On Working on Surfaces
During the time when The Shadow-Boxing Woman came about, I wrote a piece describing the work of a calligrapher. I had watched him, a Japanese man, during a summer holiday in southern Europe, in a field near a campsite. What captivated me about him above all was his movements, not so much what was written on the paper afterwards. I watched him at an angle from behind as he made a series of circling motions with his arms and torso, until at some point the writing implement almost coincidentally stroked across the paper, depositing the characters very rapidly in a single movement, which was very inconspicuous and seemed to have no beginning or end.
Why do I always return to this image whenever I think about my writing? The writing process appears here not as an isolated act concentrated solely on the product, with a resolution, a beginning, an execution and an equally calculated ending. Instead, it is embedded in a collection of movements that take place somewhere quite different – in one’s head, body, one’s shoulders – just as literature is the end result of a wide variety of preconditions, of the life behind the writing, the reading experiences, the decisions one makes in advance on how to deal with one’s material.
And only if one is conscious of these preconditions and knows how and why one makes use of them, do texts come about that are more than just fiction.
For a long time, I considered it a fortunate coincidence to have come across that man. I watched him and did not have to explain anything, was able to remain absolutely on the surface, simply describing his movements. It was only much later that I realized that this is far less self-evident than it appeared to me at the time. That there are reasons for such a gaze.
In the East Asian context, repetition of superficially very normal everyday tasks such as making tea, arranging flowers, or in fact – in an extrinsic sense – writing, writing something down, is an art form that elevates and transcends the task itself. Europeans tend to confuse this with a mere ritual, a compulsory duty. There are no indications in our lives here in Germany that it might be more than that; we are familiar only with the old German penmanship (and the associated sitting still), which our grandparents and great-grandparents once had to suffer.
At the beginning of the 1990s I wanted to be a Sinologist. I occupied myself with learning the Chinese language and with East Asian art and its philosophical and intellectual traditions. I found that it is not difficult to acquire Pǔtōnghuà, standard Chinese, as long as one avoids approaching its unfamiliar and incomprehensible aspects via a translation process. Instead, one has to vacate one’s mind as far as possible and learn anew how to speak, write and ultimately even think.
This experience, of another grammar, another significance of phoneticism and a far more complex form of notation, led to my own language becoming unfamiliar to me. It was now merely one possibility among many. I lost the innocence with which I had moved within it and saw it suddenly as a structure, a system. After two years I gave up my degree and started writing.
This de-familiarization of my own language and the exploration of surfaces have remained constants in my work over the years.
The central points of The Shadow-Boxing Woman are remote, seemingly almost abandoned places in Berlin in the early 1990s, areas that ought to have been the centre on the basis of the city’s structure, but that due to the historical situation no longer were, not yet were again. Here again, I essentially studied a surface, that of the city. It is a text in which descriptions become the storyline. And in which Berlin is even more of a protagonist than the main character is.
In the novel Was Dunkelheit war (What Was Darkness), the situation is reversed: the direct surroundings of the main character – an old man who inherits a house from a former war comrade late in life, moves into it and dies there – are absolutely unspectacular, private, dull. A couple of rooms, corridors, a hotel, a butcher’s shop, a nearby park. Yet these faceless spaces and streets, apparently void of any history, are charged with a concealed war guilt that has remained untold a whole life long.
During my work on this text, I read W.G. Sebald’s 1999 essay on “Air War and Literature”. The thoughts developed in this essay became extremely important to me. Not primarily because of the thesis that German literature had had no language after 1945 for the horror and destruction caused by the Allied bombings, but above all because of the highly subjective preconditions that brought Sebald to this finding.
Although he spent his childhood in a village in the Allgäu entirely unscathed by the events of the war and was thus not traumatized at all himself, as a boy Sebald found himself veritably magically attracted to even the smallest ruin, the most insignificant derelict house in his home village. Something within him attached exaggerated significance to the tiniest traces of destruction. The events of the war, although not part of his own experience, nevertheless left their mark on his consciousness, for which he was constantly seeking the appropriate “physical confirmation”.
Why did I feel so incredibly close to this search, did I have the impression as I read that Sebald had described a part of my own perception, even though I am much younger than he was? For the first time, I began to perceive the particular generational situation in my family as a precondition for my writing: my mother was born in 1943, whereas my father, born in 1921 and a Wehrmacht soldier, was old enough to have been my grandfather.
Is that the reason why I often have the feeling of not really being at home in my own generation, why I often feel as if my thoughts and experiences were “out of time”, as if my occupation with memory and the past were opening up huge, almost insurmountable timeframes?
Sebald writes about the pathos with which the post-war Germans – omitting their own guilt from the equation – spoke about their “terrible fate”, the “hell” that reigned, the “inferno”, etc. Stereotypical, stencil-like expressions used to describe either the experiences of participants in the war or those of the civilian victims of the bombings, in literature, in public life but also in tales told within the family. More precise, objective descriptions of what was really experienced were apparently impossible for the generation of those involved during the Nazi period and the war, or not without confronting their own guilt.
I myself remember all too well the stories told over and over at family gatherings. I did not trust them even as a child, suspecting another truth behind them that was hidden from me. The fear has never left me that they might have corrupted my own thinking in some way that I could not perceive.
And now I have begun to suspect a link between the “Asian” approach that I have developed to my writing and the concentration on physical remains in the sense of a search for clues in my texts.
When we talk of “repression”, we mean processes that are, like everything psychological, deeply anchored in Western thinking and cannot be simply transferred to societies with a completely different concept of individuality. Sebald points out that it was an idealistic, moralistic and strangely immaterial intellectuality that enabled the Germans to come to terms with their past and simultaneously not come to terms with it; piles of corpses, rats, rubbish and rubble could thus be simply pushed aside, just as their own culpable involvements were.
My occupation with the very old Asian art of meditative visualization is a way to exorcize this contradiction, to which I appear to be closer than others in my generation. The result is a very sober, material way of telling my stories, using places as my orientation.
In Die Kältezentrale (The Cooling Station), the novel I am working on at the moment, the terrain is a long-abandoned machine room in the (now demolished) rear part of the former publishing and printing house of the party newspaper Neues Deutschland on Franz-Mehring-Platz in East Berlin. A man, once a simple worker at this place so central to the East German state, returns to the site and sifts through his past. This time I feel the need to understand a country in which I never lived, but also the 1980s as the last decade of a divided Germany, in which for those of us growing up at the time the two German states appeared an unshakable reality.
© Inka Parei, Berlin