A Literary House Call
The very evening of my second day in Göttingen, although still jetlagged, I took part in a literary Hausbesuch (“house call”), as it was called in the programme. Irmy Schweiger, who had invited me to Germany and is in charge of literary exchange in the Intercultural German Studies Department at the University of Göttingen, accompanied me that evening and translated the event to me as “拜访” (“to visit someone”). It was to be the ninth such Hausbesuch. These literary house calls were started up by Hauke Hückstädt, former director of the Göttingen Literary Centre: the point is to move literary readings from the public to the private realm, where literature knocks at the door like a guest and walks in for a casual, cheerful house call. For lack of space, the crowd usually can’t be big, around 20-30 people, who are not informed of the identity and address of the “host” until they buy a ticket, so as to give the event a somewhat more mysterious touch. It could be a friend, co-worker or someone else.
As we walked through a long stretch of woods on the way there, Irmy told me that our host that evening was, surprisingly enough, her own daughter’s schoolteacher. The guest of honour, the one who provides the literature, was Lutz Seiler, a German writer who has won several awards, including the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, a major distinction in the German-speaking world. He started out writing poetry and switched to novels later on, he’s famous for his very elegant prose. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with this author because his works haven’t been translated into Chinese yet. After a while Irmy and I got to talking about eloquence and translation: Compared to works characterized by complicated plots or subject-matter, writers of highly sophisticated prose are harder to put across to another culture through translation because what is special about their use of language changes and disappears, or even loses its meaning in translation if badly done. This is just the old problem of literary translation, although, as a writer, I cannot help being a bit moved by the subtlety and complexity of the task, for this is precisely what goes to make up the sensitivity, the limitations and the pride of literature.
The official start was 8pm, guests to be admitted from 7.45pm. We got there a few minutes before that and waited in front of the house, talking as the other guests trickled in, many by bike with beads of sweat on their foreheads, it was a hot summer evening. Göttingers love to bike, Irmy once took her two daughters on an extended two-week cycle tour of Eastern Germany. And since Göttingen is relatively small, cycling and walking are the most sensible ways to get around. Which also explains why it’s so quiet and smells so good in this little city. No doubt it’s perfectly normal to people here in Göttingen to be constantly enveloped by the scent of grass and woods, though compared with my busy, noisy, sometimes lovable and sometimes detestable Nanjing, it makes me feel a certain dreamy sentimentality.
It’s time, everyone goes inside. My expectations are actually borne out, it really does seem an event for literary buffs: there are publishers here, retired professors, doctors, artists, students and others. A childhood friend of the author’s has come, even friends from out of town. Apart from myself, an exotic newcomer, most of the listeners are well acquainted with one another, Irmy in particular has contact with many of them through her courses. Whilst everyone was talking during the wait, with Irmy’s interpreting help I had a word with a literary publisher whose house has already translated some works by a Korean poet. The process went like this: first they were translated into German by a Korean who knows German, then a German poet reworked the poetic side, in other words two operating processes! Irmy said she has students in her classes translate a German novel into Chinese, then she has Chinese students translate it back into German, and in the end they compare the retranslation with the original and discuss the differences… It’s still all about translation! We are forever struggling from various directions and hoping to get even closer to the other’s soul, oh Tower of Babel!
After a few words of introduction by the host and the Göttingen Literary Centre (studded, of course, with some humorous references to the classics), Lutz Seiler had a brief exchange with the audience and thanked important friends before starting to read. He had chosen a book about his childhood memories in East Germany, so it also evoked the details and atmosphere of that era. The question-and-answer session afterwards brought up matters like East Germany’s past, an adult’s point of view versus a child’s loneliness, as well as writing versus living… Die Zeitwaage (“The Time Balance”), the title of the book, is a little machine which is attached to a clock and ceaselessly rocks back and forth. After her elaborate gesticulations and my casual suggestion of combining the abstract with the concrete, Irmy and I ended up translating the title as “时间秤”. I like the title a lot, there’s something open-ended about it.
The reading lasted about 40 minutes. Since I couldn’t understand a thing, I basically let my mind wander the whole 40 minutes long, 40 minutes in a different space and time. Accompanied by the soft tapping on my eardrum of the rise and fall of a foreign language, I gazed up through the skylight at the horizon, streaked with colours from bright orange-red to grey-blue, my eyes roamed past the black-and-white calendar portraits hanging on the wall to the people sitting stock-still in the room, all strangers to me, and on to the cheese that was gradually getting softer and the red wine, waiting like a bride for a kiss, on the long table… The prose flowed, diffusing freely in the air, but I had a different feeling: if we were to put literature on one side of the time balance, then everything we can see, or even more, the whole world, would be on the other side. Or we put nothing on both sides, for literature can be as heavy or as light as the little city of Göttingen outside the window, or as my Nanjing, or as every tiny glimmer of moonlight in the world and as all its insomniac faces.
Lu Min (鲁敏) has been writing novels and short stories since 1998. Her works translated into English to date include: Dinner for Six (六人晚餐), A Second Pregnancy, 1980 (1980年的二胎), Xie Bomao R.I.P. (谢伯茂之死), Paradise Temple (西天寺), Hidden Diseases (暗疾) and This Love Could Not Be Delivered (此情无法投递).
Lu Min has won a great many awards (Lu Xun Literary Prize, Award for “Significant Literature”, People’s Literature Prize, Yu Dafu Prize, Prize of “Chinese Writers” magazine Zhongguo Zuojia (中国作家), Biannual Award for Chinese Fiction, readers’ award of Selected Stories magazine (小说选刊), “Hundred Flowers Prize for Originality” awarded by “Fiction Monthly” magazine Xiaoshuo Yuebao (小说月报), 2007 Annual Award for Young Writers). The “People’s Literature” magazine Renmin Wenxue (人民文学) ranked her among the “top 20 writers of the future”, and the Taiwanese UNITAS Publishing Co.’s Association for Chinese Fiction among the “20 under 40“. Some of her works have also been translated into German, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Arabic.