Literature Isabel Bogdan

 Artist in Residence: A Month in Nanjing
On one of the last days of August, the telephone rings, it’s Nora Gomringer. We’ve only met briefly, I’m somewhat surprised. I’m even more surprised when she asks whether I’d like to go to China for a month – before the end of the year. As an “artist-in-residence” at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut and Nanjing University.

My first reaction: China? How on earth should I know whether I’d like to?
Second reaction: They don’t want me at all. They want a “real” writer, one who’s written a novel for the Goethe-Institut to gild itself with. Not a translator who wrote a fun little book.
Third reaction (and the first sensible one): What a question, of course I want to!
The official invitation comes on 6 September and before I know it it’s 3 November and I’m sitting on a plane to Nanjing. Just like that.

China! What a country! China blows me away for now.
It’s loud and packed always and everywhere in Nanjing. People push, shove and spit. The latter involves conveying whole trunkloads of gunk up from their bronchi whilst working up a remarkable mix of sound effects. And then there’s the traffic! Cars do stop at red lights, to some extent, the countless mopeds do not. When a pedestrian is in the way, they don’t brake, they honk. Which is good because they’re electric, you can’t hear them coming. I hear two different takes on the chaotic traffic: one side says never ever ever does anything happen, the other says of course accidents occur all the time.
People “secretly” snap pictures of foreigners, especially those over 1.80 m (5’11”) tall and blond. Sometimes not so secretly, however, sometimes they come up to me, giggle (it’s almost always women) and then give me to understand that their boyfriend is now going to take a photo of himself and me. They’re not asking me, they’re informing me. They peer into your handbag, your purse, and read along with you whilst you’re checking your mobile. I’m trying to fight off the jetlag and pretty often during my first days there I just want to shut my door and my eyes. This is probably what’s known as culture shock. And jetlag.

But all the people I meet – especially Ms Xu from the Goethe-Institut, Professors Yin and Kong from the German department at the university and the students – are incredibly endearing. I’m touched at the way they mollycoddle and take care of me (“First thing you need is tissues, there’s no bum fodder around here anywhere”) and make sure someone’s there to collect me my first few days there, to take me to the university and accompany me shopping, and over and over again they say I’m to call them anytime there’s a problem. I am looked after and left alone in just the right measure. That’s a big help because in fact nobody out there speaks a word of English, and at the outset I’m really not sure how I’m to cope on my own.

Naturally, however, I come to realize over time: of course I can cope by myself. Of course I can take the metro by myself and of course I can go places and walk around and seek out the sights or museums or simply roam the city and look around. Sit down somewhere and then walk on, hoping that the next metro station will find me.  I have a city map listing the streets both in Chinese and alphabetically, what could go wrong? Of course I’ll manage. And there’s food at every street corner anyway that hardly costs a thing, there are countless delicacies (and some undefinable dishes…), grocery stores and kiosks, and if you can’t communicate, then you simply don’t communicate. You always make it to where you’re going all the same and you always find something to eat and drink.

At first I hang out mostly with the German students. They take me along for dinner, which is nice of them, because there usually aren’t any menus in English or even photos, and they go on a few outings with me. The first really big thing I do alone is a trip to Shanghai, for three days. And that’s where I have my first massive “Wow!” moment. But first I argue with a taxi driver who wants to overcharge me. I’ve been in China long enough now to know the fare he’s asking is a rip-off. So I get out, take a different taxi, the driver turns on the taximeter and immediately I feel quite professional. I have him drive me to the hotel, and soon, off I go, turn the corner after a hundred metres and find myself standing on the Bund. It’s gorgeous weather, and on the other side of the river is the financial district, that skyline you know from pictures, the skyscrapers glisten, the river glitters, and I think: Wow, wow, wow. You’re in Shanghai! This is wild! I have the feeling things are really going to get going. I’m on my own now, which works just fine, I walk around for three days and look around and do stuff and see stuff and get a massage and explore the city and find everything great.

Then I go back to Nanjing, where I don’t find everything all that oppressive anymore, suddenly I have the feeling time is running out, not even two weeks left to go, there’s still so much I want to do and see! So I really go for it in Nanjing, visit temples and pagodas, climb mountains and look down and never cease to be fascinated by the smog. Nearly all my photos as though shot through uncleaned windows.
But I’m not here as a tourist, I go to the university four hours a week to report on “Literary life in Germany” and do some practical work with the students. First I talk about translating and what a translator’s life is like in Germany. We try to translate into Chinese a passage from Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick [award-winning young-adult fiction (2010) about the unusual friendship between two boys, one German, the other a Russian immigrant – Translator’s note]. It’s an experiment, seeing as for one thing the original is pretty demanding, for another I can’t say a thing about the Chinese translation. Then we read a Christmas story together, and the German students and I talk about German Christmas traditions. To conclude the workshop, I talk about writing and then have the students produce their own texts – in German, in other words in what is to them a foreign language. The results are impressive, we laugh a lot reading them aloud and are sometimes quite moved.

I’ve got used to the city, to the hustle and bustle in the street, and don’t find the people all that ill-mannered anymore. Little kids for instance – they’re usually out and about with their grandparents – are incredibly easy-going, friendly and good-humoured. You almost never see a kid crying, whining or throwing a tantrum. Again I hear two different theories, one says they’re raised more strictly than spoiled German brats, according to the other each of them is an only child, so they’re all spoiled rotten and never have any reason to complain.

Or the old folks who gather the big square with their diabolos, performing the most incredible tricks. Wonderful ambiance, wonderful people! We watch for a long time and eventually get to give it a try ourselves for a little while.

I visit some more temples, open-air museums and reconstructed “old  towns” and go to the Kun Opera. It’s all terrific, I’m blown away and want more of the same. But what spontaneously thrills me most in Nanjing is the Librairie Avant-Garde, a bookshop housed in what used to be an underground garage. “China’s most beautiful bookshop”, so they say. The store is huge, nearly four thousand square metres, and full of translations of European classics in literature, philosophy, economics, political science, I’m hugely impressed. An art book corner, too. Surprisingly, there aren’t any foreign-language books, it’s all in Chinese. Plus a café and a little knick-knack stand. I sit down in the café, drink a cup of coffee, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is playing, and I feel at home. In a subterranean garage at the other end of the world, where I can hardly read a single book.

For the grand finale, Ms Xu and Ms Yin arrange for me to visit Zhu Yingchun, one of China’s most renowned book designers. One of the German students comes along, Jan Risser, who speaks good Chinese and interprets for Zhu and me. Zhu shows us his office and his treasures – beautiful books, I’d like to buy them all on the spot (well, I actually do! though not all of them). He brews us some tea and talks about his work, we have an incredibly pleasant and inspiring afternoon.
And it’s my last. I have the feeling I’ve only just settled in, but the month’s already over and I’m leaving. And yet there’s so much I didn’t do! I still have to get Zhu to sign a book which I was stupid not to buy right away. I didn’t go to the nightlife district, the 1912. I didn’t go to see Beijing, didn’t see the Wall either. I saw far too little, above all too little that was unusual. I didn’t try anywhere near enough new dishes, especially the unusual ones. I didn’t go to Hong Kong, or Hangzhou for that matter. I didn’t have a dress made for me, I didn’t see any water calligraphy or do any Tai Chi. Naturally, that just won’t do, I’ll have to go back.


Isabel Bogdan, b. 1968 in Cologne, did her English and Japanese studies in Heidelberg and Tokyo. Lives in Hamburg because it’s so beautiful there. Reads, writes, translates (Jane Gardam, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nick Hornby, Jasper Fforde et al.). Her own first book, Sachen machen (“Doing Things”), was published by Rowohlt in 2012, her first novel, Der Pfau (“The Peacock”), by Kiepenheuer and Witsch in 2016. President of the society to save the literary blogsite “anderthalb”. Awarded the Hamburg prize for most promising literary translator in 2006 and for most promising writer in 2011. Blogger of the year 2014 along with Maximilian Buddenbohm for the interview project “Was machen die da?” (“What Are They Doing There?”).