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Wolfgang Hilbig: Alte Abdeckerei (Old Rendering Plant)

Wolfgang Hilbig was a poet and this is very apparent from this book as he gives us wonderful if often discomforting descriptions. He was also in conflict with the East German state and this is also apparent from this book, which is hardly a paean to the glories of communism.

Hilbig lived with his grandparents in the town of Meuselwitz, a small town in what was then East Germany, not far from the Czech border. During the war there was a slave labour camp there. I suspect that this story is based on the area.

Our narrator is not named in the book. Indeed, as well as him, no-one else is named and the other characters are shadowy figures, with whom he has little contact. Indeed, though he clearly lives with and sees his family, they seem somewhat remote from him. As we shall see, he goes out wandering and often turns up too late for dinner and is sent straight to his room. Presumably he does talk to them but we do not see it. He only mentions one friend and that is as an adult and only to evoke the foul smell of a dead rat.

Our narrator spends much of his time out wandering round the distinctly bleak countryside. He finds a brook just outside town and follows it for miles. He even stays out after dark. What he does eventually discover is evidence of old mine works – an abandoned coal train, diggings, decayed fragments of concrete foundations, evidence of a roadway. He had been told not to go the ruins, not least because they were dangerous. There were a host of tunnels where the miners had been digging and if there had been old maps, they were now lost. These diggings were, of course, liable to subsidence and collapse

There are also rumours that East European refugees were living in the area, Both the narrator and the family of Hilbig were East European refugees. It is also suggested that people who go missing – and there were a few – might have ended up there, though there are other possibilities for missing persons. Those who still asked after the vanished suddenly went missing as well.

He plays war games on his own and falls and hurts himself, recognising that it could have been a lot worse. He finds what appears to be an old watermill.

He follows the brook but it is milky coloured. He sees fibres and clumpos in the brook and the other plants along the watercourse looked sickly and surfeited—all the vegetation struck me as corpulent and phlegmatic, overfertilised and overbred.

We know that Hilbig left his grandparents’ house but returned after a breakdown. In this book we see the narrator as a child but also as a man, still exploring the area. Interestingly, he comments on his relationship with his family. Before, he had been a child under their sway but now he was the man of the house: a man in the prime of his life; I gripped the key as a pledge, and with the dark deliberation of one who has passed his zenith I had to take my seat at the head of the table.

As man he can now go further afield without adult prohibition. He comes across many industrial ruins. He also finds Germania II. Germania II had been the name of the mine works but it is now the name of the rendering plant. He sees animals – dead, alive, half-dead – being cruelly unloaded into the plant, clearly suffering. He is horrified and disgusted by what he sees. He runs back in a stampede of revulsion and horror. He condemn it totally – there in the grove that hid the deported animals’ place of sacrifice, I’d become a witness, made complicit by my knowledge, a participant in some Thousand-Year Reich.

However, he now has to find a job. He tells his family that he was thinking of being a gardener. They are horrified. Gardening is not a profession. Even he admits that he does not like gardening though he had been influenced by the last chapter of Candide.

He next suggests that he will work at Germania II. Though it pays above average wages, it is very much looked down on. Germania II was the embodiment of all that was dark, slimy, and unwholesome. The people who work there smell. Moreover, they seem to keep themselves to themselves and not mix socially with anyone else. If you were hired at Germania II your past was dead and buried…no one asked about your qualifications; true, criminals were said to be hiding out there, even old SS men and other lowlifes, but there the past counted as little as the future. He tries to talk to them about it but has little success. However the factory is built on top of abandoned mines and they are inclined to collapse.

The book ends with a wonderfully colourful description of it, superbly translated by Isabel Fargo Cole: 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.

This is a short book but a superb evocation of the grim landscape our narrator sees, a blasted, abandoned land in the East of East Germany, itself a blasted land. He does not hold back, writing a poet’s description of the area and the sights he sees, giving us a first-class evocation of an area which is and has been doomed. While a very different landscape, apart from the river, the nearest equivalent I can think of is Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River) in its portrayal of the banks of a river and what you might find there. Kinsky moves on to other rivers, while Hilbig sticks to his brook and his barren land.

Publishing history

First published in 1991 by Fischer
First English translation in 2017 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole