Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous was one of my discoveries of 2016 (see my review), its powerful prose reminiscent of Krasznahorkai at his strongest. Old Rendering Plant is similarly striking, but perhaps more allegorical, with nods particularly to the East German stasi but also to the Holocaust. And the prose, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation, wonderful.
The novel (or perhaps novella — incredibly, given the depth of the work, it is only 110 pages) opens with a self-consciously Proustian recollection of a frequently taken childhood walk, along a brook lined with willows, but with much darker overtones.
I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer, if only hoping to emerge one day from a territory confined, I’ll admit it at last, by my own weariness. And I followed this path as though to the beat of silent wings; when darkness fell, I’d begin to expect some horror, a bloodcurdling cry perhaps, followed by silence … but nothing came, the hush beyond the town and woods was the ceaseless presence of little noises.
His walk was also bounded by the embankment of a coal train line [ …] at first glance the impression was of a random mound of earth, but on closer inspection one made out decayed fragments of concrete foundations, completely overgrown by shrubs and grass, evidently flooded with coal from toppled wagons and mixed with debris from the crumbling pavement: here a roadway had clearly led up the tracks. I called this rotting concrete foundation, strikingly out of place in the grassy basin, the ramp
[. . .]
It seemed to me some other memory, a memory of much earlier origins, that made me call the bridge’s concrete base a ramp … and the sound of the word ramp contained, to my ear, some of the indeterminate intensity with which certain severely tarnished terms struggled for more frequent usage: a comparable example was homeland, on which one set foot as on a train platform, with a sense that nothing bad should be associated with it.
The reference to the ramp — and the presence of the railroad — perhaps needing no comment, and indeed Hilbig’s text never makes any analogy explicit.
On one visit there he slipped from the embankment and:
I fell several yards into the silence, fortunately landing on the grass, which grew amid the ruined industrial complexes where I played. It was not the incalculable level of my fall that terrified me but the idea of the clump of matter, invisible in the dusk, on whose slimy stickiness I’d lost my footing and helplessly slipped.
Later that night after a tortured dream of hidden voices and other horrors “no sooner had I arisen than my mind faltered as I saw my right leg, my entire calf, covered by a dry mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.”
And beyond the railway line, the willows give way to tall, bare poplars and a border region which the narrator associates with people who go missing or disappear (or are disappeared?):
Beyond the tracks of the coal line, to the southeast of a half-deserted village, deep in that wild basin, right behind a rotten fence, began the zone that was the east, and you could not enter this region unpunished. You could not return unpunished to the womb. Everyone knew that people vanished there.
(Later the narrator talks of “names that had been deported because of certain interchangeable attributes […] descriptions that made you end up under the roof of a cattle car”)
The time of the narrator’s recollection and his age becomes, if anything, more unclear and fractures as the narration progresses, as does what he is recalling from life and what from dreams. Most strikingly, on page 23, he unlocks the door of the family house “with the key I’d carried for twenty-five years.” Later he refers to having made the trip along the river “for decades,” and at another point he appears to be a school-leaver entering employment.
Then language too fractures:
The relevant nouns at my command proved again and again to be treacherous tools, perpetually demonstrating the impotence of all descriptions
Perhaps what I walked on couldn’t even be called earth, this matter that buckled beneath my steps and sometimes seemed to sigh from its depths with a hollow reverberation. Hadn’t the term earth simply arisen solely on the basis of an embarrassed convention, wasn’t it a noun that passed in silence over matter’s true nature . . . ? Wasn’t the use of substantive nouns nearly always a silence about the true substances of things — and wasn’t that silence so essential to us that it became the basic material of our thinking? What were we really passing over: over silenced things, over vanished things, over the basic substance of ourselves, over the silence in our thoughts?
As the narrative reassembles, he focuses on the distinctive smell of the area, a stench which he suggests was another reason for not journeying past the railway line. The milky shimmering of the brook has a rather more sinister origin than the opening, poetic, quote might have suggested:
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
And even the willows that bend into the river feed, in his recollection, on the flesh in the water:
And I could not go too close to the old willows that sweated out the oil of the meats they fed upon . . . I could not impinge on the circle of their immoderate metabolism, I could not touch them, the old renderer’s willows leaking phosphorescent ptomaine from the lancets of their leaves, for they thrived without letup, the death of the fauna had made them grow strong, potent enough to overwinter in their black-green luster. While all the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited — all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilized and overbred, its natural processes strangely retarded in the fall, when all foliage looked fatter than usual and seemed to eat its way rampantly onward, though its dark green looked dull and unclean, so that I expected to see it collapse at any moment — I thought I could see the willows devolving into hitherto unknown wildness: in the twilight, when the mist rose ever denser from the bank, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the spawn of a freakishly fertile subsoil, ugly crippled excrescences that through their very degeneration had come into power and evil.
At this point, around halfway through the novel, he attains adulthood, or perhaps more accurately, his thoughts move from the imaginings of childhood to adult reality. The magic lantern in this passage, of course, an explicit nod to Proust:
Now the night was past, and I could stop speaking in the childlike falsetto; freed from that existence that had lasted twenty or thirty years, it was time for me to enter through their decrepit doors as a man in the prime of his life.
[. . .]
destroyed was the magic lantern…
Revisiting the area, he see a loading bay and “a bustle of shadowy uniforms, dragging the creatures from the gaping hold of a filthy cattle car, with commands shouted in strained voices,” but this isn’t what one may fear, but rather the rendering plant of the novel’s title, dubbed Germania II by the locals, which produces tallow, for soap, from animal carcasses.
He decides to befriend the workers at the plant, shunned by polite society, men you could tell by “the unmistakable smell of the firm that they could never wash away,” and here (for all the WW2 references I have inferred) Hilbig’s real allegory becomes clearer — the firm being the Stasi, the rotten corrupting smell that plagues the area the impact of the culture of informers on everyday life.
Then one day — as with the GDR — the rendering plant simply vanishes from the face of the earth:
One night the earth had gaped open and with a terrible din wiped from its face those old sections of the plant that still operated, hectic and light-shy amid the stronghold of the ruins.
And at the end the prose again fractures to the extent it turns decidely Joycean — indeed at one point there is a direct quote from Finnegans Wake (“oystrygods gaggin fishygods”):
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.