It is easy to become lost in the dense and convoluted narrative Wolfgang Hilbig unspools in Old Rendering Plant, the most recent translation of his work to reach English audiences. This slight novella invites the reader to wander, with the narrator, through the fields and along the pungent waterways that extend beyond his small East German town. As he rambles on, caught up in his memories of the past and hopes for the future, it’s easy to get swept up—and find oneself disoriented—amidst the industrial ruins where he is forced to confront the dark echoes of recent history and the expectations of the socialist state. It may be, especially for those unfamiliar with Hilbig’s idiosyncratic, stuttering prose, a little unsettling at first, but if one is willing to forego linear narrative expectations, an unforgettable, immersive, atmospheric reading experience awaits.
I read this book last summer to write a review for The Quarterly Conversation. In fact, I probably read it three times over to be able to read and articulate an opening into the narrative, but every time my appreciation of this moody, filmic text increased. As a critic, I derive the most satisfaction from writing about complex, unconventional narratives. My goal is not to give a definitive reading, but to explore the possibilities and questions offered by a piece of literature, while leaving a reader to find his or her own answers (or further questions, as the case may be). It was a sheer joy to write about this book.
My review from the Fall 2017 Issue of The Quarterly Conversation is reproduced below:
Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig (Two Lines Press)
Long after he escaped East Germany to settle in the West, where he continued to reside until his death in 2007, Wolfgang Hilbig remained bound to the darkened landscapes of the GDR. He was not one to downplay the bleak and oppressive qualities of life amid the abandoned mines and crumbling factories of his hometown, Meuselwitz, and his dense, swirling prose evokes a world of strange, suffocating beauty. But his emotional attachment to his birthplace and his complicated misgivings about the benefits of reunification, left him forever torn between East and West—a conflict captured clearly in the stories that comprise the second part of the collection The Sleep of the Righteous. By contrast, Old Rendering Plant, the latest Hilbig offering to be released in English, presents a narrative firmly planted in the GDR that does not travel far beyond the immediate environs of the narrator’s home; yet this tightly defined arena affords the perfect space for a multi-layered exploration of one man’s struggle to define himself against the restrictions and expectations imposed by family, class, history, and circumstance.
Wolfgang Hilbig was born in 1941 in Meuselwitz, near Leipzig. His father disappeared at Stalingrad, so he was raised by his mother and grandparents. His illiterate Polish-born grandfather served as an important father figure, encouraging his aptitude for sports. However, as translator Isabel Fargo Cole notes in her afterword to the novel I, his early obsession with reading and writing soon alienated him from his own family. The works of Poe and the German Romantics held a particular appeal for the budding poet. Following his military service he spent years working in local factories, where, at least on the surface, he epitomized the ideal of the worker-writer that the GDR actively encouraged. Yet, unwilling to follow accepted scripts, Hilbig’s writing was seen as too challenging and obscure, and it soon drew the unwelcome attention of the authorities. Ultimately the desire to write would win out, but the tension between duty to work and to literature became a central theme that he returned to again and again.
In Old Rendering Plant, an extended monologue that slips in and out of passages of pure stream of consciousness, this tension is implicit. Originally published as Alte Abdeckerei in 1991, this novella is a meditation on the formation of identity in an environment that contains a complex network of buried secrets. The narrator is looking back from a vague and indeterminate adult perspective at that point of transition from adolescence to maturity. His is a restless narrative; memories and waters sweep by as he traces and retraces a path along a brook that, bordered by stands of willows, carves a channel through the fields on the outskirts of his hometown. As a child he found refuge in this landscape filled with magic, possibility, and adventure, armed with a wooden sabre and an imaginary foe. It was a place to feel safe and protected.
One of his favorite playgrounds was, against all adult admonishments, found in the fragmented ruins of a coal plant. Here he waged countless fanciful battles until one evening he slipped and fell off a concrete platform. He was fortunate to land in the grass, but later that night he remembered hearing people staggering across the platform above him, and he awoke to find on his right leg evidence of the substance that had caused his fall: “a dried mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.” This incident marks the beginning of a loss of innocence, the first intimations of the existence of dreadful truths that, as the narrator ages, begin to take on a greater, more complicated and disturbing significance. As the narrative unfolds, his reminisces and reflections trace his movement toward a reckoning. Gradually, as layers of memory are stripped away, he approaches an clearer understanding of the forces that have driven him. It’s not a comfortable space he finds.
The narrator is a solitary personality, both as a child and as a man, given to wandering the pathways on the edge of town during the hours that mark the transition from late afternoon light to early darkness. He speaks of his family without affection, referring to them as “my relatives.” He passes from childhood into manhood almost imperceptibly, when the adults in his life no longer show interest or concern about his habitual lateness, his tendency to come home after dark. There is only one mention of an anecdote involving a friend, someone he visits on a brief, aborted attempt to break free of the house and town in which he grew up—during that visit, an encounter with the bloated corpse of a dead rat, which he is not even entirely certain is not an illusion or dream, sends him hurrying home. It is perhaps the thought that the horror he hopes to escape is bound to his being, rather than his environment, that frightens him so.
Central to the narrative is a rendering facility hidden among the ruins of the former coal plant. The narrator’s fall from the cement platform was his first direct indication that something nefarious existed there, but he had always been aware of the signs of its presence:
As a child I knew it was the smell of the milk-colored current that washed down the brook, bubbling and steaming like warm soapsuds in the evening. I knew that the smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and the mist that rose from the topsoil too, infecting everything that grew in the fields, and it rose from the meadows, the grass of the paddocks smelled of the river mist’s cloying essence, the bushes on the banks thrived amid this smell, a smell of flesh . . . old, useless flesh relinquished to the waters, washed its smell through the land to the east, I knew this as a child. Tallow sheathed the snarls of grass on the brook’s edge, ancient fat clung indelibly to the slopes of the embankment; it was a brew of rancid fatback, even covering the paths, boiled-out horns, bones cooked to the point of disintegration . . . the old river-willows luxuriated in this nourishment; countless bluebottles, ill from overfeeding, dripping like glossy shapes made of wax, skimmed sluggishly through the foam, and this shimmering foam, rapidly turning black spun lazily on the water by the willow’s dangling roots.
At a later point—he is at a loss to even specify exactly when, the experience was so intense that it remains trapped in a level of reality between dream and waking—he happened to witness cadavers and sick, terrified animals being unloaded at the site. This plant, nestled among the ruins, was named Germania II after the mine that had once supplied the old coal factory, and it becomes, for the narrator, the source of such complicated questions and emotions that he finds himself unable to pass beyond the bridge and railroad embankment he encounters on his regular sojourns. The smells, memories, and anxieties that arise at this location routinely force him to turn and wearily head for home.
The rendering plant was rumored to employ society’s discarded men. At a time when radio reports of missing persons, and rumors of dangerous foreigners hiding in abandoned buildings, were commonplace, the workers belonged to a stratum of mysterious characters, unnamed and unseen by the light of day. The particular autumn forays that form the pivotal thread of this monologue are motivated by the narrator’s concerns about what his own future holds. He is remembering his final year of school when, with graduation approaching, he has a critical decision to make. This is where his fanciful nature, his defiant poetic spirit, begins to stir as he briefly considers becoming a gardener, inspired by the end of Candide rather than by any fondness for the tilling the soil, and entertains an idyllic life as a miller. He seems oddly determined to disturb his family and his teachers, ultimately announcing his intention to work at Germania II. With a mix of horror and fascination he develops an obsession with the process of rendering carcasses to make soap, and attempts to seek out the elusive workmen. But there is something more complex at play.
This is, at its core, a search for identity and the expression of individuality. The question of where one is heading, is necessarily a question of where one has come from:
my strange interest in bad places was an unacknowledged, unclear interest in our origins . . . because I had not actually experienced the affronts that went with the soil we had sprung from.— On reflection, we were actually exiles. Of course, only in the indefinite way in which all our names were sheer hubris . . . all our names, titles, and nouns. So we were not exiles based on some neat solid idea, but exiles out of instability . . . out of ineptitude, ignorance, antisocial tendencies; we hadn’t been torn from our roots, we had lost our rights, we were in exile because we’d never had roots or rights; we’d never even sought to find them, perhaps we constantly sought the world’s most noxious regions in order to rest our rootlessness, like gray vegetation, feeding on the ground’s nutrients but giving nothing back, we settled in the desolate provinces that were the strongholds of evil, we settled between slag and scrap where we could run riot, rank and uncontested.
What, then, do those most reviled of workers say about him, and his people, who are similarly dispossessed? Is it a matter of degree that divides them? Is it destiny? As the narrator’s monologue continually circles back to this place of darkness and all of the memories that point in its direction, he rekindles the oppressive existential crisis that once drew him to fantasize about disappearing into its foul depths.
As the narrative progresses, Hilbig’s characteristic prose, which flows in fits and starts, like eddies in a stream, swirling, reversing, and moving on again, is hypnotic and disorienting. It is easy to get caught up in the beauty and rhythms of his language, momentarily losing one’s temporal bearings. As such, it is especially ideal for this type of lyrical reflective monologue. When, on occasion, he slides into passages incantatory stream of consciousness the effect is exhilarating. Translator Isabel Fargo Cole has a strong sensitivity and fondness for his idiosyncratic style that comes through in this, as in all of her Hilbig translations (including The Sleep of the Righteous and I).
Reading Hilbig, I often find myself stopping to reread a section before moving on. I revel in losing myself in his long, winding sentences and paragraphs that can stretch on for pages. This can, on the surface, draw allusions to Sebald, though, Hilbig’s prose is quite different in quality, and unlike a Sebaldian narrator, the protagonist of Old Rendering Plant, although he sets out again and again, finds it difficult to push beyond the boundaries his memories and fears have imposed. What is similar in the reading experience, however, is that both can stimulate a desire to distinguish points of departure—with Hilbig, to find those moments where reflections, memories, and memories of dreams diverge, reinforcing temporal dislocations.
The narrator’s troubled forays are rooted in his reluctance to bend to the fate that awaits him, choosing a practical apprenticeship and accepting the bonds of adulthood. He harbours a Romantic sensibility that can only find expression in defiance, in word if not in deed. This resistance continues until one evening when he wanders farther afield than intended. Disoriented, he attempts to make his way back to town, only to witness a dramatic event—an apocalyptic cataclysm resulting from the extensive economic hollowing of the land that tears a wound into the darkened recesses of the soul of his nation and ultimately frees one rootless exile whose lonely monologue culminates in a rousing Joycean climax.