The Country Inside Your Skin: Reading Old Rendering Plant in the Alamo City

Originally published in the Ploughshares Blog, August 7, 2018

 

Upon arriving in San Antonio to give a reading last month, I realized after checking into my hotel that I’d left behind my too-expensive hair pomade (the only one that can tame my wiry head) in Houston and decided to go out downtown in the early morning in search of a cheap substitute. At that hour, in late July, downtown is mostly tourist mayhem. The River Walk, the Menger Hotel, one-way streets with cars driving in both the right and wrong directions, the existential threat of a waning summer compelling entire families to squeeze blood-dry their last possible day trip should school children make fun of an uneventful summer. In short: angsty children, red-faced fathers getting too real about the Alamo for anyone’s comfort. Semi-chaos, though also kind of beautiful in its own way. The city is burning with life.

I should admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for San Antonio. Along with my native Austin, I consider San Antonio the other city of my childhood. My mother is from there, as is the rest of that side of the family. My favorite eats are there. Tim Duncan still lives there, and that’s something. In short, I’ve always considered San Antonio part-me, which is why it was strange when a man cornered me on the stoop of a closed shop, put his finger in my face, and said in a very earnest, very threatening tone, “Sir! Remember the Alamo.”

He said it with such sincerity that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. And in the next instant, you could feel his heart break in two. The Alamo is, after all, kind of a joke. At least to many Texans it is. It’s considered the most thorough military defeat in its history, kind of a non-crucial event that’s been overly mythologized to racist, anti-Mexican ends. Many people, however, have an inexplicable connection to it, including this dude. You could feel his anger radiating from his skin, that dark energy completely directed at me—though of course I knew, even in that moment, that it wasn’t so much personal as it was racial. What he said was Remember the Alamo, but what he meant was Remember your place. Remember, you don’t belong here. Remember, I can corner you in a public space and no one will save you. Remember, there are no repercussions for people like me.

I laughed and laughed. And his face kind of moved behind these cheap sunglasses. His teenage son slinked nervously behind him, embarrassed for me or for his father, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine what goal they’d set out to accomplish in cornering me that morning. In any case, for better or worse, I decided then that I couldn’t belittle a man in front of his kid. I refused to let them debase or dehumanize myself in that way. So, instead, I engaged him. Gave him an out. “Where are you from?” I managed to ask, half-hoping he’d walk away at the merest hint of civility. He continued seething. A long time passed. The kid finally got out a single word: “Maryland,” he said. And before I could laugh again, the father, violently agitated now, asked, “Well, where are you from?” An accusation more than a question.

“Texas,” I said.

***

The entire summer, I’ve been on an East German literature kick. I picked up Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant at the suggestion of a writer friend whose advice I take more seriously than that of my own doctor. And as is the case with much of my favorite literature from writers who lived through the former German Democratic Republic, this book is a look into the conscience and psyche of a social fabric built largely from the slag of wars both hot and cold. Fargo Cole’s translation of Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant is, to say the least, a remarkable feat of lyricism and translation. Hilbig’s prose has been likened to Proust, and the gothic, visceral nature of his writing has earned him comparisons to Faulkner and Poe as well, but it should also be said that the language is uniquely Hilbig’s—heavily cadenced, heavily impressionistic with jargon from Marx to Stasi doublespeak to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “Ostrygods gaggin fishygods.”

The novel is a kind of dark Entwicklungsroman, or German coming-of-age story, narrated by an unnamed, middle-aged outcast of East German society whose stream of consciousness is driven largely by his sensory experience of the outskirts of his native city, most notably the smell of toxic decay that emits from a former coal factory turned rendering plant called Germania II. In this memory-scape, the emphasis of the narrative is less on time and chronology than it is on unpacking the fallout of our narrator’s discovery of this plant and his desire to become one of the workers there, outcasts in their own right—foreigners, delinquents, men pushed to the margins of society recognizable only by their smell, which is mostly animal fat that’s been rendered and presumably used to make soap.

The novel opens with the line “I recalled a brook outside town whose current, strangely shimmering, sometimes almost milky, I once followed for miles all autumn or longer, if only hoping to emerge one day from a territory confined, I’ll admit it at last, by the bounds of my weariness.” Weariness for how a person should be in East German society, sure, but also weariness linked to a kind of childhood ennui spurred by sheltering admonishment from parents for playing too long out in the dark—the catalyst of this obsession with darkness that echoes out into a series of epiphanies as the novel progresses.

Our narrator’s communion with darkness opens him up to the horrors of the landscape that make up post-war East Germany and to some extent his very life. Institutions, markets, and anxieties can all trace their roots and rot back to the earth and influence the way the body moves throughout the social fabrics they inhabit. Darkness is the portal through which the narrator makes contact with, “…unknown life, rumored to be dead.”

Underfoot, the soil ashes and burns. Bones, slag, and tallow litter the landscape as do the voices (real or imagined) that haunt its darkness: “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’…”.

Our narrator goes on to riff on this passage later in the novel with regards to Germania II: “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.” In this vein, Germania II becomes a kind of symbol for the Stasi, or East German secret police: “Here was the haven for low-level staff and quasi-staff from the state security service, the burnouts too mediocre to fall victim to the great purges.” The plant’s mission is pure—to create soap, a cleaning agent—though the means are dirty, laced with death.

Before working in the plant, Hilbig’s narrator describes animal cadavers on hooks and littering the landscape around Germania II, images reminiscent of Erich Honecker’s massive media events with his Stasi subordinates in the Schorfheide hunting estate. Honecker, at that time General Secretary of the GDR, and his men were said to have killed so many animals on the estate that certain species were believed to have disappeared from that region altogether. It was common for animals of the same or similar species to be shipped into the estate from other Eastern Bloc countries. For the media, animal cadavers (sometimes frozen) were displayed in ornate patterns to show Honecker’s hunting prowess to the world.

It’s in light of this imagery that Germania II becomes a kind of open sore resting just above the burnt-out coal-mining shafts, “honeycombing the earth’s interior” on the outskirts of the narrator’s town. A monument, magnet, and system built of and for the outcasts of society. It was pure serendipity to be reading Old Rendering Plant on my trip to the Alamo City.

In remembering the Alamo, I think of it as our very own monument to American post-truth. The Alamo is a physical manifestation of Stasi-like doublespeak, a celebration of white mediocrity, white insularity, and the deep need to claim victory at all costs despite thorough defeat—a strategy for decentering truth not unlike the modus operandi of the Trump administration or its lackeys. To that end, we treat post-truth like it’s a new thing. But ask any seventh grader in Texas and they’ll tell you that white people have been celebrating the Alamo like it’s been a victory since as long as we can remember. The building itself has become a magnet, a pilgrimage site, for the outcasts of American society. They keep alive the curated narrative surrounding it, with the same rhetoric being echoed in extremist American ideology from the Branch Davidian Massacre to the Patriot Movement to Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building to the Cliven Bundystandoff to our current conversation on immigration and guns.

When that man said to me, Remember the Alamo, I wondered if he only feared my brown body, not unlike those that scaled the Alamo walls made of limestone brick and mortar. Not unlike that blinding, beige concrete of the fence prototypes burning under the South Texas sun. Those hands hired to erect them not unlike the hands that originally built the Misión San Antonio de Valero in 1718. When he asked me to Remember the Alamo, I wish I could have asked him to remember that my people have always been here. Further back than the memory of that rhetoric might allow. In his mind I know he’s imagining a great invasion. It has never occurred to him that my existence and his are not mutually exclusive. To that end, I wonder if there’s a sliver of him that wants me dead. Exterminated, sliced open by canon fire or bullets. Or simply put away like they put everyone away who arrives at our border in search of asylum. Never mind that I’m from here, that I’ve always been from here. My body is threat, my brownness an insult to the monument of post-truth, to that monument of American exceptionalism.

I might be the only person in the world to grasp some kind of hope from Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant. It’s hard to articulate the gravity one feels when they’re about to be physically assaulted. But in that moment there was some kind of dark comfort in knowing, if only in my heart, that whatever happened, this man couldn’t deny me the fact that I belonged to this place. As it’s said in many parts of Mexico, you never really belong to a place until you’ve buried someone there. And I have bones and blood and slag buried just above the limestone of San Antonio. Not too far, actually, from the site where the fat of that battle was rendered.

T-Shirts, Deportation, and the Epiphanies of Clemens Meyer in Mexico City

Originally Published in the Ploughshares Blog, September 5, 2018

 

Just the other day, I was invited for coffee over at my friend Diego’s house in Mexico City. Diego was recently deported, which was how I met him in the first place, at a fundraiser for his legal fees in which he was raffling off T-shirts with a golden eagle in the middle of a Mexican flag and an upside-down American flag printed on gray fabric. When I didn’t win the raffle, I still wanted a T-shirt but was embarrassed to say so on account of it being a fundraiser—and that’s not what the fundraiser was about anyway—but the T-shirt was very cool, I wanted to buy one, and Diego said, “I could get you one if you want it that bad. I made that T-shirt myself. I have a company.” I asked him what it was called. And he said, “F*ck La Migra Printing Shop,” which roughly translates to F*ck ICE/The Border Patrol Printing Shop. La Migra. And that’s how we became friends.

Anyway, his print shop was attached to his house, and when I walked in, the first thing I noticed was a Käthe Kollwitz print hanging on the wall. He explained that it belonged to his girlfriend Valeria and that she’d bought it in Cologne, which is where Kollwitz lived for some time. It’s where the largest collection of her work is, which I didn’t know though I’m a huge fan of Kollwitz. I’d always associated her with Berlin. Berlin and then Saxony where she died—in Moritzberg—and where I lived and taught for a little bit (in Leipzig). One of the fun facts I’d always loved about Kollwitz was that where she was originally born, Königsberg, is technically Russia now (Kaliningrad), which is kind of a testament to the vastness of the then Prussian empire. In the end, it was Germans who claimed her.

When I look at a Kollwitz—even the propaganda woodcuts or posters—it always feels like standing in front of the unfiltered truth. A kind of visceral feeling that you sometimes get with expressionist paintings before Dadaism and Bauhaus took that rawness and made it into furniture or desk toys or posters that eventually inspired things you might buy at Bed Bath & Beyond. Not to discount all of it, but this is to underscore the fact that it’s intense to have a Kollwitz hanging in your living room, though I’ve always believed that living in Mexico City requires a kind of intensity. Not to get precious about it or to discount all of Mexico City either, but I can vouch from having lived there, too, that it can be a complex space to inhabit. As the writer, translator, and poet Lucia Duero has said, “Mexico City will make you worry about tomorrow while at the same time liberating you from tomorrow.”

He, I, and Valeria get to talking about that, which is to say we get to talking about the bare-knuckles capitalism of it all. Which is how we get to talking about Leipzig and then Neo Rauch and then Clemens Meyer, whose book Bricks and Mortar I’d just read this past summer. How does neoliberalism change a country? Change you? This in the context of a trade deal that had just been renegotiated between the US and Mexico this summer. It was all over the Mexican news.

For the uninitiated, Bricks and Mortar (Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Katy Derbyshire) is largely considered Meyer’s masterpiece. A tome of 672 pages, Bricks and Mortar was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and the recipient of an English PEN Award. It chronicles the sex trade in an unnamed large city (possibly Leipzig, possibly Halle) in the former German Democratic Republic from 1989, right before the Berlin Wall fell, to the present day.

While comprised of a scattershot of voices—from prostitutes to their clients to minor players in the industry to detectives and disc jockeys—the arc is loosely focused on a single character, Arnold Kraushaar (AK), who has gone from bitplayer and football hooligan under the GDR to present-day real estate baron on the ropes, betrayed by the very people who facilitated his initial rise to wealth after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As the monopolizing landlord to many of the prostitutes who have begun working for themselves or for larger conglomerates (many of them Turkish owned and operated) in the now legalized prostitution market of unified Germany, AK’s character is a meditation on what it means to fully embrace Western capitalism and its endgames: the complete dominance of a market through political maneuvering and buying-out of competition rather than through direct competition.

Of course, AK’s character underscores the fundamental lie sold to former East Germans of a new, meritocratic system post-reunification (and inferred morality by virtue of that). AK’s character is the darkness of that lie personified in Bricks and Mortar. And from that thread, Meyers explores—through other characters too—the dark, exploitive side of Western capitalism that largely took advantage of a vulnerable East population and its industries, detailing the true-life selling of rotten yogurt from West Germany to the East for those who “couldn’t get enough of the stuff,”or West Germans swindling East Germans out of their welcome money post-reunification, or the perpetual shaming of East Germans through ridicule and commercial exploitation, in setting certain parts of the country up as a haven that might cater to the perversions and pocketbooks of the West—everything is for sale.

In the end, there’s very little moral space between AK the GDR football hooligan and AK the professional capitalist, though the change of state has obviously changed him in other fundamental ways. And it’s not long before AK finds himself being eaten by the very gears he thought he’d once controlled, just as the new system has eaten away at a kind of normalcy that will never be again, fundamentally changing it and its people forever.

As time and politics change the state, does the state then change you? And, even then, to what degree? As a Mexican-American having grown up in Texas—a former Mexican state turned country turned American state—that question has always fascinated me. What is new and what is vestigial? What trauma is passed down and what trauma can be left behind? While some might consider Texas a kind of photo negative of the former East Germany, I think of those two states as simulacrum in many ways, politics aside.

Look no further than the names of cities like Gruene or Fredericksburg or New Braunfels that dot the Texas hill country. Or the rhythm of Tejano music. Or the central Texas variety of polvoron cookies in panaderias up and down I-35. And in Diego’s apartment in Mexico City, in front of that Käthe Kollwitz, it’s not lost on me that the famine, despair, depression, and wars depicted in those etchings are the same scenes that drove large portions of German and Czech immigrants to Texas and to other immigrant havens in America, too, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: Cincinnati, New York, Union City/Hoboken, and Chicago among others. It’s strange to think the descendants of those subjects that inspired those etchings have—in such a short time on this continent—grown callous to the plight of those who have always belonged to this continent, to this hemisphere, whose land has been stolen (as in Bricks and Mortar) piece by piece over centuries, and whose lives are a simulacrum, too, of those scenes depicted by Kollwitz.

In the shop, we make T-shirts, me and Diego. And we get to talking about Texas and then Georgia, where he spent sixteen years, and then country music, which he loves. He puts on Diamond Rio’s “One More Day” and plays it over this giant PA system he’s got stacked in the corner. He tells me about his son, six years old, who he’d been given custody of by the family courts just before ICE literally split them apart from the same car they were driving in, possibly forever. And when I talk to him about states, about geography, about Mexico and whether he feels more Mexican or American, he looks at me with this kind of confused look and says, “What even is that? Mexican? I’m from Hidalgo. I’m from the town where I’m from. That is who I am,” he says. And he lifts the print screen to add this T-shirt to the next in a pile of three sizes. F*ck La Migra, F*ck La Migra, F*ck La Migra.