The Pequod Review:
Wolfgang Hilbig (1941-2007) was an East German author and poet, whose fiction had an intimate and dreamlike intensity. Old Rendering Plant, originally published in 1991, describes a man whose childhood love for an abandoned coal plant remains strong even after it is converted into a slaughterhouse that renders animal fat into soap and discards toxic waste into a nearby river. Hilbig is often compared to Proust because of his focus on childhood recollections and sensory details, but I see closer parallels to W.G. Sebald in his digressive and hypnotic descriptions of ruined landscapes:
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.
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?