"The Fun-Loving Culture is Fairly Widespread in Cologne."
"It's only a few tram stops away, but when she reaches Sachsenring she feels as though in the centre of a small town in which, for all that, an insurance company and the biggest factory in the area have put up their office buildings. The streets are only made to drive through and the place is cut off from all the residential districts. Every morning finds fresh graffiti on the building's white façades, usually they're cleaned off again and repainted during the day so sprayers have a clear backdrop to work on."
This is how Christina, one of the two protagonists in your novel Paare [Couples], experiences her ride to the office. Do you share your protagonist's impressions?
I'm always seeking what may have been wafting in the air in the early '50s: a light, gentle, sprightly Cologne.
| View of Cologne|
You've been living with your family in Cologne since 1986. What drew you to Cologne in the first place…?
My family didn't come till later. But in those days it was my dream to become a writer, I wanted to write my first novel, and back then in Cologne it was simply a fresh and lively literary scene that attracted me. That was essentially serendipity, an accumulation; I met lots of other writers, made personal and professional contacts. They eventually dispersed, some of them don't live in Cologne any more, and nobody would call it a literary centre any more. Nor is much being done to make it that either.
… and what appeals to you now?
The feeling that this is a very old city in which you may be able to relativize the present sometimes, you don't have to take yourself so terribly seriously. If I may quote from my last novel, Ins leise Zimmer ["Into the Quiet Room"], on the subject of what's so likeable about Cologne: "The atmosphere, as though you were living in a rather threadbare living room that was decorated in the '50s? [...] The mood on some summer evenings was lovely, drowsy and immobilized by the sultry air, when everyone became listless, peaceable, careless: that was Cologne, this humid embayment with the stagnant air and the people who could take it easy. [...] The heat these people gave off."
Yes, it's probably the people that still attract me now. If other people inhabited the place, Cologne would be unbearable.
Like your novel Paare ["Couples"], published in 2000 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Cologne, the short story Mostly Blues is also set in your adopted city. There's a scene in it that takes place in a "clerical supplies shop" in the city's so-called "Little Red Riding Hood" quarter. What's your impression of the mark Roman Catholicism has made on day-to-day life in Cologne?
The story's about old Heinrich Böll and Catholic Cologne. And this Cologne of the clergy, of Böll and Adenauer, that's really old history, there's hardly any of it left now. Though perhaps in the mindset. Maybe this superficial, sloppy, loudmouthed aspect is Catholic? The feeling everything could still turn out alright if only one were to repent, a vestige of the Catholic stamp?
In Mostly Blues, "Köbes" – as they call waiters at brewery bars in Cologne – serve Kölsch (i.e. beer) and Hämchen (i.e. pork knuckles). Are the Kölner particularly proud of their traditions and peculiarities?
Sometimes it's wonderful to plunge into a brewery bar (a certain one, at any rate), into the idea of it: everybody's talking all at once, no holds barred; it's thoroughly democratic, always somewhat ironic there, no dull beer-guzzling atmosphere; people drink this light, bright, almost sweet beer, you feel secure, there's something maternal, protective, nurturing for me there. Everyone's talkative, outgoing, lively, moments like that can be very exhilarating.
In 2003 you were a guest in Paris for two months as the "Metropolitan Writer" of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. How would you compare it to Cologne, the metropolis on the Rhine?
When you drive in from Paris on the A4, you see Cologne lying like a village in a hollow, and there's just no comparison. I wouldn't prefer Paris, I could live there, too, it just so happened that we settled down in Cologne and we find hardly anything wanting here.
Cologne is the home of a great many TV production companies. You take the media people severely to task in an article that came out last summer in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger: "It's all about figures, ratings, volumes, consumption. There are shows, gags, diversity, razzmatazz. […] A group of TV entertainers, stars, wag publishers are ubiquitous and have long since taken it upon themselves to represent the literary profession, without anyone's protesting. Writers are no longer in demand. It's not about content any more – and hasn't been for some time." Does this indifference to content set Cologne apart from other big cities in Germany?
The fun-loving culture has become rather widespread in Cologne. There are more serious, artier cities in which content still means something. Of the cities I know well, Leipzig always seemed to me to be one such place. Maybe in Cologne the fun-loving culture isn't taken quite seriously.
Do you see the lit.COLOGNE, a weeklong literary festival to be held for the sixth time this mid-March, as a glimmer of hope?
Naturally, it's always a good thing when literature gets plenty of attention, a big audience, nationwide coverage. But I have doubts as to whether literature (that is to say what I mean by that, not celebrity books or showy events) is really identical to consumption and chic and glamour and fun. There is a "house of literature" in Cologne, one storey in a high-rise office building in the Mediapark, which unfortunately has not become the place to go for Cologne's authors: its atmosphere doesn't appeal to anyone who writes or wants to write.
Instead of spending lots of money on a couple of big names once a year, I'd rather see it used for a sort of writing academy that would attract more young writers again. There's ample material in this city, you can experience plenty here, but I have the feeling that, unfortunately, young people who want to write go to Berlin or Leipzig or Hildesheim, not Cologne, and that has a rebound effect on the atmosphere in this city, of course.
| Museum Ludwig|
To places where you can discover the soul or the secret of the city if you listen closely or have the time to look closely. The lower middle-class streets behind Mauritiuskirchplatz, or Bobstrasse. A tram ride all the way to Zündorf through the neighbourhoods on the right bank of the Rhine. A stroll down Engelbertstrasse, where Rolf-Dieter Brinkmann used to live. The steps of the Freibad Stadion [outdoor swimming pool complex] in late August, under the chestnut trees.
|Roland Koch (b. 1959) did his doctorate on the Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer and now lives with his family as a freelance author in Cologne. Koch writes for radio and the press. He teaches as a visiting professor at the Deutsches Literaturinstitut (Institute of German Literature) in Leipzig and ran a creative writing workshop at the University of Hildesheim. Koch received a Rolf Dieter Brinkmann grant from the City of Cologne and an award for aspiring authors from the State of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1992, the Bettina von Arnim Award in 1995, and most recently Playboy magazine's Gratwanderpreis for erotic short stories in 1999. In 2003 he was named Minden's "writer-in-residence" and North Rhine-Westphalia's "Metropolitan Writer" in Paris.
Novels and short stories (a small selection):
|Cologne's vital statistics
Every year on average
Source: City of Cologne – Office of Urban Development and Statistics (as per end of 2004)
Philosophy in Kölsch (the local dialect):
Beer and carnival:
20 different brands of Kölsch beer are brewed in Cologne and
a freelance journalist based in Bonn.
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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