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.
Old Rendering Plant, Wolfgang Hilbig’s allegorical novel about East Germany and the Stasi, begins benignly with its nameless narrator recalling the times as a boy when he would explore the forest at the edge of his small town. The book opens with “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer” and the boy proceeds to do what many boys have done over the ages. He explores the brook and follows it as far as a high railway embankment. He plays warrior, brandishing sabers made from sticks. He’s alert to the flora and fauna and the traces of an old watermill, hidden by dense brush and a rickety old fence. It’s a place for the imagination to roam. In the forest he sometimes experiences a sense of vertigo and “the distant, skyward-flickering din of expanding infinitude.” The forest is also the place where he starts to grasp the inadequacies of language—and the first hints that language can be dangerous. “The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions…compared to the nuances of the visible they seemed, at best, to be sketchy information.”
But the forest also has a menacing aspect. It has eyes and voices. It’s full of ruins. The river can resemble “the bluish blade of a long, straight knife.” One day he becomes aware of a stench that originates beyond the railroad embankment, a stench which, for years, he had somehow been able to ignore. But eventually he realizes it was everywhere. Malodorous smells seep up from the ground and the brook is befouled.
The smell soaked the banks and seeped under the fields; the mist over the river channel was this smell, and that mist 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.
Toward the halfway point of this very brief novel of 109 small pages, the noose begins to tighten around the narrator’s childhood and around the reader. One day the boy realizes he has become an adult (with a nod to Proust’s magic lantern).
Abandoned were the colorful picture books that just yesterday had brought a secret gleam to my eye; scattered were the bright playing cards with their naïve and inscrutable dramas of operatic morality; vanished were the handsome, disinherited youths whom the morning sun helped back on their way after a thousand ramblings in the base smells of the night; destroyed was the magic lantern…
The stench emanates from an old rendering plant, which the narrator learns is called Germania II and which Hilbig uses to represent East Germany’s repressive Stasi and its broad network of informers. Germania II is a “toxic organism,” a nightmarish facility that “breathed and throbbed.” There, apparently, animals are butchered and are somehow purified and made into soap. In local bars, the narrator grimly observes some of the workers from the plant.
The burden of their gaze dripped downward, and the weight of their knowledge dug into the pavement where their shoes stuck fast in decay, in burning dirt…dug still deeper, down past the echo of their shuffling in sand, while above their brains expired amid the vagrant clouds…their pupils were dark tears, like eyes of polished ebony.
The narrator’s innocent childhood idyll ultimately turns into an apocalyptic vision when the old rendering factory is swallowed up by the earth in a violent and fiery collapse, which Hilbig describes in language reminiscent of the Book of Revelations.
Like a hotbed of malice and crime afflicting the flesh of this district, one night Germania II and everything in it, alive or already dead, descended straight to Hell. It was as though the earth itself, rising up in one last desperate spasm, had catapulted itself out of a dog-like forbearance, bit open and devoured the glowing ulcer on its skin.
Inevitably, the socialist and “closed society” of East Germany forced Hilbig to be attuned to its Orwellian doublespeak. In one hallucinogenic rant that is part Bible and part Joyce, the narrator links the language of the police state with the mass graves that result:
oh over the mass graves of “knowledge is power”… oh over the dark unutterable knowledge of all, oh over the grave of the knowledge of the masses, dark stumbling of words and dark fall of dead vowels snatched like stones from their throats, and snatched from the smoke of their earth: vowel-skulls, consonant-bones, carpus-consonants, pelvis-vowels, knuckle-punctuation.
Hilbig’s wild and protean prose is utterly haunting. Every time I would dip back into Old Rendering Plant for a quote or a word, I would find myself rereading page after page, transfixed and tempted to quote the book at even greater length. This is especially true of the passages that turn Joycean, passages that must have been challenging for Isabel Fargo Cole to translate from the German.
Old rendering plant, starry-studded riverround. Old rendery beneath the roofs of baffled thoughts, baffled clatter of old-proved thoughts, old pretendery. Thoughts thought by night, star-studded: old clattery, the constellations covered. And clouds, old noise: smoke-brain behind the cloud-brow, windy roof of cloud racks covering the stars. But below is the fishes’ winding light: like star-script, winding, fallen chirring from the air. Past the corners of close-huddled houses, past streets, falling faster, vanished.
It’s not at all surprising that Hilbig (1941-2007), who lived in East Germany and was both harassed and jailed by the Stasi, wrote in a kind of coded language that obscured what he was really saying. Ironically, the rich, evocative language of Old Rendering Plant leads the reader not toward clarity but into a fog that erases any actual sense of chronology or place. The events in the book span several decades, but the book is written in a kind of memory time, with events from disparate times blending into each other, blurring any and all demarcations. This blurring effect is even more explicit in Hilbig’s later novel “I”, (Seagull Books, 2015) about the inner life of a writer and Stasi collaborator, who says that “over [my body] hung a grey, hectically woven web of language which in fact I could describe as an impregnable fabric of simulation.”
Despite being about a rancid and insidious police state, the writing of Old Rendering Plant is infused with an unexpected, surreal sense of joy, which made me think of something I had recently read by Jan Zwicky in the preface to her book Lyric Philosophy: “What is lyric thought for? For the discernment of lyric truth—the nature of timeless, unlanguagable, resonant reality.” [Her italics.] “Unlanguagable” reality—that, it seems to me, is what Hilbig is after in Old Rendering Plant.
Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant. is due out from San Francisco’s Two Lines Press this November. Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. Originally published by S. Fisher Verlag in 1991 as Alte Abdeckerei.
[Just as a note, Hilbig was fond of using suspension points (…) in his writing to suggest momentary pauses. In each of the quotes I have extracted, the suspension points were in the original text.]