[Danzig, (actual Gdańsk de Polònia) 16 d’octubre de 1927 – Lübeck, Alemanya 13 d’abril de 2015]
En 1956-60 visqué a París, època en què es professionalitzà com a escriptor. Autor compromès amb la problemàtica del seu temps i dotat d’una imaginació desbordant, obtingué un gran èxit amb la seva primera novel·la Die Blechtrommel (‘El tambor de llauna’, 1959), que juntament amb Katz und Maus (‘El gat i la rata’, 1961) i Hundejahre(‘Anys difícils’, 1963) forma l’anomenada trilogia de Danzig, itinerari pels anys del nazisme a cavall del realisme i la fabulació.
Coincidint amb l’apropament a la socialdemocràcia, les novel·les següents tractaren de problemes contemporanis:Örtlich betäubt (‘Anestesiat localment’, 1969) presenta l’enfrontament dels adults amb una generació de joves rebels; a Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (‘Diari d’un cargol’, 1975) parteix de la seva experiència en les eleccions del 1969; Der Butt (‘El turbot’, 1977) és un recorregut històric en el qual, amb una recreació barroca de la mitologia popular, planteja el tema de les relacions entre els sexes; Das Treffen in Telgte (‘La trobada a Telgte’, 1979) parodia amb un anacronisme el moviment d’escriptors conegut com a Grup 47, i a Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus (‘Parts cerebrals o els alemanys s’extingeixen’, 1979) exposa la desconfiança de l’home contemporani davant d’un futur incert.
Posteriorment radicalitzà les seves idees, que reflectí en obres com Die Rättin (‘La rata femella’, 1986), que desencadenà una violenta controvèrsia crítica, i a Zunge zeigen (‘Treure la llengua’, 1988), fruit d’una llarga estada a l’Índia. Igualment polèmics foren, entre d’altres, Unkenrufe (‘Mals averanys’, 1992) i Ein weites Feld(‘Un camp ample’, 1995), novel·les molt crítiques amb la dissolució del bloc de l’Est, l’una i la reunificació alemanya, l’altra, caràcter també present en la crònica literàriaMein Jahrhundert (‘El meu segle’, 1999), a les quals seguí Im Krebsgang (‘Com els crancs’, 2002), sobre l’enfonsament del vaixell Wilhelm Gustloff.
És també autor d’obres teatrals, com Noch zehn Minuten bis Buffalo (‘Falten deu minuts per Buffalo’, 1958), Die Bösen Köche (‘Els cuiners dolents’, 1957) o Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand (‘Els plebeus assagen la revolta’, 1966); d’assaigs, com Aufsätze zur Literatur (‘Assaigs de literatura’, 1980); de poesia, com Letzte Tänze (‘Els darrers balls’, 2003) i Lyrische Beute (‘Botí líric’, 2004), i també dibuixant.
Ha rebut, entre d’altres, el premi Gruppe 47 (1958), el Büchner (1965), el Feltrinelli (1982), el Nobel de literatura (1999) i el Príncipe de Asturias (1999).
El 2006, coincidint amb la publicació de les seves memòries Beim Häuten der Zwiebel (‘Tot pelant la ceba’) revelà que als disset anys havia ingressat a les joventuts de les SS, declaració que donà lloc a una sorollosa polèmica. Die Box (2008) fou la segona entrega de les seves memòries, i l’any 2010 publicà la tercera i última part: Grimms Wörter: Eine Liebeserklärung (‘Les paraules dels Grimm: Una declaració d’amor’). A l’abril del 2012 publicà en diversos diaris el poema Was gesagt werden muss (‘El que cal dir’), en el qual criticava el Govern d’Israel per la seva amenaça d’un atac preventiu contra l’Iran. En resposta, Israel declarà l’escriptor alemany persona non grata.
Com homenatge us convidem a llegir la versió anglesa de la seva “Nobel Lecture” oferta a l’Academia Sueca d’Estocolm el 7 de desembre de 1999, quan se li va concedir el Premi Nobel de Literature d’aquell any:
“To Be Continued …”
Honoured Members of the Swedish Academy, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Having made this announcement, nineteenth-century works of fiction would go on and on. Magazines and newspapers gave them all the space they wished: the serialized novel was in its heyday. While the early chapters appeared in quick succession, the core of the work was being written out by hand, and its conclusion was yet to be conceived. Nor was it only trivial horror stories or tearjerkers that thus held the reader in thrall. Many of Dickens’ novels came out in serial form, in instalments. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was a serialized novel. Balzac’s time, a tireless provider of mass-produced serializations, gave the still anonymous writer lessons in the technique of suspense, of building to a climax at the end of a column. And nearly all Fontane’s novels appeared first in newspapers and magazines as serializations. Witness the publisher of the Vossisiche Zeitung, where Trials and Tribulations first saw print, who exclaimed in a rage, “Will this sluttish story never end!”
But before I go on spinning these strands of my talk or move on to others, I wish to point out that from a purely literary point of view this hall and the Swedish Academy that invited me here are far from alien to me. My novel The Rat, which came out almost fourteen years ago and whose catastrophic course along various oblique levels of narration one or two of my readers may recall, features a eulogy delivered before just such an audience as you, an encomium to the rat or, to be more precise, the laboratory rat.
The rat has been awarded a Nobel Prize. At last, one might say. She’s been on the list for years, even the short list. Representative of millions of experimental animals – from guinea pig to rhesus monkey – the white-haired, red-eyed laboratory rat is finally getting her due. For she more than anyone – or so claims the narrator of my novel – has made possible all the Nobelified research and discoveries in the field of medicine and, as far as Nobel Laureates Watson and Crick are concerned, on the virtually boundless turf of gene manipulation. Since then maize and other vegetables – to say nothing of all sorts of animals – can be cloned more or less legally, which is why the rat-men, who increasingly take over as the novel comes to a close, that is, during the post-human era, are called Watsoncricks. They combine the best of both genera. Humans have much of the rat in them and vice versa. The world seems to use the synthesis to regain its health. After the Big Bang, when only rats, cockroaches, flies, and the remains of fish and frog eggs survive and it is time to make order out of the chaos, the Watsoncricks, who miraculously escape, do more than their share.
But since this strand of the narrative could as easily have ended with “To Be Continued …” and the Nobel Prize speech in praise of the laboratory rat is certainly not meant to give the novel a happy end, I can now – as what might be called a matter of principle – turn to narration as a form of survival as well as a form of art.
People have always told tales. Long before humanity learned to write and gradually became literate, everybody told tales to everybody else and everybody listened to everybody else’s tales. Before long it became clear that some of the still illiterate storytellers told more and better tales than others, that is, they could make more people believe their lies. And there were those among them who found artful ways of stemming the peaceful flow of their tales and diverting it into a tributary, that, far from drying up, turned suddenly and amazingly into a broad bed, though now full of flotsam and jetsam, the stuff of sub-plots. And because these primordial storytellers – who were not dependent upon day or lamp light and could carry on perfectly well in the dark, who were in fact adept at exploiting dusk or darkness to add to the suspense – because they stopped at nothing, neither dry stretches nor thundering waterfalls, except perhaps to interrupt the course of action with a “To Be Continued …” if they sensed their audience’s attention flagging, many of their listeners felt moved to start telling tales of their own.
What tales were told when no one could yet write and therefore no one wrote them down? From the days of Cain and Abel there were tales of murder and manslaughter. Feuds – blood feuds, in particular – were always good for a story. Genocide entered the picture quite early along with floods and droughts, fat years and lean years. Lengthy lists of cattle and slaves were perfectly acceptable, and no tale could be believable without detailed genealogies of who came before whom and who came after, heroic tales especially. Love triangles, popular even now, and tales of monsters – half man, half beast – who made their way through labyrinths or lay in wait in the bulrushes attracted mass audiences from the outset, to say nothing of legends of gods and idols and accounts of sea journeys, which were then handed down, polished, enlarged upon, modified, transmogrified into their opposites, and finally written down by a storyteller whose name was supposedly Homer or, in the case of the Bible, by a collective of storytellers. In China and Persia, in India and the Peruvian highlands, wherever writing flourished, storytellers – whether as groups or individuals, anonymously or by name – turned into literati.
Writing-fixated as we are, we nonetheless retain the memory of oral storytelling, the spoken origins of literature. And a good thing too, because if we were to forget that all storytelling comes through the lips – now inarticulate, hesitant, now swift, as if driven by fear, now in whisper, to keep the secrets revealed from reaching the wrong ears, now loudly and clearly, all the way from self-serving bluster to sniffing out the very essence of life – if our faith in writing were to make us forget all that, our storytelling would be bookish, dry as dust.
Yet how good too that we have so many books available to us and that whether we read them aloud or to ourselves they are permanent. They have been my inspiration. When I was young and malleable, masters like Melville and Döblin or Luther with his Biblical German prompted me to read aloud as I wrote, to mix ink with spit. Nor have things changed much since. Well into my fifth decade of enduring, no, relishing the moil and toil called writing, I chew tough, stringy clauses into manageable mush, babble to myself in blissful isolation, and put pen to paper only when I hear the proper tone and pitch, resonance and reverberation.
Yes, I love my calling. It keeps me company, a company whose polyphonic chatter calls for literal transcription into my manuscripts. And there is nothing I like more than to meet books of mine – books that have long since flown the coop and been expropriated by readers – when I read out loud to an audience what now lies peacefully on the page. For both the young, weaned early from language, and the old, grizzled yet still rapacious, the written word becomes spoken, and the magic works again and again. It is the shaman in the author earning a bit on the side, writing against the current of time, lying his way to tenable truths. And everyone believes his tacit promise: To Be Continued …
But how did I become a writer, poet, and artist – all at once and all on frightening white paper? What homemade hubris put a child up to such craziness? After all, I was only twelve when I realized I wanted to be an artist. It coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War, when I was living on the outskirts of Danzig. But my first opportunity for professional development had to wait until the following year, when I found a tempting offer in the Hitler Youth magazine Hilf mit!(Lend a Hand). It was a story contest. With prizes. I immediately set to writing my first novel. Influenced by my mother’s background, it bore the title The Kashubians, but the action did not take place in the painful present of that small and dwindling people; it took place in the thirteenth century during a period of interregnum, a grim period when brigands and robber barons ruled the highways and the only recourse a peasant had to justice was a kind of kangaroo court.
All I can remember of it is that after a brief outline of the economic conditions in the Kashubian hinterland I started in on pillages and massacres with a vengeance. There was so much throttling, stabbing, and skewering, so many kangaroo-court hangings and executions that by the end of the first chapter all the protagonists and a goodly number of the minor characters were dead and either buried or left to the crows. Since my sense of style did not allow me to turn corpses into spirits and the novel into a ghost story, I had to admit defeat with an abrupt end and no “To Be Continued …”. Not for good, of course, but the neophyte had learned his lesson: next time he would have to be a bit more gentle with his characters.
But first I read and read some more. I had my own way of reading: with my fingers in my ears. Let me say by way of explanation that my younger sister and I grew up in straitened circumstances, that is, in a two-room flat and hence without rooms of our own or even so much as a corner to ourselves. In the long run it turned out to be an advantage, though: I learned at an early age to concentrate in the midst of people or surrounded by noise. When I read I might have been under a bell jar; I was so involved in the world of the book that my mother, who liked a practical joke, once demonstrated her son’s complete and utter absorption to a neighbour by replacing a roll I had been taking an occasional bite from with a bar of soap – Palmolive, I believe – whereupon the two women – my mother not without a certain pride – watched me reach blindly for the soap, sink my teeth into it, and chew it for a good minute before it tore me away from my adventure on the page.
To this day I can concentrate as I did in my early years, but I have never read more obsessively. Our books were kept in a bookcase behind blue-curtained panes of glass. My mother belonged to a book club, and the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy stood side by side and mixed in with novels by Hamsun, Raabe, and Vicky Baum. Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling was within easy reach. I later moved on to the Municipal Library, but my mother’s collection provided the initial impulse. A punctilious businesswoman forced to sell her wares to unreliable customers on credit, she was also a great lover of beauty: she listened to opera and operetta, melodies on her primitive radio, enjoyed hearing my promising stories, and frequently went to the Municipal Theatre, even taking me along from time to time.
The only reason I rehearse here these anecdotes of a petty bourgeois childhood after painting them with epic strokes decades ago in works peopled by fictitious characters is to help me answer the question “What made you become a writer?” The ability to daydream at length, the job of punning and playing with language in general, the addiction to lying for its own sake rather than for mine because sticking to the truth would have been a bore – in short, what is loosely known as talent was certainly a factor, but it was the abrupt intrusion of politics into the family idyll that turned the all too flighty category of talent into a ballast with a certain permanence and depth.
My mother’s favourite cousin, like her a Kashubian by birth, worked at the Polish post office of the Free City of Danzig. He was a regular at our house and always welcome. When the War broke out the Hevelius Square post office building held out for a time against the SS-Heimwehr, and my uncle was rounded up with those who finally surrendered. They were tried summarily and put before a firing squad. Suddenly he was no more. Suddenly and permanently his name was no longer mentioned. He became a non-person. Yet he must have lived on in me through the years when at fifteen I donned a uniform, at sixteen I learned what fear was, at seventeen I landed in an American POW camp, at eighteen I worked in the black market, studied to be a stone-mason and started sculpting in stone, prepared for admission to art school and wrote and drew, drew and wrote, fleet-footed verse, quizzical one-acts, and on it went until I found the material unwieldy – I seem to have an inborn need for aesthetic pleasure. And beneath the detritus of it all lay my mother’s favourite cousin, the Polish postal clerk, shot and buried, only to be found by me (who else?) and exhumed and resuscitated by literary artificial respiration under other names and guises, though this time in a novel whose major and minor characters, full of life and beans as they are, make it through a number of chapters, some even holding out till the end and thus enabling the writer to keep his recurrent promise: To Be Continued …
And so on and so forth. The publication of my first two novels, The Tin Drum and Dog Years, and the novella I stuck between them, Cat and Mouse, taught me early on, as a relatively young writer, that books can cause offence, stir up fury, even hatred, that what is undertaken out of love for one’s country can be taken as soiling one’s nest. From then on I have been controversial.
Which means that like writers banished to Siberia or suchlike places I am in good company. So I have no grounds to complain; on the contrary, writers should consider the condition of permanent controversiality to be invigorating, part of the risk involved in choosing the profession. It is a fact of life that writers have always and with due consideration and great pleasure spit in the soup of the high and mighty. That is what makes the history of literature analogous to the development and refinement of censorship.
The ill humour of the powers-that-be forced Socrates to drain the cup of hemlock to the dregs, sent Ovid into exile, made Seneca open his veins. For centuries and to the present day the finest fruits of the western garden of literature have graced the index of the Catholic church. How much equivocation did the European Enlightenment learn from the censorship practised by princes with absolute power? How many German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese writers did fascism drive from their lands and languages? How many writers fell victim to the Leninist-Stalinist reign of terror? And what constraints are writers under today in countries like China, Kenya, or Croatia?
I come from the land of book-burning. We know that the desire to destroy a hated book is still (or once more) part of the spirit of our times and that when necessary it finds appropriate telegenic expression and therefore a mass audience. What is much worse, however, is that the persecution of writers, including the threat of murder and murder itself, is on the rise throughout the world, so much so that the world has grown accustomed to the terror of it. True, the part of the world that calls itself free raises a hue and cry when, as in 1995 in Nigeria, a writer like Ken Saro-Wiwa and his supporters are sentenced to death and killed for taking a stand against the contamination of their country, but things immediately go back to normal, because ecological considerations might affect the profits of the world’s number one oil colossus Shell.
What makes books – and with them writers – so dangerous that church and state, politburos and the mass media feel the need to oppose them? Silencing and worse are seldom the result of direct attacks on the reigning ideology. Often all it takes is a literary allusion to the idea that truth exists only in the plural – that there is no such thing as a single truth but only a multitude of truths – to make the defenders of one or another truth sense danger, mortal danger. Then there is the problem that writers are by definition unable to leave the past in peace: they are quick to open closed wounds, peer behind closed doors, find skeletons in the cupboard, consume sacred cows or, as in the case of Jonathan Swift, offer up Irish children, “stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled”, to the kitchens of the English nobility. In other words, nothing is sacred to them, not even capitalism, and that makes them offensive, even criminal. But worst of all they refuse to make common cause with the victors of history: they take pleasure milling about the fringes of the historical process with the losers, who have plenty to say but no platform to say it on. By giving them a voice, they call the victory into question, by associating with them, they join ranks with them.
Of course the powers-that-be, no matter what period costume they may be wearing, have nothing against literature as such. They enjoy it as an ornament and even promote it. At present its role is to entertain, to serve the fun culture, to de-emphasize the negative side of things and give people hope, a light in the darkness. What is basically called for, though not quite so explicitly as during the Communist years, is a “positive hero”. In the jungle of the free market economy he is likely to pave his way to success Rambo-like with corpses and a smile; he is an adventurer who is always up for a quick fuck between battles, a winner who leaves a trail of losers behind him, in short, the perfect role model for our globalized world. And the demand for the hard-boiled he-man who always lands on his feet is unfailingly met by the media: James Bond has spawned any number of Dolly-like children. Good will continue to prevail over evil as long as it assumes his cool-guy pose.
Does that make his opposite or enemy a negative hero? Not necessarily. I have my roots, as you will have noticed from your reading, in the Spanish or Moorish school of the picaresque novel. Tilting at windmills has remained a model for that school down through the ages, and the picaro’s very existence derives from the comic nature of defeat. He pees on the pillars of power and saws away at the throne knowing full well he will make no dent in either: once he moves on, the exalted temple may look a bit shabby, the throne may wobble slightly, but that is all. His humour is part and parcel of his despair. While Die Götterdämmerung drones on before an elegant Bayreuth audience, he sits sniggering in the back row, because in his theatre comedy and tragedy go hand in hand. He scorns the fateful march of the victors and sticks his foot out to trip them, yet much as his failure makes us laugh the laughter sticks in our throat: even his wittiest cynicisms have a tragic cast to them. Besides, from the point of view of the philistine, rightist or leftist, he is a formalist – even a mannerist – of the first order: he holds the spyglass the wrong way; he sees time as a train on a siding: he puts mirrors everywhere; you can never tell whose ventriloquist he is; given his perspective, he can even accept dwarfs and giants into his entourage. The reason Rabelais was constantly on the run from the secular police and the Holy Inquisition is that his larger-than-life Gargantua and Pantagruel had turned the world according to scholasticism on its head. The laughter they unleashed was positively infernal. When Gargantua stooped bare-arsed on the towers of Notre-Dame and pissed the length and breadth of Paris under water, everyone who did not drown guffawed. Or to go back to Swift: his modest culinary proposal for relieving the hunger in Ireland could be brought up to date if at the next economic summit the board set for the heads of state were groaning with lusciously prepared street children from Brazil or southern Sudan. Satire is the name of the art form I have in mind, and in satire everything is permitted, even tickling the funny bone with the grotesque.
When Heinrich Böll gave his Nobel Lecture here on 2 May 1973, he brought the seemingly opposing positions of reason and poetry into closer and closer proximity and bemoaned the lack of time to go into another aspect of the issue: “I have had to pass over humour, which, though no class privilege, is ignored in his poetry as a hiding place for resistance.” Now Böll knew that Jean Paul, the poet in question, had a place in the German Culture Hall of Fame, little read though he is nowadays; he knew to what extent Thomas Mann’s literary oeuvre was suspected – by both the right and the left – of irony at the time (and still is, I might add). Clearly what Böll had in mind was not belly-laugh humour but rather inaudible, between-the-lines humour, the chronic susceptibility to melancholy of his clown, the desperate wit of the man who collected silence, an activity, by the way, that has become quite the thing in the media and – under the guise of “voluntary self-control” on the part of the free West – a benign disguise for censorship.
By the early fifties, when I had started writing consciously, Heinrich Böll was a well-known if not always well-received author. With Wolfgang Koeppen, Günter Eich, and Arno Schmidt he stood apart from the culture industry. Post-war German literature, still young, was having a hard time with German, which had been corrupted by the Nazi regime. In addition, Böll’s generation – but also the younger writers like myself – were stymied to a certain extent by a prohibition that came from Theodor Adorno: “It is barbaric to write a poem after Auschwitz, and that is why it has become impossible to write poetry today …”
In other words, no more “To Be Continued …” Though write we did. We wrote by bearing in mind, like Adorno in hisMinima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), that Auschwitz marks a rift, an unbridgeable gap in the history of civilization. It was the only way we could get round the prohibition. Even so, Adorno’s writing on the wall has retained its power to this day. All the writers of my generation did public battle with it. No one had the desire or ability to keep silent. It was our duty to take the goose step out of German, to lure it out of its idylls and fogged inwardness. We, the children who had had our fingers burned, we were the ones to repudiate the absolutes, the ideological black or white. Doubt and scepticism were our godparents and the multitude of gray values their present to us. In any case, such was the asceticism I imposed on myself before discovering the richness of a language I had all too sweepingly pronounced guilty: its seducible softness, its tendency to plumb the depths, its utterly supple hardness, not to mention the sheen of its dialects, its artlessness and artfulness, its eccentricities, and beauty blossoming from its subjunctives. Having won back this capital, we invested it to make more. Despite Adorno’s verdict or spurred on by it. The only way writing after Auschwitz, poetry or prose, could proceed was by becoming memory and preventing the past from coming to an end. Only then could post-war literature in German justify applying the generally valid “To Be Continued …” to itself and its descendants; only then could the wound be kept open and the much desired and prescribed forgetting be reversed with a steadfast “Once upon a time”.
How many times when one or another interest group calls for considering what happened a closed chapter – we need to return to normalcy and put our shameful past behind us – how many times has literature resisted. And rightly so! Because it is a position as foolish as it is understandable; because every time the end of the post-war period is proclaimed in Germany – as it was ten years ago, with the Wall down and unity in the offing – the past catches up with us.
At that time, in February 1990, I gave a talk to students in Frankfurt entitled “Writing After Auschwitz”. I wanted to take stock of my works book by book. In The Diary of a Snail,which came out in 1972 and in which past and present crisscross, but also run parallel or occasionally collide, I am asked by my sons how I define my profession, and I answer, “A writer, children, is someone who writes against the current of time.” What I said to the students was: “Such a view presumes that writers are not encapsulated in isolation or the sempiternal, that they see themselves as living in the here and now, and, even more, that they expose themselves to the vicissitudes of time, that they jump in and take sides. The dangers of jumping in and taking sides are well known: The distance a writer is supposed to keep is threatened; his language must live from hand to mouth; the narrowness of current events can make him narrow and curb the imagination he has trained to run free; he runs the danger of running out of breath.”
The risk I referred to then has remained with me throughout the years. But what would the profession of writer be like without risk? Granted, the writer would have the security of, say, a cultural bureaucrat, but he would be the prisoner of his fears of dirtying his hands with the present. Out of fear of losing his distance he would lose himself in realms where myths reside and lofty thoughts are all. But the present, which the past is constantly turning into, would catch up to him in the end and put him through the third degree. Because every writer is of his time, no matter how he protests being born too early or late. He does not autonomously choose what he will write about, that choice is made for him. At least I was not free to choose. Left to my own devices, I would have followed the laws of aesthetics and been perfectly happy to seek my place in texts droll and harmless.
But that was not to be. There were extenuating circumstances: mountains of rubble and cadavers, fruit of the womb of German history. The more I shovelled, the more it grew. It simply could not be ignored. Besides, I come from a family of refugees, which means that in addition to everything that drives a writer from book to book – common ambition, the fear of boredom, the mechanisms of egocentricity – I had the irreparable loss of my birthplace. If by telling tales I could not recapture a city both lost and destroyed, I could at least re-conjure it. And this obsession kept me going. I wanted to make it clear to myself and my readers, not without a bit of a chip on my shoulder, that what was lost did not need to sink into oblivion, that it could be resuscitated by the art of literature in all its grandeur and pettiness: the churches and cemeteries, the sounds of the shipyards and smells of the faintly lapping Baltic, a language on its way out yet still stable-warm and grumble-rich, sins in need of confession, and crimes tolerated if never exonerated.
A similar loss has provided other writers with a hotbed of obsessive topics. In a conversation dating back many years Salman Rushdie and I concurred that my lost Danzig was for me – like his lost Bombay for him – both resource and refuse pit, point of departure and navel of the world. This arrogance, this overkill lies at the very heart of literature. It is the condition for a story that can pull out all the stops. Painstaking detail, sensitive psychologizing, slice-of-life realism – no such techniques can handle our monstrous raw materials. As indebted as we are to the Enlightenment tradition of reason, the absurd course of history spurns all exclusively reasonable explanations.
Just as the Nobel Prize – once we divest it of its ceremonial garb – has its roots in the invention of dynamite, which like such other human headbirths as the splitting of the atom and the likewise Nobelified classification of the gene has wrought both weal and woe in the world, so literature has an explosive quality at its root, though the explosions literature releases have a delayed-action effect and change the world only in the magnifying glass of time, so to speak, it too wreaking cause for both joy and lamentation here below. How long did it take the European Enlightenment from Montaigne to Voltaire, Diderot, Kant, Lessing, and Lichtenberg to introduce a flicker of reason into the dark corners of scholasticism? And even that flicker often died in the process, a process censorship went a long way towards inhibiting. But when the light finally did brighten things up, it turned out to be the light of cold reason, limited to the technically doable, to economic and social progress, a reason that claimed to be enlightened but that merely drummed a reason-based jargon (which amounted to instructions for making progress at all costs) into its offspring, capitalism and socialism (which were at each other’s throats from the word go).
Today we can see what those brilliant failures who were the Enlightenment’s offspring have wrought. We can see what a dangerous position its delayed-action, word-detonated explosion has hurled us into. And if we are trying to repair the damage with Enlightenment tools, it is only because we have no others. We look on in horror as capitalism – now that his brother, socialism, has been declared dead – rages unimpeded, megalomaniacally replaying the errors of the supposedly extinct brother. It has turned the free market into dogma, the only truth, and intoxicated by its all but limitless power, plays the wildest of games, making merger after merger with no goal than to maximize profits. No wonder capitalism is proving as impervious to reform as the communism that managed to strangle itself. Globalization is its motto, a motto it proclaims with the arrogance of infallibility: there is no alternative.
Accordingly, history has come to an end. No more “To Be Continued …”, no more suspense. Though perhaps there is hope that if not politics, which has abdicated its decision-making power to economics, then at least literature may come up with something to cause the “new dogmatism” to falter.
How can subversive writing be both dynamite and of literary quality? Is there time enough to wait for the delayed action? Is any book capable of supplying a commodity in so short supply as the future? Is it not rather the case that literature is currently retreating from public life and that young writers are using the internet as a playground? A standstill, to which the suspicious word “communication” lends a certain aura, is making headway. Every scrap of time is planned down to the last nervous breakdown. A cultural industry vale of tears is taking over the world. What is to be done?
My godlessness notwithstanding, all I can do is bend my knee to a saint who has never failed me and cracked some of the hardest nuts. “O Holy and (through the grace of Camus) Nobelified Sisyphus! May thy stone not remain at the top of the hill, may we roll it down again and like thee continue to rejoice in it, and may the story told of the drudgery of our existence have no end. Amen.”
But will my prayer be heard? Or are the rumours true? Is the new breed of cloned creature destined to assure the continuation of human history?
Which brings me back to the beginning of my talk. Once more I open The Rat to the fifth chapter, in which the laboratory rat, representing millions of other laboratory animals in the cause of research, wins the Nobel Prize, and I am reminded how few prizes have been awarded to projects that would rid the world of the scourge of mankind: hunger. Anyone who can pay the price can get a new pair of kidneys. Hearts can be transplanted. We can phone anywhere in the world wire-free. Satellites and space stations orbit us solicitously. The latest weapon systems, conceived and developed, they too, on the basis of award-winning research, can help their masters to keep death at bay. Anything the human mind comes up with finds astonishing applications. Only hunger seems to resist. It is even increasing. Poverty deeply rooted shades into misery. Refugees are flocking all over the world accompanied by hunger. It takes political will paired with scientific know-how to root out misery of such magnitude, and no one seems resolved to undertake it.
In 1973, just when terror – with the active support of the United States – was beginning to strike in Chile, Willy Brandt spoke before the United Nations General Assembly, the first German chancellor to do so. He brought up the issue of worldwide poverty. The applause following his exclamation “Hunger too is war!” was stunning.
I was present when he gave the speech. I was working on my novel The Flounder at the time. It deals with the very foundations of human existence including food, the lack and superabundance thereof, great gluttons and untold starvelings, the joys of the palate and crusts from the rich man’s table.
The issue is still with us. The poor counter growing riches with growing birth rates. The affluent north and west can try to screen themselves off in security-mad fortresses, but the flocks of refugees will catch up with them: no gate can withstand the crush of the hungry.
The future will have something to say about all this. Our common novel must be continued. And even if one day people stop or are forced to stop writing and publishing, if books are no longer available, there will still be storytellers giving us mouth-to-ear artificial respiration, spinning old stories in new ways: loud and soft, heckling and halting, now close to laughter, now on the brink of tears.♦
Translated from German by Michael Henry Heim / Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1999