Book of the Week: The Sleep of the Righteous


Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous is a collection of short stories set in postwar East Germany. Hilbig’s prose, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, swirls, undulates, and evaporates like smoke in these stories, which deal in murder, espionage, politics, romance, and pursuit by the Communist Stasi police force. This uneasy theme of pursuit and evasion threads through every story in the collection, even when Hilbig neglects to clarify from what, or from whom, his narrators are hiding. 

    Hidden in the background of these tales, unspoken, is the chilling awareness of what Germany has recently wrought. Hilbig mentions the concentration camps only once, while discussing the setting of particular moments in his childhood, and from this point on, every sentence about smoke, ash, bone, and ember calls to mind the crematoria. At one point, a first-person narrator contemplates the ancient Germanic clans of his homeland, peoples who have long since been buried. He reflects upon the fact that their bodies have decomposed over time and been compressed into carbon-based fuels—coal, petroleum, and the like—which are now burning underground in subterranean infernos ignited during the war. He speaks of their presence in the smoke that curls up from cracks in the earth, and noticeably avoids the fact that, not long before, millions of innocents also curled up from German smokestacks and disappeared into blue-gray skies.

    These stories remind us, in a style both literary and uncomfortably disjointed, of our commonalities: fear, guilt, desire, and mortality.