Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig
Translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole.
This is part of our special feature on The Crisis of European Integration.
One reason for my forays to the far side of town was the worry over what was to become of me. In fact I was searching for a place where I’d be needed: I was entering a critical phase, with graduation drawing near—as though that would mean the loss of the last mechanism controlling me, I had come under increasing pressure to make a decision. How symbolic that the externally imposed worry about my future should bring me to a place where a once-clean brook became a conduit for indefinable effluents and accompanied my path with the odor of corpses, signaling unmistakably, on into my dazed nocturnal vigils, the end to which I worried. — For some time I’d been reading too much, beginning to sense how quickly over-strong sensations could lead to a surfeit; a harmonious existence in natural surroundings, I imagined, would forestall the dulling of my senses. I’d rashly claimed to my relatives that I wanted to become a gardener: I was thinking of the last chapter of Candide, which had an oddly soothing influence on me . . . though in fact I loathed gardens. Nonetheless, the story’s hero seemed worthy of imitation; amid the evil overall state of the world he had discovered for himself and his friends the most tolerable of ills: in the green garden shade they fulfilled their duty to subsist. And probably I was thinking of my tin soldiers too, resting hidden beneath the potted plants, unmolested to the point of immortality in a flood of diffracted light . . . their metal molded in the weight of their aimless waiting, from which they might be jolted when the moon rose behind their window, sending a fiery shimmer through their chlorophyll screen. — Of course these career aspirations were met with shocked disapproval; in our sphere gardening was at most a leisure activity bearing no relation whatsoever to work. As a recourse, I secretly settled on the prospect of becoming a miller, envisioning a watermill; sitting around in a watermill might be even more agreeable than gardening, all the more so if it were a mill like the one east of town, which in my need for stability I imagined as the impregnable refuge of all vanished things. Where a phalanx of grim willows repulsed any onslaught from our side, where, behind the back of a rankly overgrown railroad embankment, dead poplars loomed in warning, and where—I saw it when I first felt the harsh wind of that last November’s last autumn reprieve after which there’d be no way back, and the time of evasions would end for good with the last winter of my school years—mounting to greater and greater opacity, an early flour-fine snow billowed from the mist, swirled by the spin of the whirlwinds that began to turn like racing millstones . . . there I might be safe from unnatural reality, which, though never spoken of, was constantly searching for me. — But I didn’t dare even to mention these career plans, any more than I mentioned my forays out in that direction. Rather, I thought it more prudent to hint that during my afternoon and evening absences I was investigating the industrial areas on the edge of town. Anyway—now that the question of the future was being asked at school of all the pupils with no prospect of higher education, with much back and forth about technical aptitudes and impending apprenticeships, with hymns to the security of a productive life spent strengthening our republic, and with endless assessments of qualification opportunities and wage prospects in professions with names whose very sound repelled me—I responded after a brief hesitation that I intended to work at Germania II, and that they were prepared to hire me on the basis of my appearance alone, without any further requirements. My answer elicited perturbed silence, despairing shakes of the head, and finally the resigned observation that I had proved, yet again, what a piece of work I was . . . yet again I’d managed to confound even the most modest expectations of my goodwill; they had to own that I was literally pursuing a path that would take me to the margins of society. I’d soon see, I was told, that by sabotaging their most patient efforts I had set myself inevitably on a track that shunned the light— fine, then; no one would put any stones in my pathway. The long-winded diagnosis relieved me; I really did see myself as one who shunned the light, though the phrase bothered me: they used it because darkness, for them, was a deficiency, because in darkness they no longer saw light . . . what a dreary life. — Admittedly, I didn’t even know the plant’s official designation; I had never heard it called anything but the name of the old, long-depleted coal mine, a name that sounded devilishly irrational. No one seemed happy to admit that he worked there: Germania II was the embodiment of all that was dark, slimy, and unwholesome; though above-average wages usually ensured a worker status among his peers, they didn’t improve the bad reputations of those who worked there; there’d be good reasons why this particular “firm” paid such good money, everyone always said. All the same, I couldn’t find those reasons out, I saw only that the men from Germania II were shunned, and I heard you could tell them by their smell, even from afar, the unmistakable smell of the firm that they could never wash away. — This was all the more surprising since the plant supposedly produced cleaning agents, or at least some base used for cleaning agents. I hit on the idea of discovering the ingredients from which soap was made . . . I couldn’t find out, though I pored over all the encyclopedias I could get my hands on; evidently a bar of soap was such an utterly mundane object that it was ridiculous to inquire about it . . . the existence of soap was so extraordinarily banal that all the reference books describing its mysterious composition had sunk, completely superfluous, into obscurity . . . almost like a formula that was taboo . . . I’d have been willing to bet that not a single person I knew had the faintest notion of the amalgam that produced a unit of the slippery, foaming substance he used every day. Had I asked, they’d surely have mocked me; they could have explained the details of nuclear fission, but soap . . . what enigmatic medley of obscure secretions was this thing I seized as often as possible so as to be thought clean, fragrant, appetizing? What was it that I smeared on my fingers so as to use those fingers to eat, uncompromised? What was this thing that touched my lips, foaming, stripped the grease from my hair, anointed my anus, and infiltrated my ears with a deafening crackle? — If anyone knew, it would be the workers of Germania II, and I set out in search of them.
Strange: by developing an interest in the simplest of things, you risked losing your hold on the world . . . perhaps even vanishing from the world. It was as though even the simple things, if you thought about them long enough, reached deep down into subterranean realms; indeed, as though some fiber of their being were bound to the evil concealed there. Very soon I noted that the workers from Germania II really did shun the light; I never managed to approach one; even how to go about it was a mystery to me, and besides, no one in my small circle of acquaintances knew anything about them, no one had the slightest contact with anyone working in the plant, nor did anyone see a way to make such a contact; it was impossible to learn where one might run into them, and in fact no one even knew where they lived . . . or how they lived: apparently, like animals, they were identifiable only by their smell, and like animals they knew how to elude their hunters’ noses. There had to be an invisible yet distinct boundary between them and ordinary citizens, and I almost thought the earth’s surface was that boundary: only rarely did they emerge from their stratum beneath ours, rarely did they ascend, perhaps only at night when the sunlight wouldn’t betray them, when their mangy pelt smell merged with the scum-born vapors sinking from the smokestacks of their infernal kitchen into the town’s streets. Perhaps they crawled out only to perform their dark work, in night and fog, to stoke the light-shy fires beneath the cauldrons in which, as the irrepressible rumor would have it, animals were rendered to make the fats contained in soap.
It was only later, once I’d become a regular at the bars, that I spotted some of them— first someone waved a hand in their direction, later I thought I recognized them on my own—and saw that they barely differed from other people: except that they always sat alone at their table, or among their own kind, and no one else joined them. I too avoided breaking the evident taboo surrounding them, I too seemed fated, for a long time, not to join their ranks: perhaps, I told myself, anyone could enter their effluvial border zone except me, the drinker, who took in the world solely by way of his irritable stomach walls. From a distance I saw an expression of resignation in the stubborn folds of their immobile faces, an expression through which nothing seemed to break, except perhaps a wrath so unpredictable that the least trifle could provoke it: for its cause was found not here above, but in the stratum below the surface on which ordinary citizens strode, sure and insensate . . . whereas these men seemed unable to control their own feet, shambling and stumbling through the petty bourgeois sphere that was accustomed to the light, reeling, circling rather than pressing forward, an inarticulate roaming, as if through tides of indecision, on ground without solidity through which 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, down past the sigh of their shambling in slime, while up above their brains expired amid the vagrant clouds . . . their pupils were dark tears, like eyes of polished ebony, as they descended forever downward after their dull thoughts, as, drinking continuously at their table, they tried to write one of their letters, perhaps intending to quit work at last, scratching awkwardly for hours to form the lines of their antiquated script, nodding ponderously in the wake of their incomprehensible constructions, and ants chased each other on the grubby paper amid the baffled blue words that were nothing but curses. And I saw them give up, chaotic in their retreat, quickly spinning out of control again, confused in their gestures, constantly jolted by desperate horror like dreamers waking to shadowbox, forced to go on ailing at swarms of panic-insects, or to wipe out their names, hands slapping the tabletop. Or I saw them making forlorn, uninterpretable gesticulations, toneless tongues aided by waving hands, gurgling as though calling from out of the water; mollusks of inarticulately drifting in between phonemes darted out from the silence, through the milky swaths of smoke over the bar tables. In the end they seemed to communicate in animal tongues, fleeing from their own language . . . and their sounds fled like the dark stumblings of sick animals, fled over bones plowed up from leaden earth. Oh stumbling over mass graves, oh stumbling in pale grass over the mass graves, oh reverberation of the pavement covering the mass graves, oh, in a land pieced together from tracts of mass graves, oh land like a beehive of mass graves, land covering the mass graves with philosophies, risen from the ruins over mass graves, over the mass graves of the dictatorship of the proletariat, over the mass graves of Lenin’s almighty doctrine, 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, organic multiplications, in- organically transmuted when the headings were underlined. And they wandered onward, with dirt under their nails and pockets full of gold teeth. With phrases in their heads like hooks for uprooting trees, with inkblots on their shirtfronts, and bewildered by the last three orthographic reforms, they passed through the realm of the willows, passed under the masks of the willows, under owls and willows, encircled by the night trains’ trajectory, caught in their concentric circles of noise, ghettoized gods, taboo, as certain trees and beasts were taboo in the mantle of their matted bark or pelt . . . they passed, the vanished: far from me, toward the sallow eastern clouds toward the poplars, ink-birds hanging from the verticals, toward a lifeless village toward a brook past the town toward a strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky current followed for miles…followed with the long-since crossed-out letters stuffed into the fronts of their shirts, down the brook with those inarticulate fragments of resignation letters, cut off by the bluish blade of a long, straight knife, they passed through the severed terrain of their letters, terrain over which under which there was constant, invisible wandering, onward, martial law of the letters followed now by no one, blitzkrieg commands issued to the hidden long-rotting tin soldiers, ring commands to the spectral armored trains of the lost revolution, cited now by no one, ring commands issued to the conscience, letters in all consciousness and conscience, letters to the willows the elms the poplars the waters, o trees o tree of trees, o great tree grown from the graves for all trees, o great tree named taboo, stretching over the fields, reaching over the waters, casting shadows over the towns, shadow-casting over the ants cited between the characters . . . shadow-casting over the white letters, over the white letters to the conscious and unconscious over the letters to the conscience over the witnesses’ letters . . . letters filled with citations from oblivion, letters to the fellow travelers and executive committees, letters to the executive committees of the conscience, letters to the guilds of scribes who band together, to the bandaged eyes, to the scribes of stillness, to the officers of their committees, shadow-casting . . . inscribed stillness, casting shadows, oh great tree named taboo, over the tracts of the living and the dead, their boundaries dissolved. Casting shadows over the white letters in the summer glow, oh over the handkerchiefs of stillness: wave goodbye you outposts and officers: oystrygods gaggin shygods!
Wolfgang Hilbig (1941–2007) was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. Though raised in East Germany, he proved so troublesome to the authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of more than twenty books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor.
Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations include The Sleep of the Righteous, by Wolfgang Hilbig (Two Lines Press); Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006); All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Seagull Books, 2011); and The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2013).
This excerpt from Old Rendering Plant is published by permission of Two Lines Press. Translation copyright © 2017 by Isabel Fargo Cole.
Published on November 2, 2017.