Rory MacLean meets Tilman Rammstedt
So begins Tilman Rammstedt’s wacky and wonderful third novel The King of China, the first of his books available in English, thanks to the gifted translator Katy Derbyshire and Seagull Books.
In this splendid tall tale, Rammstedt’s narrator Keith — after the telephone call — decides to pretend to travel to China, keeping the truth of the old man’s demise from his brothers and sisters. With the aid of a single guidebook, Keith sets about writing a series of letters home to them, detailing the imaginary journey and — in the process — telling a heart-warming love story of his grandfather and the fattest woman in the world, as well as that of Keith’s own amorous misadventures and his rather unusual upbringing.
‘Have I ever been to China?’ laughed Tilman Rammstedt, 38, when we met in Berlin. ‘No, never. In fact to write The King of China, I thought it was essential not to know the country.’ He lowered his downturned blue eyes and and let a flop of dark hair fall across his eyes. ‘You see, I’m not very keen on doing research. My knowledge on China was based on one guidebook, just like Keith’s.’
Self-effacing good humour apart, Rammstedt cannot obscure his book’s moving reflections on the nature of memory and truth, as well as on the power of the imagination.
‘There was no single event that led me to be a writer,’ he told me, recalling his youth in Bielefeld. ‘As I child I spent a lot of time reading and imagining, like many people. When I grew up I still found myself lost in thoughts and pondering possibilities, like many people. Simply put, I play out scenarios in my head. It’s a characteristic which I find to be very liberating, although it’s not particularly useful in everyday life.’
His imagination may not be ‘particularly useful’ but it has made him one of Germany’s most exciting young novelists, and most fabulous liars. After studying philosophy and comparative literature at the universities of Edinburgh, Tübingen and Berlin, Rammstedt caught the attention of the German publisher DuMont. At one of the capital’s Lesebühne evenings, where unknown writers read aloud their latest work, Rammstedt recounted a number of his hilarious, heartfelt stories, which DuMont promptly scooped up and published as Erledigungen vor der Feier. His debut novel was followed by Wir bleiben in der Nähe and the prestigious Open Mike award, as well as the Rheinische Kulturförderpreis, the New York stipend of the Kulturstiftung der Länder, the Kassel Literaturförderpreis for grotesque humour and the Literaturförderpreis of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, the Klagenfurt Days of Literature Audience Award and the Annette von Droste Hülshoff Prize.
‘I enjoy the playfulness of writing, of taking something imagined and making it real, at least in a book,’ he told me.
Readers and reviewers alike love Rammstedt’s funny, fast-paced playfulness. In a review Welt am Sonntag trumpeted ‘it would be difficult to find another living German writer who knows how to tell a story in such a wonderfully laconic fashion’. The respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung went further, declaring that The King of China is ‘a temple, a three-ring circus, a declaration of a love of fantasy because fantasy is a declaration of a love of life… [It is] a book that makes us miss our stop … because we cannot get off, not at this tempo which thrills and carries us away, far away, and which shakes us because we are suddenly laughing until we cry while looking at the insane, deep truth behind the “calligraphically" adorned facade.’ Finally Kulturspiegel likened Rammstedt’s novel to ‘…a film by the Coen brothers. . . uplifting in a way unusual in German literature. An entertaining book, not shallow, not smutty, not know-it-all. Simply great entertainment.’
His fourth book Die Abenteuer meines ehemaligen Bankberaters is made up of a series of imaginary, unanswered emails from his alter ego (also an author named Tilman) to the actor Bruce Willis. In the messages Tilman’s alter ego begs the Hollywood hero to help him to save a partly-written book by coming up with an ingenious plot twist. Unfortunately Rammstedt’s latest wild fantasy isn’t yet available for English readers.
Finally at the end of our meeting I asked Rammstedt if he ever hid under his desk like The King of China’s narrator Keith Stapperpfennig.
’Let’s just say, I’m not the sort of person who gets lost in beautiful dreams,’ he told me, again with gentle humility. ‘But I do get lost in catastrophic imaginings.’