Spectres of the past, prolepsis of the future:
German-language literature 2015
Head of Literarische Welt
We recall the famous words of Kafka that writers should go fast, like a watch. In fact, the opposite is all too frequently the case, if only because it takes years to write a novel. Yet literature is already a resonant space for the current new epoch because some developments are not that surprising or new.
In Henning Ahrens’ novel Glantz und Gloria (Glantz and Glory), the narrator returns to his native village of Glantz (meaning “shine”) in a hilly German landscape called Düster (meaning “dark” or “gloomy”), where he becomes a witness and later a victim of concentrated public anger towards “immigrants”, which in this petty-minded world is even used of people from the neighbouring village. One night, controlled by base material interests, a jingoistic army of zombies marches onto the scene, celebrates Germanic black masses and chants: “Im Blick den Ahn, / im Hirn den Plan: / Weltuntertan. / Die Heimat uns! / Hurra, hurra – / Präteritum ist wieder da!” (Our eyes on our ancestors, in our minds a plan: the earth subdued, the homeland ours! Hurrah, hurrah, we’re living in the past tense!) In a racy gothic novel, Ahrens recounts a story of the German provinces, playing ironically with quotations, describing a piece of the reality of 2015 in a highly topical way.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Roman Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone) is seen to be a direct response to the mass flight of refugees. In it, the author, who was born in East Berlin in 1967, sends a retired professor on a private research project. He asks hunger-striking refugees in Berlin about their story and their problems and increasingly moves from observation to energetic action. Pleasing as it is that a political subject is being addressed here, it does highlight the crucial problem of literature on the news flow. What was a marginal topic in the media when the novel was being written is now ubiquitous – the plight of refugees and problems with integration can be heard and read daily on all the media channels. That is not Jenny Erpenbeck’s fault. However, while her novel seems to have been overtaken by events, Henning Ahrens’ much more artificial work continues to be of pressing current relevance.
Other storytellers are also occupied with the question of the relationship of the contemporary novel to the present. In Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre (The Hour Between Woman and Guitar), for example, Graz writer Clemens J. Setz sends his narrator Natalie, a young special education teacher, into a hell of stalking, surveillance and manipulation, demonstrating with his usual virtuosity and genius that the contemporary consciousness, not to mention narrative, no longer distinguishes between real and virtual world. In Das bessere Leben (The Better Life), Ulrich Peltzer attempts to focus on the global flows of finance using two main characters, and to grasp the strange discrepancy between the randomness of individual biographies and the supposedly fateful imperatives of economic, technical and social developments. Peltzer’s heroes still feel the thorn in the flesh of society put there by left-wing Utopias.
Ulrich Peltzer was born in Krefeld in 1956. Frank Witzel (born in Wiesbaden in 1955) belongs to the same post-1968 generation who grew up at the time of the revolts. Witzel very surprisingly won the German Book Prize with his lengthy novel Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969 (The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969) – most observers had seen Erpenbeck or Peltzer as favourites. Witzel tells a convoluted, ambitious story of growing up in the old Federal Republic of Germany, which is surrounded by its demons, such as RAF terrorists or the state institutions hunting them. Sources of wisdom here are pop music and the Catholic catechism; time and again, the narrator is drawn into conversational situations that shift between interrogation, confession and therapy session. The whole novel, in a form that manifestly draws on the programmatic formal experiments of James Joyces’ Ulysses, works through deep emotional injuries - writing as dream therapy.
But there are other wounds that keep reopening. One of this season’s most-discussed books was Ralf Rothmann’s war novel Im Frühling sterben (To Die in Spring), which recounts the familiar story of very young Wehrmacht soldiers in the last months of the war. Walter, who has hardly come of age, volunteers to join the Waffen-SS and is deployed with a supply unit in Hungary. He does not get to fight, but has to join a firing squad that has to execute a deserter, his best friend in peacetime.
In writing this story, Rothmann is attempting to get closer to his father, who died young, whose wartime experiences were cloaked in secrecy, as in so many families. What Rothmann presents is a biographical fantasy, a conjecture, to explain what emotional baggage his father passed on to his son epigenetically, as it were. “And what happened to the one who has to shoot? What does he inherit?” Walter asks his friend, shortly before his death: “How should I know that, chief? Probably great sorrow ...“ Rothmann, the great melancholic among contemporary writers, thus provides a novelistic explanation for his own predispositions. In the end, then, everything in contemporary German-language literature does home in on the Nazis after all.
Matthias Nawrat, who was born in Poland in 1979 and emigrated to Germany as the age of ten, offers a sophisticated and clever way of approaching contemporary history. In Die vielen Tode unseres Opas Jurek (The Many Deaths of Grandfather Jurek), the Polish history of the last century - from defeat in 1939 and the German occupation, the subsequent “shift to the West” and the vicissitudinous history of the People’s Republic until the Jaruzelski era – is reported as a collective myth, as a collection of anecdotes passed on orally, and significant stories of heroes and saints. The discrepancy between historical schoolbook knowledge and the euphemistic tone – for example in a report about Auschwitz – gives rise to a disturbing alienation effect.
It is certainly no coincidence that Nawrat, by virtue of the fact that he is rooted in two national remembrance cultures, is especially sensitive to the traps of cliché when recounting history. As was already the case in recent years, German-language contemporary literature is seeing an unprecedented boost of vitality as well as variety in terms of form and content on account of authors with a “migration background“.
Kat Kaufmann, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1981, was presented with the aspekte literature prize for her debut novel Superposition. The phantom pain of an amputated world of origin is tangible everywhere here; holding onto the tiniest souvenirs is all the more important, to apparently trivial memories of the lost land of childhood that is not simply a long way away, but also no longer exists as a state – like pre-war Syria today. Less brutishly and less like pop literature, but also with melancholic wit, Romanian writer Dana Grigorcea, who lives in Switzerland, gives an account of Bucharest before and after the political transformation. Again and again trapdoors of remembrance open up in a repatriate’s observations.
Anyone wanting to find the subject of refugees in contemporary literature should not look in the wrong place. In fact, it is usually writers originating from Eastern Europe or from the Balkans who describe the painful loss of a home country, everyday life in a foreign land and the, perhaps, hopefully, happy arrival in a new culture and language. One can anticipate what a long and difficult path still lies ahead of many people. Germany is an immigration country. And its literature has long been immigration literature.
Head of Literature at Die WELT and WELT AM SONNTAG
Head of Literarische Welt
Born in Krefeld in 1969, studied in Cologne and Tübingen, 2000 to 2010 editor of the features pages at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, since 2010 Senior Editor of the features pages at Die WELT
“Das kurze Glück der Gegenwart. Deutschsprachige Literatur seit ´89“, Klett-Cotta, 2011.