The Perpetual Émigré: An Interview with Ilija Trojanow

By Liel Leibovitz

Image of The Perpetual Émigré: An Interview with Ilija Trojanow

My interview with Ilija Trojanow took place under ominous circumstances. I was hoping to meet him in person; the United States federal government had other plans. As Trojanow tried to board a flight from Brazil to Denver, where he was slated to participate in an academic conference, he was pulled aside and informed that, for reasons not entirely clear, he could not proceed. This, the author later speculated in an essay in the Frankfurther Allgemeine Zeitung, might’ve had something to do with his fierce criticism of the National Security Agency, which couldn’t have pleased the American gatekeepers. Whatever the cause, Trojanow was forced to change his plans and wander, which, given the circumstances of his life, seems oddly fitting. He was born in Bulgaria, moved to Germany as a toddler, emigrated to Nairobi, hung around Paris, went to school in Munich, and lived in Cape Town for a spell before settling in Vienna.

His writing reflects his wanderlust. Whether he was traveling, as the title of one of his earlier books suggests, from Mumbai to Mecca or anthologizing African literature, Trojanow’s eye was always set on the interplay of cultures. In his latest novel to be translated to English, The Collector of Worlds, he took the notion to new heights: its hero is the famed Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton, but rather than give us the conquering Englishman in all his strange glory—Burton, for example, attempted to learn the language of animals, and dined nightly with a gaggle of monkeys—Trojanow approaches his man through the eyes of others, mainly the natives of the countries into which the colorful colonialist stormed. His life, in Trojanow’s telling, is not a monolith but a mosaic, and it belongs just as much to those people and cultures he touched as it does to the great man himself.

Still, a man like Burton was driven by the need for exploration. Life, he observes in the novel, has no other aim “except to find a meaning for the white patches on the world’s maps.” But in our age of Tweets and blogs and camera phones, are there any white patches left? Is there anything new to explore?

“There has been a shift,” Trojanow wrote me in an email interview, “a paradigm change. When Burton and Speke discovered Lake Victoria, the leading British newspapers devoted several pages to this great ‘event.’ When the genome was completely sequenced for the first time, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the leading German newspaper, published the description on four pages. Satellite imagery has driven discovery into other areas: behind the façades, into the deep and of course the most adventurous of all exploration, the roller-coaster ride of cultural confluence that ensures there will always be something to discover.”

That roller-coaster ride is one that Trojanow knows all too well, ever since he was introduced to it by none other than Burton himself. “At my tenth birthday,” he wrote, “I was sitting at a water-hole in Tsavo National Park, Kenya, leafing through a present, a book on African explorers. The picture of a certain one of them struck me immediately, because he was different, not dressed in uniform or safari look, easily mistaken for an Arab, with a fierce expression on his face: Richard Burton, evidently fascinating, but also an orchestra without a conductor, a walking contradiction, a man with many faces and many allegiances. This character allowed me to develop a novel of shifting perspectives and understandings. I had always—yes, since babyhood—yearned to write a novel, in which the ‘locals’ are—in terms of the narrative voice—on equal terms with the Europeans. Certainly by far the most difficult challenge was to give the Indian, Arab, and African narrators a strong, confident, convincing and yet neither purposely authentic nor topical voice.

“Initially I wrote the Africa chapter in a kind of pidgin German that I had found in a book written by a plantation owner from German East Africa (Tanzania) called ‘Colonial German.’ But when I reread it I realized that I did not take my character seriously, I even looked down on him, so I rewrote the whole thing, in a language that is slightly off, slightly deviant, in its idioms, its rhythms, etc. One of the secrets is not to focus on the obvious. If you concentrate on the fact that a character is ‘Indian,’ you end up with a caricature, as in many of the British novels set in India.”

Such facility with the language and the feeling of outsiders comes naturally to Trojanow; the perpetual émigré, he was always on the fringes of whatever society he inhabited. “Burton was a chameleon and thus a conduit for the West to achieve greater understanding of the Orient,” he said, “but he was also an imperialist and racist. As a refugee from the outskirts of Europe or/and the westernmost extension of the Orient, I was never part of any dominant narrative, but I was exposed to a variety of traditions and interpretations, so that has certainly shaped me.” He was also shaped, he added, by “the necessity to function in several languages and thus in several parallel worlds.”

Given his life experience and the nature of the work, it’s natural to read Trojanow’s work as a commentary on literature’s mission to eradicate the boundaries between individuals, tongues, and cultures. One of the most touching moments in his book hints at that as Burton observes devout Muslims stoning each other only to remind themselves of the evil of differences between people. Was he, I asked Trojanow, optimistic about literature’s chances? Could it really bring us together?

“I am opposed to the depiction of difference as static and unbridgeable,” he said. “This is a flawed conviction, for it is blind to history, oblivious to common ancestry and local variations. For what we regard as alien, at any time, is the result of a momentary difference, a fleeting gesture of history.”

We may be in the midst of another such fleeting gesture right now. While Trojanow preferred not to address his quibbles with the American authorities directly, he identified his troubles as part of another passing wave. “Everything we have learned in the past few months proves the necessity for massive resistance against general, preventive surveillance,” he said. “This is a paradigm shift and if, as a society, we do not rise to the challenge of safeguarding digital human rights, we will lose the last vestiges of freedom and democracy.”

His consular woes now resolved, Trojanow continues to rise to the challenge in his appearances as well as in his works: this Wednesday, he’ll appear in a panel titled “Surveillance and the Naked New World” at the Goethe-Institut in New York City. 


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