The Olfactory Factory: Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant

By Nathan Scott McNamara

In his 1939 essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin wrote about the way smell makes time dissolve: “The scent is the inaccessible refuge of memoire involontaire. It is unlikely to associate itself with a visual image; out of all possible sensual impressions, it will ally itself only with the same scent.” Benjamin references Marcel Proust’s famed “madeleine moment” from In Search of Lost Time, in which the taste of a pastry involuntarily transports the narrator back to Combray. “If the recognition of a scent can provide greater consolation than any other memory,” Benjamin continues, “this may be because it deeply anesthetizes the sense of time. A scent may drown entire years in the remembered odor it evokes.” 

In the spirit of Proust’s Swann’s Way — the section of his opus that features this olfactory moment — Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is a sensory novel that uses scent to flatten time. But whereas Proust uses a teacake to evoke a French village, Hilbig uses dissolving animal corpses to evoke postwar East Germany. Old Rendering Plant, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Two Lines Press, is about a man’s experience of a decaying slaughterhouse and a river full of toxic sludge. Like Proust’s, Hilbig’s writing has a beautiful and dream-like quality. But Old Rendering Plant is about tarnished ground. Entombed in the visceral smells of the sickly landscape, the unnamed narrator floats through it in paralyzed fashion.

The management at the slaughterhouse asks no questions about qualifications and leaves the past dead and buried. “Germans, Poles, Russians, stateless people, renegades…communists and Nazis,” Hilbig writes. “Here a different darkness cooped them together, the dark swamp that was required for manufacturing soft soap…” After World War II, West Germany flourished. East Germany faltered. Hilbig writes, “The cadaver of the republic has been punctured…you lot would be advised to demand better salaries for the hard work you do, and not to wait for better days. It’s clear that they won’t come.” The trauma of war hangs longer when the economy is stagnant.

In dodging their own deaths, these lowlifes still land in a dead part of the world — a place of withered cabbage fields, where bristled animal fat languishes in the still water. Hilbig writes, “You could tell [the workers] by their smell, even from afar, the unmistakable smell of the firm that they could never wash away.” The narrator refers to the smell as a “gigantic stench that circled wearily beneath the clouds.” He describes the fumes spewing from the “fatty white-yellow broth” of the river. He writes, “Though the cool of the autumn air seemed to mute the stench, I thought I tasted a hint of it in the vegetables that flourished in those gardens.” Hilbig calmly evokes the visceral and horrid qualities of this place, granting them a sort of toxic beauty. These are the smells of home.

A year after Hilbig was born, in 1942, his father went missing at the Battle of Stalingrad. Hilbig grew up with his mother and grandfather, laborers in a multiethnic East German town that saw massive population shifts when borders were redrawn after the war. This is the only world the narrator in Old Rendering Plant knows. As a boy, the factory is a defunct and crumbling coal plant. As a young man, it’s a fat-rendering facility that draws the dark loners. In both cases, he’s warned away. But at each stage of his life he’s drawn back again, carried by the scent. “I became invisible, guided only by scents whose signals no longer brushed my brain, but course from my senses straight to my limbs,” Hilbig writes. “I found myself with the certain sense that I’d arisen utterly naked beneath the gray wind-filled sky.”

As the narrator approaches the collapsed (again) factory as a grown man, he comes upon the “rotting concrete foundation, strikingly out of place in the grassy basin.” He thinks about how as a boy he was forbidden to come here by his mother. He went anyway, to whittle toy swords and explore the crumbling labyrinth. Evoking the sensation of the backward plunge through time, the narrator remembers slipping on the exposed edge of a stone platform and falling into the empty fog. “It was not the incalculable length of my fall that terrified me but the idea of a clump of matter, invisible in the dusk, on whose slimy slickness I’d lost my footing.” He gouges his leg slightly. By chance, he sneaks unnoticed past his mother on his way to bed that night. The next day, he sees his leg in the light of morning: “My right leg, my entire calf, covered by dried mire, a black-green slurry mixed with blood.” Hilbig’s sensations are grotesque but colorful. This isn’t an entirely bleak place. The landscape is lit by bright mold. Neon gas floats in the river.

Hilbig manages to convey the feeling of an infinite history of horror, and also the precarious earth on which each new tyranny is built. All of the nearby villages are undercut by derelict coal mining shafts, “honeycombing the earth’s interior.” The coal is exhausted and the maps of the tunnels are lost to the “shifting bureaucracies of successive power-mad regimes.” Even family legacies collapse back onto the surviving generation. “The castles of each new slave-holding system could be erected on thin crusts, just as the powers that be passed on to their sons and daughters the pitfalls they themselves had earned.” One night, the animal rendering plant falls through the shredded ground. The narrator remarks that the hole in the earth would slowly fill with water, as had happened in other places. The exhaustive depths made these swimming holes dangerous. Children often drowned in them.

In an introduction to Hilbig’s English-language debut, The Sleep of the Righteous, Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai writes that Hilbig “discovered a wondrous language to describe a horrific world.” One of the great marvels of Hilbig’s densely lyric prose is the feat of translating it, and how Isabel Fargo Cole manages to achieve a buoyant, a musical, a Joycean syntax in transporting this gritty text to English. Cole also translated The Sleep of the Righteous and in an interview on that book, she said she aims to retain Hilbig’s punctuation and syntax as much as possible — that it’s idiosyncratic in German, too. “It has a fragmented quality; the narrator’s voice jumps around or wanders into a labyrinth it can’t find its way out of. Or, in many sentences, images and sensations accumulate and tension builds, and readers aren’t given a chance to catch their breath. These effects are crucial to the narrative voice.”

“What smell flowed with the rivers,” Hilbig writes. “The dizzying smell whose source no one wanted to know, whose existence no one admitted noticing.” But Hilbig’s narrator notices. Hanging inside the sensory experience of his memories, our narrator becomes an open channel to this lush and sickening landscape. “It was as though the water coursed over me,” Hilbig writes, “flowing through my weary brain this way and that, flowing without bounds.”

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