“It Makes no Difference at all what Language You Write in.” An interview with Artur Becker
Mr Becker, you were born in 1968 in the Polish town of Bartoszyce in Masuria and came to Germany in 1985. Why Germany?
Germany’s often the simplest solution: our neighbour in the West, after all. Besides, the FRG in the 1970s and ’80s was synonymous with paradise.
In the special case of my family, I’d like to point out that my family on my father’s side is of German extraction, which in those days meant we could obtain German nationality without any trouble. The one thing that still had to be learnt was a trifle: the language in the mouth, the tongue, speaking. And later on the German mentality.
“Germany was like heartburn,” you have the protagonist of your novel Kino Muza say. Is that what you think too?
What I think is beside the point. I’m a novelist. This famous passage in the novel Kino Muza, the opening of the book, simply relates the traumatic feeling many emigrants have: they wake up at night and suddenly want to go home. And specifically in the case of a Spätaussiedler, in other words an ethnic German immigrant, which is what I am, it suddenly became clear to me that in one way or another I had to take responsibility for my new country, and for what my grandparents did – you understand….
I may be Polish because I grew up in the Polish language and in Poland, but leaving for Germany made me conscious of what a searing history this country has that will never leave you in peace. Or can you explain why your compatriots came up with the idea of gassing children? To this day I still can’t imagine why such a thing could happen in one of the most beautiful and cultivated countries in the world….
Do you write in Polish, too?
In Polish rarely, actually not at all, although I speak the language everyday and write it too – private and literary correspondence, e-mails and so forth.
I had to start writing in German at some point since I had no alternative: I had to reach my readers as fast as possible. So it happened that in 1989 I switched languages. For I was still very young and didn’t have any readers and publishers in Poland, and I wanted to get published here in the FRG.
Besides, it makes no difference at all what language you write in, since poetry floats on air. You catch it with the language you write in. And no one language is better than any other. Any language can become beauty and literature.
Are your books read in Poland?
Yes, as of December 2008, when my novel Kino Muza from 2003 comes out there – in a translation by Dariusz Muszer.
You write novels, short stories and poems. Which form is your favourite?
I like all three forms. I also write essays. A collection of my essays is in preparation.
With the novels I always embark on prolonged nocturnal journeys. They take two years. Stories or poems: sometimes you can finish them off in a day. The greatest thing for me is when I can work on a book day after day, night after night. It’s as great as sex or a campfire by Lake Dadaj in Masuria. People who think literature and art are a kind of fiction don’t understand a thing. Literature is reality. Robinson Crusoe is really alive.
The critics extol your zest for storytelling. Which novelists are your role-models?
Oh! So many: Marek Hłasko, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Jan Potocki, Cervantes, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Witold Gombrowicz and so on – by no means James Joyce, Franz Kafka or Thomas Bernhard! Bernhard says in an interview that a pregnant woman carries a 70-year-old greybeard in her belly. Whoever says something like that can go to hell. One has to have respect for life: life is holy and eternal.
Your stories are about border crossers and emigrants. How much of you, of your memories and experiences, do you put in your characters?
I think the whole Artur Becker is in my characters: his heart, his soul, his experience, his love of life, his faith in mankind, which should finally stop being the navel of the world.
But my characters are very independent. I observe them; sure, I only write about what I know, but I free myself more and more from my own views and opinions. The characters are supposed to be independent. But I’m not going to stop writing about my places and my people and friends and border crossers and emigrants: that’s my life, my spaceship.
In an interview you once said that when travelling to Masuria you feel as though you’d “only popped out of a Polish bar for a minute to get some cigarettes”. Are you homesick?
No, the image you mention has nothing to do with being homesick! But with the brevity of life and above all with how we’re constantly deluding ourselves. People on their deathbeds know what I mean when I say: Actually, I just went to the kiosk to get the paper and some cigarettes. I got back – and my life was already over.
Emigrants in particular have a very keen sense of leading a bogus life, for they’re absent the whole time from their real workplace, namely in their home country. But they shouldn’t think returning home can do the trick. For most of the people you once knew aren’t alive anymore.
And besides, our home is not on this earth, but elsewhere. Our scientists are forever groping in the dark. Instead they ought to work together with writers, philosophers, artists, musicians and clerics and prophets à la Jesus or Buddha. But nobody listens to us writers!
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
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