The Berlin novelist Inka Parei has written three books—The Shadow-Boxing Woman, What Darkness Was, and The Cold Centre—all of which I have translated for Seagull Books. The two of us know each other well now, living in the same city and having traveled around India together on a reading tour with the Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger.
Recently, we visited two locations: an absolutely unspectacular, slickly modernized residential building in Berlin-Mitte where Inka once lived—in The Shadow-Boxing Woman it is run down and empty, the book’s protagonist and her neighbor the last tenants before the landlord strips and refurbishes the apartments—and then, a short S-Bahn ride away, the 1970s block built for the Socialist Unity Party’s newspaper Neues Deutschland. The huge letters on the roof proved too heavy to remove even when the editorial offices relocated for several years, so the building couldn’t cast off its history quite so easily. Inka showed me where the “cold centre” used to be, the separate building from where the air conditioning kept the offices, printing press, and paper stores at optimal temperatures and where much of her most recent novel takes place. There is nothing to see; that building was demolished some years ago, while another became a budget supermarket. We walked into the remaining building, now mainly leased out as offices, and explored the lobby briefly but neither of us felt comfortable or inspired. These two settings have disappeared and the places themselves have become bland parts of today’s Berlin. As in Parei’s stories, it was less the buildings than the history behind them that ignited our conversation, which continued by email.
Katy Derbyshire: You write a lot about particular places that actually exist outside your narratives. Do your books start with places or with people? Or with stories?
Inka Parei: They always start with people. With events that were very incisive for them, which I feel must be safeguarded in a way. Because that might, in a second step, help to understand a piece of contemporary history.
When I was researching the place where The Cold Centre is set, I was fascinated by the old printing halls of East Germany’s most important newspaper, and especially by the rearmost room in the complex, where cold was “produced” and temperatures were regulated, thereby providing the simple physical basis for the production of ideology. But the place would still never have led to a story if a man very close to me hadn’t worked there in his youth, showed me around and told me all about it. Once we came outside again we sat on a bench in front of the building. I looked at his face, which was full of fear and deep unease, and all at once I realized we hadn’t just taken a few steps into a building that was about to be demolished, we’d also gone far back to a different time. That’s when I knew I’d write about it.
To begin with, I wasn’t aware of how strongly I create characters via the way they perceive their surroundings, and how that gives the places themselves more weight. When my first novel The Shadow-Boxing Woman came out, people kept saying the real protagonist was Berlin. I didn’t agree at all with that view. Germany had a veritable craving for Berlin novels in the late ’90s. The city was still in the midst of a construction boom to convert it into the new capital, accompanied by a frantic search for normality—and that seemed to include a demand for books that took Berlin very seriously. I tried to defend myself against being co-opted in that way and pointed out a hundred times that The Shadow-Boxing Woman is about a woman who’s been raped, about how violence alters perspectives and how the perception of that violence shifts when a character suddenly exerts violence herself. It wasn’t much use. You can’t tell people how to read a book!
The second novel has a far more sparse setting. In the final hours of his life, an old man wanders around an inherited house, comes across a stranger whom he thinks he recognizes from a wanted poster for terrorists, and is simultaneously confronted with his own complicity in wartime atrocities. A building in the suburbs of Frankfurt, its living spaces, corridors and stairwells—it’s anything but spectacular. And still critics remarked that it was striking to make such an “unimportant” setting as shabby Frankfurt-Rödelheim the epicenter of a story. At that point I had no choice but to start thinking about my relationship to place.
A literary text always has to be “situated.” Would Madame Bovary be possible anywhere other than provincial France? Or could a novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing be set in the environs of New York? I doubt it. In my case, though, the people sometimes almost disappear into the places. In the sense that the settings dominate them, they give them a hard time, or set riddles for them. I observe my characters at moments when they’re jettisoned out of their lives and forced to think about themselves. About how their lives can go on, or how to evaluate what they’ve lived so far. I’m interested in clouded awareness and buried memories that suddenly prove to be a problem. And the places are the key; they enable the characters to find something that’s gone missing in their biographies.
Once I’d understood that and could describe it as such, I realized that the relationship between characters and place in my work is very strongly influenced by German history. The fact of having caused a war and the loss of place that went with it—a loss of place that was first inflicted on others and only turned on the perpetrators themselves at the end—is no longer the most important reference point for most writers of my generation. It’s a story of their grandfathers, something with which they have no direct connection. That’s different in my case. My parents were from two different generations. My father, born in 1921, was a Wehrmacht soldier. But unlike the 1968 generation, I didn’t have people of my own age to fall back on who might have supported me in dealing with this participation in the war inside our own four walls, in the confines of the family. I was all on my own with the problem. People of my age had different experiences at home. As a child and a teenager, I felt that was a great burden on me. Now, though, I can see the positive sides and I consider it an asset that I can call a large space of time my own, in biographical terms.
Regardless of whether I write about Berlin in the years after the system changed, like in my first book, about the ’70s, about the ’80s in East Berlin, or, as in the project I’m planning and working on now, about changes over the past twenty years with the “caesura” of 2001—I’m always interested in places that are charged with history. I think that’s the result of a perspective that regards the present as an outcome of what came before. I don’t mean just our here and now, I mean more generally the present in a literary text, whatever decade it may be about. That perspective helps me to understand the point in time I’ve chosen better, it has a background, a horizon.
KD: As we noticed on our walk, time doesn’t stand still; it changes places pretty drastically. In your writing, though, there are often snapshots that nail time down and stretch it, it seems to me. Extremely precise descriptions of rows of windows, for example, or interior spaces; the workings of a no longer existent machine. Do you work consciously with this difficult relationship between place and time?
IP: Nailing down and stretching time—that’s a very good formulation; they’re both actually impossible projects. I think that’s what I like so much about the formulation. It indicates not only the complicated relationship between time and memory, but also that any literature with ambition always has to attempt the impossible.
In What Darkness Was, the old man thinks back to an afternoon in Berlin that he spent in the park with his friend Heinz. The two of them are typical of the kind of old men I saw all the time in my childhood. In the ’70s you’d come across them at kiosks, in pubs, or on park benches. Their days as soldiers had destroyed them and now they were marking time. Their whole lives were one long post-war. Heinz knows his friend will soon be moving to Frankfurt, to the house he’s unexpectedly inherited. He has a vague inkling that he might miss him, and he suddenly explains to him that he won’t really be gone because nothing’s ever really in the past. At first it’s meant as a consolation but then it takes on a different edge when Heinz tries to give a scientific explanation of time and space using a piece of paper. He tells the old man to imagine the world only had two dimensions. And then he explains that moving forth into the third dimension would tear a hole in the world, by prodding his finger through the paper. What he means, though, is the fourth dimension, time. We can’t quite grasp it in our three-dimensional world but we’re constantly moving around within it—by stretching out or suppressing moments that have already passed—and that’s when holes come about: losses.
A few years ago I found out what trauma research has to say about the subject. I was really enthralled. Because I discovered a lot of parallels to my protagonists. A traumatized person has a very cumbersome but also very interesting confusion in his or her perception of time. If something happens that hurts or threatens us badly, so that we’re flooded with unexpected and shocking impressions within fractions of seconds, the brain switches away from the structures in the cerebrum in which we usually do our thinking, to older structures in the midbrain. These areas have no experience of time and space. For these parts of the brain, it’s always the present.
This very torturous process of being unable to forget, in real life, can be a great asset for literature. Firstly because that eternalizing of a particular moment makes it appear in hyper-precision. And secondly because all that remains is the truly essential, and all conventions, thought templates and ideologies fall away.
KD: We talked about whether making real people into literary characters can sometimes be an act of betrayal. You don’t work in the same way as some writers, taking historical figures and constructing a fictitious mental life for them. But your characters do come from somewhere, I assume?
IP: I always work with people who are very close to me or who touched me very strongly at some point. But in very coded form. The first book had a lot to do with me. And I’ve talked about how The Cold Centre came about. Although I have to add that the place and the working processes were precisely reconstructed but the story itself is fictitious. I told you some time ago, about my second book, that that old man was a way of confronting my father’s generation. The old man himself is older than my father was, though, and I think it was important to me to develop a character who had more responsibility than someone who was only eighteen when the war started.
I have the feeling I only ever tell a tiny aspect of people. Once I’ve finished a book I could actually start all over again and focus on something quite different. And then that tiny part, in relation to the existing person, is sometimes split up again in the story and distributed across several characters. That was very interesting once I realized that’s how I work. A lot of people who read novels think that literature is telling the story of a part of the real world, it’s partially depicted, albeit perhaps from a very subjective perspective, that of the writer. In reality, though, literature is a game. It requires ingredients from the real world, of course. But once it gets moving then all these ingredients come together to make an entirely new world, and if everything goes well that new world is similarly complex as the original one, at least in part. A second world alongside the physically existent world, only made of language.
Apart from that I always think hard about whether I’m doing my characters justice. Can I write about an old man, as a relatively young woman? Is it arrogant to write about the GDR if you never lived there? There’s no real need to ask questions like these, as a writer. You can just come along full of confidence and say to yourself, it’s my cosmos I’m creating, my invented world. But I always have scruples about it.
KD: The relationship between translator and writer can be astonishingly lopsided: an author could be anywhere between complete lack of interest and wanting to adjust the translation; on my side there’s the feeling of knowing a great deal about the writers although they know little about me—and my “knowledge” is actually of the books and not of the people behind them. (That said, you’re the writer I know best outside and inside the books.) Did you say you sometimes have a similarly confused feeling towards your characters?
IP: I recently read an essay by Ursula Krechel, in which she says it must be every writer’s greatest goal to make themselves disappear in a text. It was ostensibly meant as a tip for beginning writers—if the writing is jolted and jagged, readers can see how much you’re sweating and working on it, so you have to make improvements so people don’t get thrown out of your story—but in reality it’s a sly pointer to what differentiates great literature in her eyes from not-so-great writing—the absolute dedication to the subject and the characters, the lack of emphasis on the writer’s own person.
The same goes for really good translators, don’t you think? When I read a novel in German and it’s skillfully translated, I sometimes simply forget it’s not an original I’m reading. And I feel that’s a great luxury. The wonderful and paradox aspect of translation work is that its creators themselves practically vanish, or perhaps we should say they’ve melded with the author, if they’ve done their job well.
I have a lot of respect for translators, is what I want to say. I do like when I get a lot of questions from translators, questions that mean I have to put myself back in the moment when things were right in front of me but I hadn’t yet formulated them. That happens, for instance, when a concept for which there’s only one word in German is more complex linguistically in another language. Someone goes up a Treppe—is it a narrow staircase? Maybe even a ladder? Or very broad and solid, with landings between the sections and banisters?
I know that feeling you described when texts are so important to me that I feel like I’ve entered into a relationship with their writers even though I’ve never met them. The first time I noticed it was when I heard that Wolfgang Hilbig had died. I was so sad that it almost seemed like I’d known him well personally. You suddenly get a feeling for the very precise imprint of the writer’s own existence that they can leave behind in their texts. That occupied me a great deal at the time. It seemed to be a great blessing.
When I read from your translation of The Cold Centre a few times last year, by the way, I had a moment that was similarly pleasant. I had the impression that your English words were bonding with my words, and for a brief moment it was almost as if you were standing in the room alongside me.
KD: That’s a wonderful thing—I’m really touched.
To go back to your question about withdrawing one’s own person: yes, that should be the translator’s goal, I think, even though it’s not really possible, like stretching time. I can’t judge how much of me is in my translations. I’m sure I have preferences for certain words and dislike others. If a lexicographer were to go to the effort of taking my translations as a corpus and studying them like Shakespeare’s works, I’m sure it would come out clearly. I assume that won’t happen. And I know different translators deal differently with syntax and punctuation. I try to avoid falling into a routine, always reaching for the same handful of solutions—I just don’t know whether that works.
But actually, what I ought to be aiming at is not necessarily that the text doesn’t read like a German novel (it still is one, after all; I don’t necessarily want to hide that or cover it up) but that it doesn’t read like my translation. A translator colleague of mine also works as a ghostwriter for rock-star memoirs. That’s a different relationship again; he does have to get to know his co-writers to some extent. But exactly like with a translation, it’s not about him and his voice mustn’t be audible because the life story has to sound “authentic.” That’s a tricky word with a lot of baggage in the form of expectations and projections, but it’s something I aim for, I think.
A translator’s ego just has to find other ways to pick up flattery.
KD: We talked about how the blank spots in stories and anecdotes are often the most interesting; there’s a lot people don’t tell within the family. In What Darkness Was, did you feel the need to unearth these buried stories? And what about the untold stories in The Cold Centre?
IP: Stories we’re told about our own families are among the first we’re confronted with as children. We’re offered them even before we can read, and they’re usually told over and over. Sometimes we don’t listen properly because these stories are part of a very familiar environment. Like the living room or the meals of our childhood. And so a process of remembering and forgetting again starts off of its own accord, the various versions of the narrative form layers. When writing, it sometimes seems to me, we have to put ourselves into a similar state of mind. Concentrated and at the same time absentminded or daydreaming. That’s a way to go in depth and really link an idea you might have had with yourself. Yes, I think that’s it: you have to be very familiar with your subjects and your characters; the narration has to have an unconscious aspect to it. That’s the only way what one could call implicit narration can come about, a kind of narration that assumes certain things and doesn’t explain everything down to the last detail, doesn’t finish.
In What Darkness Was I made gestures, looks and other things that come across wordlessly when a story is told into the starting point for developing the story of a man who’d fought in the war. By no means what I was really told. I kept forgetting the details of what I was really told, anyway. Perhaps I sensed there was something not genuine about it. So on top of the processes of memory suppression that happen in all families, there was something else, something very particular. If I unearthed anything authentic, then it was more the isolation a person feels who can’t pass on what they’ve experienced in an appropriate way, as real stories.
For a long time I didn’t realize that my work on The Cold Centre had to do with my own family history. I started working on the novel with the idea that I was thinking my way into a country that had nothing to do with my life. And of course that’s how it was read, as well. As an attempt by a West German to write about an East German subject. That’s right, in a way. But in fact the GDR was always present beneath the surface in my family. Three of my grandparents came from Brandenburg, my mother left East Germany as a child and my father and his parents left at the end of the ’50s. Very little was said about it though, and we never visited relatives in the other part of the country like I knew other families did occasionally. As a teenager I never asked why that was. That was one of the many absurdities in divided Germany: the East Germans were interested in the West Germans, but the West Germans of my generation who were born into the division ignored the GDR until its collapse. The untold stories in the novel are partly to do with the difficulty of coming to conclusions in a country where not all information is always readily available, of course. But the book’s also about what it costs to leave everything behind and not to want to remember. I think my family’s story played a role in that respect.
KD: You’ve mentioned in the past how important plot and story are to you—perhaps I’m simplifying here. And yet I get the feeling you want your readers to think along, almost write along with your stories, which are often not a hundred percent finished, if you like. Is that right? And is that partly a (defiant?) reaction to German-language writers who prefer or preferred to operate without plot? A decade or so ago there was a lot of talk about how the Germans had suddenly discovered plot in their writing, and lightness—whereby your books certainly aren’t “light.”
IP: I talked earlier about a German search for normality. That also took place in literature, as you rightly mention, although it began in the mid or late ’90s. “At last they’re telling stories again!” was the sigh of relief. I didn’t like that way of seeing things at all, to begin with. It sounded too much like “We’re somebody again!” as was said in the ’50s. But then I told myself, you have to get rid of that unease. These are very different times we’re in and you’re one of those storytellers yourself.
It was only recently that I noticed there was something missing from that comment, something small but extremely important: it wasn’t that people were telling stories again, it was that they could tell them again.
You just have to take a brief glance at a few of the books that were very widespread in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it’s clear pretty quickly. Klassenliebe by Karin Struck, for example: diary-like notes that—although the narrator does possess sensitivity and can use complex language—spend pages on nothing but the suffering caused by her own soul and her fusty, unsympathetic surroundings. Coupled with a communism that comes across as so naïve that you get the feeling, reading it now, that it’s not adults speaking but children. Or Peter Schneider’s Lenz, which revolves around a young man and his sensitivities. The West German generation I’m talking about here was under strong emotional pressure through their parents’ dark past. That’s instantly clear when you read the texts now, from a temporal distance. As a generation, they were partly narcissistic and disoriented. They suffered from depression and their thinking revolved constantly around their own feelings.
As you can see I’m not surprised that many of the plot-poor, as you might put it, and extremely subjectively written books of ’70s and ’80s West Germany weren’t understood outside of Germany. I had my issues with this kind of literature too. As a teenager and a young adult I read the modern classics or East German writers like Christa Wolf and Heiner Müller instead.
But rereading these texts, I also developed a sense of compassion for the generation born in the ’40s, who gave rise to this literature of “new subjectivity.” They really didn’t have it easy. Through them, I understood what incredible energy you have to muster for the game of fiction. You have to have good nerves. You have to be able—especially so that you can stand up for your characters later—to observe people coldly, sometimes in cold blood, and draw conclusions from their appearance and their behavior. You have to understand human nature. That makes the achievement of all those who did become story-tellers nonetheless all the greater—and there were some! Uwe Timm, for example. Peter Handke of course. Or Peter Kurzeck, who’s also part of that generation. Kurzeck transformed his life piece by piece into great literature, in a process that took decades. Great prose, but not tightly plotted literature!
But back to your question about my work. Yes, you’re right, what you call plot and story is very important to me. I always have to transform my own life’s stories into fiction so that I can write about them. I want to understand something about my life as I’m writing too, and that’s the only way I can do it. But I still tend not to tell my characters’ whole story in all its aspects. I write about them in selected but personally significant, often dramatic scenes, in situations where their memory processes can and must consolidate and condense and in which a few incidents stand for their entire lives up to that point. It’s an interesting idea that this tightening might be the result of an ambivalent attitude towards storytelling itself, the result of the way I’ve “floated” between generations as I described before. But I’m not sure there’s anything in it. There are novels in other countries, after all, that are veritable masterpieces of reduction. Patrick Modiano’s books, for example. Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I think if there’s any “anti” attitude written into my books then it’s more against a narrative style that imitates the nineteenth century. Or perhaps my way of writing is simply down to me being impatient and getting bored quickly when narrators get too verbose.
KD: I value that narrative restraint a great deal, Inka. So thank you for your books, which have a unique way of rescuing past places for us, which create characters that stay with us for a long time and which tell stories almost to the end. And thank you for the conversation.
Katy Derbyshire comes from London and lives in Berlin. She writes about and translates contemporary German literature, including books by Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Clemens Meyer, Christa Wolf, Helene Hegemann and Tilman Rammstedt.
All images courtesy of Henry Mex.