For a long time, a large photo hung above the stage at Berlin’s Literary Colloquium, shot by Renate von Mangoldt and showing a meeting of the writers’ group Gruppe 47 there in 1965. Rows and rows of frowning white men in suits, fading into the background, the tobacco smoke almost tangible. That’s the image I have in my mind, I hope falsely, when I imagine how readers think of German writing.
This issue of Words without Borders is dedicated to emerging German writers. It is restricted to writing from Germany itself rather than including the rich literatures of German-speaking Switzerland and Austria, mainly to narrow down my already difficult choices.
Like many other literatures, contemporary German writing is part reaction against previous generations and part continuation of traditions. Just as the Gruppe 47 wanted to distance itself from wartime writing, it eventually became symbolic—at least to me—of a leaden convention, despite having brought forth groundbreaking writers like Ingeborg Bachmannn and Günter Grass. Although all the pieces here were written before his recent death, Grass makes two cameo appearances in this issue of WWB, suggesting that German writers are very much aware of his legacy.
Slightly overwhelmed, as always, by the wealth of contemporary German writing, I chose the pieces for this issue in two ways. First, I read a lot of literary journals and spent a lot of time on the Internet, looking for things that made me snap to attention. I also approached writers directly—people whose work I admire—and asked them for material. That makes this a very personal issue of Words without Borders, one that can’t pretend to be representative. It no doubt reflects my own interests and preferences: literary responses to political issues such as migration and sexuality, and playful, experimental ways of thinking and writing. I hope it also shows that Germans do have a sense of humor, contrary to popular belief.
At the same time, however, the selection turns out to have a unifying theme: the self and the Other, the Germans and the rest of the world, locals and tourists, men and monkeys, then and now, war and peace—and the way these apparent dichotomies are never as far apart as they seem, rather like the tradition/innovation complex. As discerning WWB readers, you knew that already.
Finn-Ole Heinrich is now most successful as a writer for children, but his adult fiction and short stories are just as playful and poignant. The story “You Turn Your Head, I Turn My Head” is part of a joint project with the musician Spaceman Spiff. While we don’t have sound here to underline the sense of loss it transmits, we do at least have space, and emptiness, and words.
Marianna Salzmann is in this issue because she’s pushing things forward in Germany’s theatre world, writing challenging parts for women and raising issues relevant to a wider audience than traditional well-heeled white theatregoers. Here, I’ve chosen one very short story and two monologues from her plays to give an idea of how strong her writing is, even before it hits the stage.
Noemi Schneider takes a trip around Israel and the occupied territories with a former IDF fighter turned journalist, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and God. God wants out at the next intersection; the Conflict wants to get drunk; the narrator’s grandfathers fought for the lunatic who had the ex-soldier’s grandparents gassed. It would be presumptuous for a German writer to know all the answers in the Middle East of all places, and Schneider gives us a bizarre slice of life in a confusing situation, somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.
Isabelle Lehn tells the story of “Aladdin,” an extra playing an Afghan villager on German soil in a war game for the U.S. Army, a “Civilian on the Battlefield.” How does it feel to surrender one’s identity for weeks at a time for the sake of a war on the other side of the world? And by extension—although Lehn has a very subtle touch—what must it feel like for real Afghans in the real war?
Francis Nenik’s story is another one that looks not to be about Germany but actually is, in a slippery way. Nenik is a comic genius, a master of dialogue and invention who finds humor in the darkest of places and darkness in the midst of jokes. He works with obscure factual material—in this case newspaper articles about a delivery of fertilized eggs to postwar Warsaw—to create his bizarre scenarios.
Olga Grjasnowa may be the best-known writer in this issue, since Other Press published her debut novel, All Russians Love Birch Trees, in Eva Bacon’s translation. Here, you get a taste of her second novel, set in Berlin and Baku and not shying away from subjects such as corruption, torture, the complications of sexuality and love. It’s stark and funny and scary and once again looks a little further afield than many other writers do.
Stephanie Bart’s “Rickshaw Diaries” grabbed me at first glance. Bart writes about the hard work, camaraderie, and political banter among the cyclists who take Berlin’s visitors from place to place—the underside of the city’s new tourism boom, if you like, and for me very much an antidote to those endless articles on Berlin as a playground for jet-setting party people. And she can write! Her sentences snake themselves around the action in that beautifully German way, and I’ve tried hard to keep them as long and lovely as in the original.
In her essay, Bettina Suleiman thinks less in terms of Germans and the rest of the world and more about humans and animals. What can we learn from our closest animal relatives about our own culture? Do we need rewards for our work or is creativity for its own sake better than a handful of peanuts?
Deniz Utlu has taken something old and made it very German and very modern, if you ask me. His poem is a poetic reply to the first three cantos of the Divine Comedy, reflecting a European way of life that sees mobility as a given and knows there can be no homecoming.
Whereas Simone Kornappel’s poem turns in circles, or rather in a spiral with a void at its center like a record (the gramophone record was invented by Emil Berliner, a Jewish-German immigrant to the United States who apparently left Hannover to avoid being drafted into the Franco-Prussian War, thus neatly tying together many of our themes). Introversion, creativity, motionlessness and silent containment; make of it what you will as you turn your head, I turn my head.
Many of these writers may be unfamiliar even to readers in Germany; I hope to let you sample exciting things to come, new voices being raised right now. Perhaps this issue of Words without Borders can become something like a virtual group photo showing one possible future of German writing.
© 2015 Katy Derbyshire. All rights reserved.