What is this Quintessence of Dust?


This post comes to use from the Center for the Art of Translations’ own Sarah Coolidge.

If, like me, you were still crawling when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall serves a primarily symbolic function: the ideological division of a city, a nation, Europe, the world. When I traveled to Berlin in the summer of 2008 and saw in person the startlingly physical barrier, though broken into crumbling stretches of wall tagged like the walls of bathroom stalls, I wondered how it would be remembered after tourists had pecked it to the ground and the debris had finally settled.

It is generally accepted that wars destroy. People, even entire villages (Lidice, for example), disappear overnight, cities are flattened by bombs, governments disintegrate, books, art, and music halls go up in flames. However, the emphasis on subtraction overlooks the massive physical outcome, the resulting excesses of war.

In Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, out today, the remnants of war are palpable, even claustrophobic. Hilbig, who was confined to East Germany until 1985 when he left for the West, depicts the postwar environment through its overwhelming presence. Though made up of seven distinct stories, The Sleep of the Righteous is blanketed in a uniform grayness. Through constant allusions to ash, dust, smoke, and clouds, Hilbig resigns his characters to the homogenized existence of the Soviet-run territory. In this essentially closed system, elements are neither created nor destroyed, merely pushed around, re-sorted, carted here, now there. Whether depicted by the spread of ash along the mines where children play in “The Place of Storms” or by the frantic accumulation of sticky bottles of cider in “The Bottles in the Cellar,” the burden of excess is inescapable.

Despite the grimy landscape, the deception and the paranoia, the strained family dynamics, I found myself strangely at ease within each story. As László Krasznahorkai points out in his wonderfully idiosyncratic introduction to the book, Hilbig wrote about everyday life. To be clear, I’m not claiming to have the same daily habits as a postwar East German family. Rather, the universe he reveals is so comfortingly confined, so perversely cozy, that it is difficult not to curl up within it.

With the succession of each story, the narrators appear to grow older, as if representing stages of life within this universe. While the stories function individually, you the reader seem to be systematically building toward something. By the end you have witnessed a series of fragments that amount to a lifetime in the Eastern bloc, from a childhood of gray afternoons by the mines, to adulthood, reflecting on the shadows of memories that, perhaps, you’re better off forgetting.

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