Ilija Trojanow

Trojanow by Oliver Raw
Trojanow by Oliver Raw | Photo: Oliver Raw

On September 30, the world-roving German author Ilija Trojanow tried to board a plane in Brazil to fly to Miami, and from there, to Denver, where he was to attend a conference on German literature, culture and history. He was detained at the Salvador de Bahia airport, and, without any explanation, told he would not be permitted to enter the United States. Still, he thought he knew why. 

Although Trojanow is best known for his spellbinding, prize-winning 2006 novel about the adventures of the 19th-century British explorer Richard Francis Burton, “The Collector of Worlds,” he had written a short, non-fiction book in 2009, along with the writer Juli Zeh, called “Attack on Freedom,” which deplored government intrusion into the private lives of citizens. In that book, the authors asked rhetorically: “Why are you being so closely surveilled? There’s no reason anybody could be interested in you, right? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?” In recent years, they explained, Big Brother had stealthily extended their monitoring of the phone calls, purchasing patterns, and commuting habits of ordinary Germans (assisted by the internet, social media and GPS), under the logic that, “If you’re not hiding anything terrible, you’ve got nothing to fear.” The authors objected to this logic. “This is not 1984 in Oceania, it is the year 2009 in the Bundesrepublik. If you think you’re above suspicion,” they wrote, “You are a hopeless optimist.”

In summer 2013, the prescience of Trojanow and Zeh’s misgivings was confirmed as the word spread overseas that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America’s National Security Agency had taken to monitoring European communications to an unprecedented and undisclosed extent. The news of this border-jumping invasion of other nations’ privacy was leaked by a former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden; and its diplomatic repercussions continue to unspool to this day. In the last week of October, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel directly asked US President Barack Obama if her cellphone conversations had been monitored, and received the partial answer that they were not, at present, and would not be in future. Back in July, Trojanow and Zeh were among some 70,000 signatories of an open letter to Chancellor Merkel demanding a strong German response to NSA eavesdropping. Trojanow concluded that he had been barred from the U.S. because of his outspoken criticism of the NSA. On October 1, he published an account of his visa ordeal in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he wrote, “It is more than ironic for an author who has raised his voice against the dangers of surveillance and the police state to be denied entry to the ‘land of the free and the brave.’ ” It may have been ironic, but as Trojanow's own writing attests, it was not exactly surprising. Members of the German PEN organization promptly circulated a public letter demanding an explanation of the reasons for Trojanow’s blackballing by American authorities; and there the matter rests.

Only, the matter does not rest. On November 14, Trojanow is scheduled to appear in New York as a guest of the 10th annual New Literature from Europe festival, along with eight other European authors “whose writing blurs national boundaries.” Will he be permitted to enter America, this time? He has a new book to discuss, “EisTau,” (“IceMelt”, 2011, Carl Hanser Verlag), a moving novel about the perils of global warming, set among the shrinking glaciers of the Alps and Antarctica; which would seem to constitute no threat to American national security. If his visa to this country is once again denied, the question presents itself: in what universe does a global outlook and a strong social conscience make a man a public enemy? Trojanow put it differently in his novel “The Collector of Words,” when Burton’s disgruntled foreign hosts mulled the possible negative consequences of the Englishman’s journeys through their lands. “What can one single man do?” mused an official named Sharif. “Even if he were a spy, a particularly deft and cunning spy, what can a simple pilgrim observe, how could he endanger the future.…?”

Trojanow, who grew up mostly in Kenya and Germany, lived in Bombay for a time in his thirties, and who has written half a dozen sensitively observed non-fiction books about India, Africa and Islam, came by his curiosity about far-off lands organically and without subterfuge. Like millions of others, in this age of air travel, he moved freely for decades among multiple nations. Unlike the protagonist of “Collector of Worlds,” he did not have to surmount perilous obstacles to expand his knowledge, nor did he have to disguise himself to move in foreign circles. Nonetheless, judging from his current Kafkaesque predicament, he might have been better off had he followed the advice that one of his characters, an Egyptian merchant called Wali, gave Burton before he began his hajj: “Always conceal, as the proverb has it, thy tenets, thy treasure, and thy travelling.” But current international border regulations ensure that a modern-day explorer cannot travel incognito, as Burton did in the mid-nineteenth century; and freedom of speech—the value that German PEN defiantly upheld in Trojanow’s defense— is more than a privilege; it’s a right supported by the U.S. Bill of Rights, the German Basic Law, and myriad other national constitutions. Could Burton have made it to Mecca, to Medina, and to the Great North African lakes of Tanganyika and Victoria (which he put on the map in 1858), and made his valuable contribution to literature and scholarship, if his every word and step had been tracked and second-guessed as he pursued his ambitions? As it was, even in the 19th century, long before the arrival of a digital trail, a paper trail dogged Burton’s steps: “You could change practically everything about yourself, but not your record,” a British general reflects in Trojanow’s novel, as he considers the Burton problem. “His understanding of the natives, their way of thinking, customs, language, is profound and could potentially be of great use. But the intimacy which feeds this knowledge has led Lieutenant Burton to a confusion of loyalties.” A soldier’s loyalty belongs to his country; but a writer’s loyalty transcends geopolitical concerns: it belongs to his work. And Trojanow is not a soldier.

The world has always partly admired, partly mistrusted those adventurous souls (real or fictional) who study distant lands up close. The wily Odysseus captivated Homer, but was a pariah among the Trojan people, who resented the privy knowledge of their customs that Odysseus used to permit the Greeks to take their walled city. Burton, whose matchless accounts of his travels through India, Africa and the Muslim world immeasurably enriched the historical record, was derided by his countrymen and his foreign hosts as an insubordinate, immoral eccentric; and, more recently, the American zoologist Dian Fossey, who devoted her life to the study of primates in Rwanda, was killed in that country in 1985, a murder that remains unsolved. Trojanow is only the latest addition to a long and distinguished lineage. In life, these explorers easily acquire as many enemies as friends; in death and in literature, their exploits become legend.

Those who seek to curtail Ilija Trojanow’s investigations of global culture or curb his literary output should read his body of work, then take in mind the reproach that Sir Richard Burton, in Trojanow’s novel, made to a foreigner who criticized him for interfering in other peoples’ struggles: “You only ever think in crude patterns: friend and enemy, ours and theirs, black and white,” Burton reproved. “Can’t you imagine that there’s an in-between?”