Wolfgang Hilbig’s three novellas have long been grouped together by experts, and the lovely edition you can see in the photo is the volume from the collected works including all three. Two Lines Press have now brought them all out (in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation), but while they left the earliest of the three pieces, Die Weiber (The Females), for last (for reasons touched on in my review), I’m following the chronological order of publication. Today, then, sees me taking a look at the second of the three, a work that (according to the blurb) “many consider as the best prose written in our language for decades.” That’s praise indeed, but I’m certainly not going to argue – this is a very good book…
Alte Abdeckerei (Old Rendering Plant) begins with a lyrical sentence, placing reader and narrator on a walk by a stream outside the city:
Ich besann mich auf ein Flüßchen hinter der Stadt, ein seltsam schimmerndes, an manchen Tagen fast milchfarbenes Gewässer, das ich kilometerweit verfolgt habe, einen Herbst lang oder noch länger, vielleicht nur, um einmal hinauszukommen aus einem Territorium, das, wenn ich es endgültig sagen soll, von den Grenzen meiner Müdigkeit eingeschlossen war.
p.117 (S. Fischer, 2010)
I recalled a stream beyond the city, a strangely shimmering, on certain days almost milky, stretch of water that I followed for miles throughout a whole autumn, or even longer, perhaps just for once to escape from a territory that, to put it bluntly, was enclosed by the boundaries of my tiredness.
(*** My Translation)
This poetic start belies what is to follow, although the jarring tone of the ‘milchfarbenes Gewässer‘ does provide a clue. Far from being a story glorying in the beauties of nature, Alte Abdeckerei actually focuses on filth and pollution, both of the environment and the human soul, with Hilbig’s customary Ich-narrator dragging the reader down into the depths of his torment.
The story can be difficult to pin down in terms of time, with the piece soaked in a deliberate fog of confusion. While many of the narrator’s stories are drawn from his childhood, this period of his life seems to stretch out for decades, with his adult self still trapped in his younger body (and clothes), wandering down the stream at several different times at once. If the reader is generally unsure as to when we are, though, the where is immediately clear, especially to those familiar with Hilbig’s work. These walks take us through the abandoned industrial complexes of the east of Germany, the ghostly playgrounds of the young writer himself.
Yet despite its circular nature and the confusion occasioned by the nebulous nature of the setting, Alte Abdeckerei is actually more coherent overall than Die Weiber. Hilbig cleverly starts with his evening walk before slowly widening the scope, following the stream and gradually revealing the area’s secrets. We learn of the history of the industrial area, and the people who work there, with the narrator’s own experiences skilfully woven into this narrative, before the true heart of the story, the rendering plant itself, is finally introduced.
This plant is described as a dark secret, one most people avoid, but Hilbig’s ageless narrator isn’t most people. Fascinated by a shadowy world most simply ignore, he seeks out the men who work there, outsiders who stick to their own kind, secretly longing to join the group of outcasts (this, in itself, is a nice metaphor for the writer’s feeling of being an outcast in his own country). Even when he realises what the plant does, and what is responsible for the milky-white colour of the stream (and the stench pervading the town), his desire to become a part of this community continues.
Having read Die Weiber, I was well prepared for some confronting descriptions of dirt and filth, and Hilbig certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. He delights in having his characters wade through the darker side of life, never shying away from bodily fluids and sickening pollution, his alter-ego rarely escaping the dirt surrounding him:
Nach dem Erwachen war ich erleichtert, den Grund meines Ekels einem halbvergessenen Traum zuweisen zu können. Doch holte mich das Grausen wieder ein, kaum daß ich aufgestanden war: meine Gedanken stockten, als ich sah, daß mir das rechte Bein, der ganze Unterschenkel, von einem schon getrockneten Morast bedeckt war, von einer schwarzgrünen Jauche, die mit Blut vermischt war. (p.126)
On awakening, I was relieved to be able to attribute the source of my disgust to a half-forgotten dream. However, the terror reeled me back in almost as soon as I had arisen: my thoughts faltered when I saw that my right leg, from the knee down, was covered in a dried-up morass, a blackish-green manure mixed with blood. ***
While this is never explicitly stated, it’s hard, given the setting, to avoid equating much of this physical filth with the ideological rubbish the writer wishes to flee. The narrator isn’t a man who finds it easy to adapt to his society.
The overriding sensation of reading Alte Abdeckerei is of a fairytale air, in the true Germanic tradition. The narrator’s walks have something of the uncanny about them, and even when we move inside, Hilbig still manages to upset the reader’s equilibrium, as when the narrator has a dream of a dead rat in the hall, and then sees it in real life. Nature stands at the heart of everything, dark and menacing, never far away from retaking everything people have wrenched from it, and this mood is exemplified by the sinister willow trees by the stream, positively glowing from their unusual sustenance:
…in der Dämmerung, wenn der Nebel immer dichter vom Ufer heraufkroch, schienen sie in phantastische Lebewesen verwandelt, Ausgeburten eines unberechenbar fruchtbaren Untergrunds, häßlich verkrüppelte Auswüchse, denen gerade dank ihrer Degeneration Macht und Bosheit zugefallen war. (p.149)
…at dusk, whenever the fog crept up ever thicker from the banks, they seemed transformed into fantastic creatures, the monstrous offspring of an unpredictably fertile soil, ugly, crippled protuberances, to whom, as a direct result of this degeneracy, might and malevolence had been gifted. ***
It’s almost as if the spooky willows are about to up roots and follow us down the stream.
Alte Abdeckerei is an excellent work when read simply as the fantasies of an outsider spinning stories in his head, yet the true achievement only becomes clear when we consider the context it takes place in. The stream is not just a polluted flow of water but also a metaphor for a stagnant society, with no cleansing outside tributaries. There are also the constant radio announcements calling out names of missing people, and while the book has its own explanation of who these people are, there are a number of ways this could be interpreted. East Germany wasn’t exactly short of people lost along the way…
Of course, as you will hopefully have seen from some of the extracts above, it’s the writing that truly lifts Hilbig’s work above the crowd, and the novella culminates in an astonishing few pages, full of surreal, dazzling word-play that stuns the reader and brings the whole story crashing down onto our heads (I can’t begin to imagine how it was all put into English, so well done to Fargo Cole for even attempting it!). This fairytale-like scene of a world imploding is a fitting end to a dreamlike book with a bite, an astonishing short work that will stay with any reader who reads it. Yes, Hilbig is an excellent writer, and (as that exuberant praise mentioned in my introduction shows) this is a book well worth seeking out.