The Sleep of the Righteous is the tale of an East German boy who lives in desolation. His village is dilapidated, crumbling on the edge of a former concentration camp; his summers scorch with draught; his mother never utters his name, but refers to him as “child.” His 1950s boyhood is populated by widows whose Nazi husbands never returned from Stalingrad, by the remaining elderly, and by his peers born in the early 1940s, who sense themselves trapped as endless little children. As the boy confides, “There were no fathers there to make still littler children.”
Wolfgang Hilbig, author of The Sleep of the Righteous and 2002 winner of Germany’s highest literary Büchner Prize, is well-acquainted with the punishing years after World War II. Born in 1941, Hilbig also grew up in East Germany, in a small town called Meuselwitz that functioned as a satellite of Buchenwald concentration camp. His father never came back from the Russian front. Hilbig’s formative years were spent under Communist rule — the “half-baked peace,” as he puts it, that encrusted his community when the Soviets took control. In The Sleep of the Righteous, newly translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole, Hilbig investigates how a nation’s history wraps its tendrils around the mind of an individual.