The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, tr. Isabel Fargo Cole

November 25, 2015 § 3 Comments

Title: The Sleep of the Righteous

Author:   Wolfgang Hilbig

Translator:   Isabel Fargo Cole

Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang HilbigIn his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…”  Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing.  Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.

Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between  East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.

The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction.  These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator.  Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man.  Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”,  the adolescent boy runs away.  He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany.  This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life.  Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives.  “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”

“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”

Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –

“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.

I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud,  nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”

Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister.  In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather.  The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder.  In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable.  In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover.  The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.

Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades –  instilling the place with a lonely mysticism.  The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate.  These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon.  He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes.  The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.

The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…

What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual  paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.  

In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience.  The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi.  A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.

What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…

Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy.  Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race.  Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy.  All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live.  It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract.  As  Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists.  But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

No writer wants the defining trait of his or her novel to be that it reminds critics and readers of other best-selling and/or critically acclaimed novels. The Nigerian writer Chinelo Okparanta’s debut novel, Under the Udala Trees, does this from the first page… actually from the very first sentence.

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet…

That is not Okparanta, but  the famous opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s (or, if you prefer, Karen Blixen’s) Out of Africa.  In the paragraphs that immediately follow Dinesen goes on to to describe the topography, the weather and the sounds of her home in Kenya.  And say what you want about Dinesen – her politics, her character, her ability to run a farm – she could write.  Those opening pages of Out of Africa are a sensory immersion, and the country of Kenya is as important a character in her story as any man or woman she introduces later in the narrative.

Okparanta also opens with her protagonist describing her home in Africa.

Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a  yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.

Okparanta narrator goes on the describe her family’s compound, the wet versus dry season, the smells and noises, the life she lived as a child before the Biafran War interrupted in 1967 – a period of time notably brought to most Western readers’ attention by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half A Yellow Sun.  But most of Under the Udala Trees takes place in the aftermath of that war.  Nigeria is not a character, nor is it integral to her story.  The plot momentum comes from it being a coming of age and a coming out story which could, unfortunately, have taken place in many African nations.  The book purports to be about the relationship between two young girls, but is more about the sexual journey of only one of those girls.  The narrator, Ijeoma, is a Nigerian girl who is attracted to women.  And while her relationships are sometimes interesting – with her first love, her mother, her husband, her daughter – they are never explored enough to be moving.  They lack depth.  Their portrayal is only one-sided.  We never get to see the world through anyone’s other than Ijeoma’s eyes… and she is not especially effusive or forthcoming with her emotions or opinions.  For the kind of portrait Okparanta is trying to create, – a nuanced one in which even the book’s antagonists are sympathetic though misguided  – having a reserved character such as Ijeoma at the center is an unnecessary obstacle.  Under the Udala Trees would have benefitted from multiple perspectives.  As it is, it lacks a strong narrative arc, reading more like a personal essay than a story designed to inspire empathy or a strong emotional response.

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker. Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

Ijeoma meets Amina while acting as housegirl for a schoolteacher and his wife who were friends of her late father.  Her mother has sent her there while she rebuilds a life for them in Ijeoma’s grandparents village. The two girls share their quarters, become close and eventually fall in love.  They are discovered and Ijeoma’s mother is sent for.  An extremely religious woman, Mama takes Ijeoma away and spends hours instructing her that what she has done is unnatural and an abomination in God’s eyes.

This doesn’t change Ijeoma, it only teaches her that her relationships must be conducted in secret. At school she and Amina meet again, and are again separated (this time by Amina). The plot, narrated in Ijeoma’s voice, chronicles her journey to love and acceptance. Okparanta hits all the expected plot points: first love, exposure, betrayal, a more mature relationship, violent persecution, an attempt to lead a “normal” heterosexual life, and then the realization that road leads only to unhappiness for everyone involved.  Ultimately, Ijeoma has a happy ending of sorts – one that is realistic in the society in which she lives.

For all the flaws in this novel, Chinelo Okparanta writes well, as befits her background.  A Nigerian-American writer, who immigrated to America at with her parents at age ten, she attended Penn State, Rutgers and is an alum of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She’s been published everywhere you’d expect: Granta, Tin House, The New Yorker, etc.  She’s held professorships and received fellowships and her book of short stories Happiness, Like Water, was well received. In Under the Udala Trees, her plain straight-forward prose style is interesting, sometimes even engaging.  And there is no denying that she’s written a timely novel, one could even argue an important novel.  But, unfortunately, it’s also an extremely frustrating novel.  Her heroine is too hesitant and circumspect in what we are expected to believe are her innermost thoughts and desires.  The words “suppose”, “might” and “perhaps” pop up often.  Ironically, the one thing Ijeoma is quite definite about is her preference for women.  Though she is frequently told that her feelings are wrong – as if love could ever be wrong – she barely struggles with them.  She never seems torn or even confused by the fact that she is attracted to women, and yet at the book’s turning point she inexplicably turns her back on the woman she loves and instead marries a childhood friend (we assume to please her mother).  This happens with no explanation as to why, no real foreshadowing and no insight into the pressure (we again must assume) she feels to conform. The actual decision is made between chapters.  The actual undoing of that decision also happens between chapters. Okparanta seems to have an innate fear of climactic scenes.  She may be the rare author whose work has suffered from too much editing. Under the Udala Trees has the skeleton of a great book in it, but sadly lacks the substance of one.


The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

October 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

The Bosnian War – In Short Stories & A Computer Game

October 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Jonathan Dunne.  This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war.  Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to.  CLICK on the cover to learn more:




Note:  This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado, tr. Antony Shugaar

September 9, 2015 § 4 Comments

Title:  Hollow Heart

Author:  Viola Di Grado

Translator:  Antony Shugaar  / Italian

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 60945 271 1

“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe

“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett

Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions.  Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath.  To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence.  The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive.  Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.

The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak.  Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive.  Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her.  She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.

Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…

I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.

Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.”  Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.

I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable.  Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide.  She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad.  But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form.  Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges.  You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned.  Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.


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