Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Old Rendering Plant
by Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
Two Lines Press

Review by S.D. Stewart





No one knew well enough what was allowed to be known, and no one knew how to know well enough.

Stripped of its context, the quote above could describe my own reading experience with this brief, compressed novel by Wolfgang Hilbig. In fact it refers to the stifled atmosphere of secrecy pervading the small town in East Germany where the narrator lives. In a single continuous outflow of long, serpentine sentences, the narrator reaches back through his memory, extracting fragments from his boyhood and young adulthood when he explored the forbidden abandoned industrial areas on the outskirts of his town. The aperture of Hilbig’s focus gradually shrinks to a single abandoned coal factory, since transformed into a plant that slaughters and renders animals into soap.

Silbig’s onionskin prose, seamlessly translated into English by Isabel Fargo Cole, peels away as the pages turn, rapidly leading one deeper into the narrator’s nebulous world. His forays to the industrial areas unfold in lush, menacing passages describing the unnatural vegetation along the brook, perverted in its growth by an unstemmed flow of effluent from the plant. The stench is overwhelming, yet he grows used to it, even telling himself “the time would come when at last I could it call it my very own smell.” Later he will have two distinct formative encounters with the visceral, olfactory leavings of death. From a very young age he has felt a separation from others, and it is this mixture of fear and fascination with the death-stench that marks this separation. He spends hours alone roaming through these places he has been told not to visit. He is drawn in particular to the gloaming, that time of day before evening falls, “the hour of transition.”

I couldn’t bear to miss the hour when unknown life, rumored to be dead, crept out under the shelter of the shadows, crept out in the hour of the shadows that wandered across the world to obscure it from the eye, in the hour of the obscuring shadows that hid in the grave of the night, in the hour when the vanished began their day, in the hour when I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain, but coursed from my senses straight to my limbs…at that half-time when I learned to express myself in whispers, to think with the dead and the banished, with unsubstantial things, with soils, with stones and rivers, with the speechless, soundless animal beings hostile to humanity. It was the hour when some dark utterance waxed within me, needing no words, no names, no logical thoughts…a language in which the nouns lost their meaning, the language of an awareness that responded only to wordless, fleeting moments, made from the nameless sensations of the breath that quickened my blood or made it pulse more strongly, and slowed my stride or lent it lightness, so that it seemed to vault over imperceptible shifts in the air, or sink through sloping zones of warmth hidden by the haze of the discoloring plain…far more than that, this language was an instinctual response to toppled boundaries, an unthinking grasp of light and dark, a capricious certainty in the soles of my feet when venturing one delicate step from the certain to the uncertain.

His comments on language here are one key to the text. References abound throughout the book to an inability of language to accurately capture experience. He lies to his family about where he’s been because how could he ever hope to explain in words what made him not want to miss the gloaming. Nouns are described as “extinguished,” as having “lost their meaning,” their “frailty” hidden by “obfuscating participles.” They are useless at describing his coveted late afternoons “that were like one single afternoon for me” in a place that seemed “mundane but not describable: the relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions.”

About midway through the novel, his recollections fade from those of a young crepuscular boy-creature to an older youth on the cusp of adulthood. Suddenly he is no longer required by his family to account for his tardiness at meals. Yet despite his advancing age, time as he recounts it in the text continues to undulate with a perplexing fluidity: he’s carried his apartment key for “twenty-five years”; for “decades” he”s stayed outside until after the evening news on the radio; and finally, he’s left his childhood behind, “freed from that existence that had lasted twenty or thirty years.” There is no way to calculate individual points in time as this disjointed narrative meanders on (perhaps as the narrator is “more and more often […] drawn to the scenes of old stories that still seemed unclarified”). Compounding the confusion of this swirling time-sea is the narrator’s admission that he often describes to himself (and subsequently to the reader) events he finds unreal in oneiric terms, yielding an added uncertainty to the veracity of the descriptions related in the text.

The names of the “missing persons” (the official state euphemism for “vanished”) continue to plague him, as they have since his childhood when the excuses he gave his family for his own absences were “variations on my mode of vanishing.” He cannot believe that someone could just vanish and doesn’t understand how others can seemingly accept it with “peculiar composure.” And yet he feels his own destiny may in fact be to vanish, theorizing that perhaps “by developing an interest in the simplest of things, you risked losing your hold on the world…perhaps even vanishing from the world.” In fact, he has been waiting “more than ten years” for a sign—”a breath catching in the kitchen”—that his own name has been called on the radio as one of the missing.

One day he returns to the forbidden grounds of his restless childhood walks, seeking a “fragment of time” the loss of which he can suddenly no longer bear, and within these polluted wilds he discovers the soap rendering plant, known as Germania II, in use—workers unloading dead and dying animals within the bright circle of a floodlight. Now he feels he’s been made complicit by this knowledge of what happens there.  He begins to obsess over Germania II, researching soap-making, and finding the concept of soap to be at odds with the brutal violence of what he saw at the plant. He seeks out the plant’s workers, though they exist at the very fringes of society and it is near impossible to connect with them. He even considers, given his own graduation looming and job prospects looking dim, signing on to work at the plant, going so far as to tell his family of his plans. They accuse him of following a path that “shunned the light,” which he accepts though differs with them over its implication, for “they used it because darkness, for them, was a deficiency, because in darkness they no longer saw light…what a dreary life.” As his behavior grows more erratic, his outsider status in the town deepens, as do his self-destructive urges, such as running his mouth to the suspected secret police informants whose interest he has now aroused. Dancing closer and closer to the moment of joining the “vanished species” he’s always known he might one day become, he takes off on one last epic walk. The fate of Germania II lies waiting in the distance.

In that distance he will bear witness to an unjust catastrophe. And in its wake the shadows return. No one knew what they had once represented or the nature of their meaning. No one knew if the nouns required to describe them had “made off, whether perhaps they had fled, had swum away, or had merely been covered by things foreign to the world of nouns.” No one wanted to know the nature nor the source of the stench piercing the “soapy autumn light” of the town. Awareness was elusive, and its attainability was in question.

The closing few pages offer up an elegiac prose poem—a most elegant finish to a novel whose latticework of language is woven so tight and with such intricacy that even multiple readings felt inadequate to the task of separating out and examining the many threads. I have no doubt that I’ll be returning to plumb its depths once again.

[Note: Complimentary copy of the book received from the publisher]

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