Encounters – The World Through the Eyes of German Authors

Richard Wagner in Romania

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner has lived in Berlin since 1987. Like many other Romanian-German authors, his writing was banned by the Communist authorities in Romania and he finally emigrated to Germany. He has written around 30 books – novels, essays and poems – and has won numerous literary prizes.

In his works, the reader can feel the scars left by the experience of dislocation, the trauma of dictatorship and a fundamental sense of restlessness. He views the world with an outsider's eye, turning a critical gaze on the realities of East and West, the present and the past. Richard Wagner talked to Rodica Binder about how his life and work have been shaped by his wanderings between cultures.

Richard Wagner - Romania
WMA, 1:07 Min.
Wagner: This is my country too, because I live here, I don't just reside here. I'm part of this country – soon I will have been here for 20 years, and as a German writer in Berlin I share in this country's debates and problems. And I have also built up a relationship with the places here.
But it is a different relationship from the one I have with places in Romania. The places where you grew up, where you spent your childhood … you have a different relationship with them. There is something special about them: they smell and feel different from all the other places that you call "home" later on in life.
So when it rains and the rain has a scent, it is the scent of the rain in the village in the Banat, in my childhood. Even though it has nothing to do with my life here, for me, the scent evokes Romania, not here.


Richard Wagner's memories chart his wanderings between cultures. In most cases, of course, emigration is a one-way ticket. There is no going back. Wagner explores this concept in two volumes of essays, Der deutsche Horizont (i.e. The German Horizon) and Sonderweg Rumänien (i.e. Romania – A Different Route). He has also crossed the Atlantic and spent time in the USA. All this leaves its traces, as readers can discover in his latest novel Habseligkeiten (i.e. Belongings). In it, Richard Wagner describes the restlessness of someone who is constantly on the move and cannot find inner peace.

What I wanted to do in Habseligkeiten was to describe the restlessness of someone who has emigrated and is constantly searching for something that they themselves cannot precisely define. They are looking for something which they never had or believe they never had … those people will never find inner peace, that is what I have discovered.

Experiences of the home country

The "belongings" – the migrant's few possessions – include the intellectual baggage that they bring with them. So what did Richard Wagner bring from Romania to Germany?

Well, I brought a certain mindset, certain attitudes based on my experiences and understanding of life in Romania and in the Banat. Much of it is what I have drawn and learned from Romanian culture, at least where it is not provincial – and there is a great deal in Romania that goes beyond the provincial. I have learned a lot from Romanian authors in this respect. I wasn't really aware of it while I was still living in Romania, because it was rendered banal by daily life and the ease with which we dealt with it. But here, I have become much more aware of it, from the different way I judge things, in the intellectual debates which take place here.

… Debates which are partly reflected in his book Der deutsche Horizont. Even the titles of Wagner's works evoke his journey: Ausreiseantrag (i.e. Exit Visa), Begrüssungsgeld (i.e. Welcome Cash), Der Himmel von New York im Museum von Amsterdam (i.e. The New York Sky in the Amsterdam Museum), Miss Bukarest (i.e. Miss Bucharest) or Reise in das Innere des Balkans (i.e. Journey to the Balkan Interior). Some of his destinations are close to his heart, especially Italy.

Cultivating urbanity

I spent a whole year in Italy in the early 1990s. I stayed at the Villa Massimo in Rome, which is nothing special for German writers, but for me at the time, it was a new experience, an insight into what we associate with "Western Europe". On the other hand, my experience of Italy was very different from that of my West German colleagues, who tended to cling to these Italian fantasies which have been popular since Goethe. For me, it was a very different experience because I recognised so much of this "Southern" Europe. That also had to do with the language, and with the access to the mentality; I was not naïve in Italy – because I came from Romania.

If Richard Wagner had to choose his destinations for the future, he would opt for places which have a historical resonance for him – regions he feels drawn to through his own literary, cultural and life experiences:

What I would like to do is travel back to Central Europe, and I'd like to do so at intervals so that I can look at the developments over time ... for instance, I'd like to go to Bucharest every now and then to see how the city is changing since it became free. That is what interests me about other places as well ... but it is the cities and urbanity which interest me most of all, because I think that urbanity is the core of European culture and you can see how the modern city – the modern European city – has evolved over time since the Middle Ages. Cultivating this urbanity is the key to Europe's future.

The full interview with Richard Wagner in German (WMA, 7:21 Min.)

Dr Rodica Binder
The radio version of this portrait was first aired by the programme of the Deutsche Welle

Copyright: Deutsche Welle

Translation: Hillary Crowe

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January 2007

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