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

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.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Carolina De Robertis, translator & Robertson Dean, narrator)

The Neruda Case is the first book by Chilean author Roberto Ampuero to be translated into English.  It’s in actuality the sixth book of his popular crime series featuring the Cuban private detective Cayetano Brule.  It isn’t unusual for books in a series to be translated out of order – but I always find it unsettling.  In this particular instance, though, The Neruda Case isn’t only a good place to introduce English readers to Detective Brule – it is also the most logical.  The story opens with Brule remembering his first case and how he stumbled into his particular and (in the world outside of novels) uncommon career path.  Pushed by none other than the Nobel Laureate and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Introducing a historical figure into a fictional world is always risky.  Having him or her interact with fictional characters in a believable way is challenging.  Sometimes it works… but more often it doesn’t.  We’ve all seen it tank an otherwise good book.  Because too often the tendency is to use a real person to fill a predetermined spot on the author’s dramatis personae.  Without an authentic relationship between the novel and biography the character becomes flat, homogenous and a caricature of the real man or woman with whom we’re all familiar.

Ampuero’s portrayal of Pablo Neruda is none of those things.  It is, simply, perfect.  He is a man  aware of, obsessed with even, his legacy.  He loves women, yet uses them mercilessly.  They are no more, no less, than fuel for his mythos he has spent a lifetime creating.  Nowhere is this more apparent (and distasteful) than when Ampuero has Neruda speak of the daughter he abandoned.  There’s an underlying note of enjoyment, self-indulgence, in the way Neruda expresses his shameful behavior towards his own blood.

At the other end of the spectrum are Neruda’s interactions with Cayetano Brule.  These are comfortable, masculine, with all the poet’s considerable charisma at work … but there is a sense that even here Neruda is playing a part.  His poetic flights during their conversations come across as both sincere and (just a bit) practiced.  As a three-dimensional character he works on every level.  And Robertson Dean’s narration on the audio version – using a slow, raspy and surprisingly playful voice for the poet – adds yet another dimension to the complicated poet.  He succeeds in bringing Neruda completely to life.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis embodied Lincoln, Dean’s Neruda will forever be the voice of the poet for me.

Ampuero’s Neruda is so good that his hero, poor Cayetano, is overshadowed.  This would be my one criticism of The Neruda Case.  But it’s a small one.  Ultimately, Brule has five other novels in which to win readers over – and Neruda had only this one.

There’s an international flavor to this novel which I’ve read plays throughout the entire series.  The mystery which propels the plot simultaneously propels detective Brule around the globe – following breadcrumbs through Chile, East Germany and Cuba.  All of this occurs against the cultural backdrop of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état.  (10-Second History Lesson:  Salvador Allende became president of Chile in 1970 by democratic election.  He moved the country towards Communism – a position backed by Castro’s Cuba and the Soviets, but viewed with outright hostility by the U.S.  The resulting military coup led to Allende’s death and Augusto Pinochet’s subsequent brutal regime).  It’s a fascinating piece of history that is woven seamlessly into the overarching plot.

(Which is another reason why this was a good place to introduce Ampuero to English readers.  The Neruda Case may be a mystery and an origin story for Detective Brule, but it’s the Chilean history and the depiction of the poet in all his guises – even revolutionary –  that really sells this novel and makes it work as a standalone book).

The plot of this novel forms a roadmap of Roberto Ampuero’s life.  His father’s name was Robert Ampuero Brule.  He (the author) was a member of the Communist party as a young man, left Chile after the coup d’état, spent time in East Germany studying Communism, and then in Cuba.  Ampuero’s life and travels are obviously the basis for the route Cayetano Brule follows as he pieces together The Neruda Case. A wise decision on his part, it allows Ampuero to provide an authentic experience.  He describes places he’s visited, spent time in.  Many of Brule’s experiences and opinions seem to be Brule’s own.  In an afterward to the novel Ampuero even reveals that Neruda was his neighbor as a child (though he was never able to summon the courage to knock on the famous poet’s door).

I wrote earlier that introducing a historical character into a fictional world is risky.  Roberto Ampuero calculated the risk and discovered how to beat the odds.  The Neruda Case succeeds because he didn’t stop with Neruda but included multiple layers of biography:  Pablo Neruda, Chile’s and his own.  If anyone knows when English readers will be treated to – and it is a treat – more of the dynamic duo of Ampuero and Brule please let us know in the comments.  So far I’ve been unable to find which book is slated to be translated next.

Note:  Riverhead is releasing The Neruda Case in paperback this June.  For those who can’t wait the hardcover and audio version (which I strongly recommend) are available now.

Publisher:  Riverhead Trade, New York (June, 2013)
ISBN:  978 1594 63147 4

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Revolution: The Year [Deb Olin Unferth] Fell In Love & Went To Join the War

It seems the North American teenager is a truly resilient creature.  Even when taken out of their natural environment and dropped into an exotic locale they maintain their normal behavior patterns – angry moping.  The quick summary of Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War goes like this –  Girl meets Boy.  Girl falls for Boy.  Girl and Boy go looking for a Revolution.  Girl and Boy hang out, bored.

Or, as Unferth much more eloquently puts it…

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.
We couldn’t find the first revolution.
The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.
We went to the other revolutions in the area – there were several – but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.
We ran out of money and at last we came home.
I was eighteen.  That’s the whole story.

Lucky for us, it’s not.  Much more than another coming of age story, Revolution is a Dummy’s Guide to Central American politics in the 80’s.  The world is upside down, and while Unferth travels to El Salvador with the best intentions of helping out the revolution (o.k., not exactly), in truth she’s really nothing more than a tourist.   One among many.  People come from all over the world to support revolutions (who knew?).  It’s common enough that the Nicaraguan locals had a name for them.  Internationalistas:  Westerners who come and go in waves, following revolutions like the Grateful Dead, with no real personal stake in their outcomes. Around them uprisings become inappropriately festive.

A group of jugglers had come from Canada.  They’d gone to the northern mountains of Nicaragua, to the war zone.  “We walk from town to town,” one told me, “juggling.”

Imagine.  We were walking across their war, juggling.  We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats.  I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd.  The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor.  We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet.  We weren’t a revolution.  We were an armed circus.

Revolution:  The Year I Fell in Love & Went to Join the War is told with a large font in a slim book.  The chapters are anecdotal, clustered around a common theme and organized in loose chronological order.  You are reading a series of impressions written down years after the actual events took place.  Unferth readily admits that her memory for details is shaky and her insights recent.  She second guesses herself frequently.  But while dates and times may be estimates, there is no arguing with the raw emotional honesty or the self-deprecating humor.  No one could be harder on Unferth then she is on herself, though I couldn’t help but feel that some things were being deliberately glossed over – particularly her history with her family.

This isn’t a comfortable book.  But being a teenager isn’t comfortable.  Frequently I found myself squirming self-consciously for a clueless girl I completely identified with.  I think most readers will.  All of us have been young, delusional and in love at one time or another…  usually with a much less interesting story when it’s all over.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9323 0

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