s desolate outlook. As long as one is alive, he feels accused, bursts with guilt – for crimes he may or may not have actually committed. He can only be redeemed – be declared righteous – when he sinks into the grave. There, because he sleeps forever, he is finally made innocent. Why must anybody choose to engage with art that is constructed around such dark and seemingly defeatist conclusions?
Because the writer relates with honesty – a poetic honesty – what he and those like him have lived through. In the introduction to The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai (born 1954) writes that Hilbig “discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world”, this is “a sick illumination”, “nonetheless, it is illumination.” If not in the content of the story, in its form, there is beauty – and with that, some hope for a better, brighter tomorrow.