Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 2, Number 3

"A trip of discovery into my own consciousness"

A Conversation with Uwe Timm

Ingo R. Stoehr

translated by Ingo and Louise Stoehr

Stoehr: On the first page of your novel, Morenga, you describe a situation with the following sentence: "During the process of sitting down, he has the strange feeling as though something had changed." I wondered whether you weren't also describing the situation of writing. This leads to my first question: How do you experience the process of writing? When you sit down and bring something to paper, do you also have the feeling as though something has changed?

Timm: That is a good observation which had not occurred to me. But there is some truth in it. In the process of writing--in the sense that I understand it and what it means for me--I, of course, change somewhat; in this it is crucial that I change myself; that is the mere process of sitting down does not suffice. It goes together with pondering certain problems for some time in one's mind, i.e., certain characters--at least in my case, it always begins with human beings. My writing, then, does not begin with a topic that is in the foreground but rather with people who at one point meant something to me, with whom I had something to do, or who at some time crossed my path.
Then at the moment when one sits down and starts writing, a change begins--also for myself because, by means of language, I think through and live through some of the many possibilities which everyone carries within him or herself: and am able to experience many alternatives, many little persons, and many different situations. This way one discovers a new possibility of oneself again or even an impossibility. For it is quite possible otherwise that one attempts to more closely examine something profound from which one shrinks back--something irritating and disturbing--and to understand the reasons for the disturbance.

Stoehr: I would like to go one step beyond the question of how you write and ask why or with what goal you write. In Morenga , I came across another sentence, which is states something essential has occurred to the character: "without true sense is he, who cannot freely develop his sensuality." This reminded me of the only italicized sentence in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain in which the essence of the main character's experience in the novel is summarized. Do you write stories with a moral lesson?

Timm: No, I would strictly reject that. I am hardly interested at all in moral lessons. I am much more interested in those moments when I pursue the things that irritate me or that have caused disturbances. At the same time this is always a kind of self-questioning.
With reference to Morenga , I can say about its genesis that it seems to be something quite distant, but it has a great deal to do with me: with my own biography, with my childhood because my father was a career officer before he opened a furrier's workshop after 1945. Many of his former comrades who had served with the German colonial army in South West Africa came to our house. They told stories about this remarkable, distant, African country. And they did so in actually rather pejorative terms; they told about how the people behave there, rather determined by laziness, timelessness, and disorder. In short, from my point of view as a child, what they described there was a paradise.
Later in the student movement, where I became politically active, we toppled a monument of one of these colonialists in Hamburg. It wasn't at this event that I realized something, but interestingly enough, it was later in the process of writing--which takes us back to what you mentioned earlier about the change of perception, which in turn is crucial for me as the reason for writing: If you change your perception and tell yourself something about yourself, then you will also find out things. In Heißer Sommer [Hot Summer], that is a novel that takes place in the student movement, I describe a scene in which a monument is toppled. While writing, I noticed that I have much more in my mind than this political demonstration, which it was at the time, namely that I connect very much of my own up-bringing and my cultural internalization with it; for example, there is the concept of time, which was a completely different one there than ours here, which is geared toward speed. This is how I came to write about Morenga . In a manner of speaking, it is a trip into my past, my childhood, my consciousness--a trip of discovery into my own consciousness but entirely from an historically and geographically distant point.

Stoehr: You anticipated one of my questions because I wanted to know how you arrived at the topics that you deal with in novels such as Morenga and Der Schlangenbaum [The Snake Tree]. Both novels are set in the Third World, and this fact alone makes you somewhat exotic among German writers, for the authors who write about such topics can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Timm: The connections are quite simple. First, originating in my childhood, this wish for Africa and also South America clearly left its mark because I was extremely dissatisfied with my situation at the time, for example, with my very authoritarian upÜbringing. Thus, there certainly is some very deeply rooted reason to explore another life that opens up a greater possibility of freedom and development of the senses. That certainly is very deeply rooted.
The second aspect is that I was interested in ethnology during my years studying at the university. Among the lectures I attended were those held by Levi Strauss in Paris. Of course, I read many ethnological books and enjoyed traveling. I still like to travel and used to enjoy traveling alone. A further aspect in this context is the fact that I am married to a woman who is German-Argentinean. Through her, I was often--more than a dozen times--in Argentina. My wife grew up in Argentina, graduated from high school there, and then came to Germany to study German literature. This is where I met her. Through her, then, there is literally a family connection to Argentina.
In addition to Argentina, I have also traveled in Brazil and Paraguay. On one of these trips in Argentina, I waited for a cross-country bus and was sitting in a bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere around noon time. And in this bar there sat a man about whom you could have thought that he might be German, and, indeed, he was German. He was intoxicated and somewhat dirty, but he wore an elegant suit, a fact you noticed because of the material and because one could button the jacket's sleeves. One button was missing: that was the aspect that gave it away and that you have to see. I approached the man: He was an engineer who was supposed to build a paper mill in northern Argentina, and it was sinking into the mud. This is the model for Wagner in my novel Schlangenbaum .
I must say that I never thought I would write a novel about Argentina or South America. I didn't think it even when I met this German engineer. But he firmly implanted himself in my mind because, connected with him, a certain problem emerges that is my problem as well: the question about progress. To what extent is progress controllable? Can it be controlled socially, or has it been on automatic pilot for the longest time, going on behind our backs? This would then threaten to lead into an abyss or into an ecological or nuclear catastrophe. These questions are exemplified in this character.
This is what I am interested in: situations that have expressive power and immediacy. Highly concentrated situations which make certain things obvious: the missing button on the sleeve, which indeed says that there is somebody who is wearing a suit that is not cheap--but says so in terms of the defect.
The second aspect is this character, who as an engineer was equipped with his reason and his education to work as efficiently and orderly as possible, but then he encountered conditions that made this impossible: corruption. The new construction stands on swampy terrain and, still brand-new, is sinking like the Titanic--this has to drive you crazy. He did lose it; in addition to which, his Spanish instructor, with whom he had fallen in love, had disappeared. It was the time of Videla's dictatorship. The novel's plot is highly concentrated in this character.

Stoehr: In this character, who reacted to the new conditions with helplessness.

Timm: Indeed, helplessness because the whole perceptual apparatus and value system, trained here in Europe, suddenly are no longer applicable in this strange world that is structured quite differently with its other laws and its different history. Suddenly things do not fit anymore: You run over a snake and cause a terrible catastrophe, or you reach for somebody's food and do so only because of an almost childish curiosity and cause a strike, i.e., the worst thing that can happen to a building site manager.
This did not happen to the engineer with whom I talked; this is fiction. It is just this brief story; I only talked with him for half an hour and then continued on my trip. But he kept having an effect in my mind and wanted to become a novel.

Stoehr: Keyword fiction: How much of what is in your novels is fiction and how much is fact?

Timm: It differs, of course. In regard to Schlangenbaum it was just this one situation. I call this a "telling" situation: The man who is sitting there drunk and to whom nothing that he had learned and could do matters anymore. This is such a telling situation. That was fact; everything else is fiction. Of course, you could say: Whatever he told me, already is an interpretation.
In regard to Morenga the narration is based significantly more on facts because I read more and was in archives. I also worked four years exclusively on this novel and visited present-day Namibia, the former South West Africa. There I worked in archives, traveled, and looked at places. I even spoke with some of the few survivors who had taken part in the rebellion, not just with the resistance fighters but with those who fought on the side of the colonial army as well.
The novel, however, is very free, but there are scenes that interest me, for example, quotes from documents, which are also referred to in the text with parenthetical citation. That is only a small percentage, yet it is fact and thoroughly researched. It is correct in terms of the time frame; however, it is narratively completed as fiction. For instance, that the cattle tell the story about the missionary and the barrel is fiction, of course, for after all the story is told by cattle.

Stoehr: What I found quite fascinating is that this way there is a hierarchy of those exploited. The cattle--the Red African, the Gentle-Mouthed One and the others--are on the lowest level. And they narrate exactly in the sense of an oral narrative tradition. Yet it is not lost because it is tied into the narrative flow of the novel.

Timm: There is, in fact, an oral tradition of the Namas. Below it is the fictional oral history of the animals, the oxen. Gottschalk's diary, which most critics consider to be authentic, however, is fiction. Wenstrup is in part invention. In the novel he is the anarchist who deserts. A man called Wenstrup actually existed. However, I wasn't able to find out anything more about him other than that there was a deserter with this name. Whether this deserter was an anarchist, I do not know; that is again my invention. The interesting fact, however, is that this case of desertion existed in reality.

Stoehr: I would like briefly to take up the cue of anarchist. In the novel itself the principle of mutual help is being discussed ...

Timm: Yes, Kropotkin.

Stoehr: ... in contrast to poignantly formulated sentences such as: "Civilization without sacrifice is not conceivable," that is in contrast to the principle of competition. In the novel the natives are presented as a group of people who practice the principle of mutual help. Is this something that was particularly appealing to you because of your childhood experiences and your experiences from the student movement?

Timm: It is an aspect from the student movement, which had particularly cultivated such antiÜauthoritarian forms, such anarchic elements. The appropriate authors were read anew. I read Kropotkin in the wake of the student movement; prior to this it just had been a name that did mean much to me. Students read Kropotkin at that time, just like I read Marx later. In this context it is indeed an aspect of critical examination, which also combines with the demand of the student movement for brotherhood and equality. This insistance, the beginning of which one finds in the culture of the Namas.
Yet it is not described in such naive terms that it wouldn't be obvious that in this culture war and fighting existed as well. I describe how the Hottentots, as they used to be called in those days, stole cattle from the Hereros. This is not about conditions in a paradise but about moments in which our consciousness and our mentality--which are, of course, embedded within our behavioral patterns--are questioned, at least from the outside. These are moments when not everything is neatly resolved in efficiency or in a fight of everybody against everybody else.
There are indeed quite different ways of life; this means that efficiency and competition are definitely cultural things and not god-given and defined in such terms that a society has a priori to develop in that direction. Reflection upon this fact was for me in turn a very important process while I was writing. After those four years, I was a different man, who also had pondered his own determinants that had entered into the process.
The one thing I always remember in this context, because it is also a telling situation, is the story of when I was driving around in Namibia to do research. I had gotten lost in an area that was devoid of people. Two students had died of thirst there earlier; that is to say that I was really afraid of driving in the South of Namibia, and now I had lost my way completely. Suddenly, I saw someone standing there. He was a Nama who was tending sheep. I drove up to him and addressed him in English, but he spoke very good German with a Bavarian accent because many farmers--in the fifth or sixth generation--are Germans, and the farm workers there speak German. I then asked how I could get to Ukamas, and he said: This a'way an' uphill over there an' downhill agin an' then left to the first bump an' the second one; then you see a big boulder lying there an' a tree. The tree is very big; it takes three people to reach around it. When you see the tree, then you know that you have taken the wrong way.
At a fork in the road the Nama had described a path that I would never see; while others would say: when you get there, you have to turn right. The latter corresponds to the central European way of thinking, which is geared toward abbreviation and speed. The Nama, however, did something wonderful: He gave me the gift of a story by describing a path that I would never see.

Stoehr: I would like to connect my next question to this story. Are there also stories with regard to your research when you talked with survivors from the time of the rebellion? How did these encounters turn out? I imagine them to be quite difficult.

Timm: These encounters were difficult because I was able to enter Namibia even though I said: here comes somebody who is one the side of the Swapo, which was selfÜevident for me because I was active in the AntiÜApartheid movement. It was difficult to enter the country because at the time Namibia was ruled by South Africa, and there was strict apartheid. In this case it was only my Ph.D. that helped me because I was able to say that I wanted to do scientific research--and I indeed did work in archives.
It was not easy to establish contacts, either. Because of the color of my skin, it was easier to gain contact to Whites while the Blacks were very careful. They didn't know whether I wasn't perhaps working for the South African secret service. But from the Anti-Apartheid movement I had the address of a Black man with whom I spoke. He was still able to remember the rebellion, which he had experienced as a young man. His grandfather had been one of Morenga's lieutenants. On the German side, for instance, I talked with a member of the colonial army who had embarked for South Africa in 1904. He was a very old and honorable man who had stayed on and who had nothing parasitic about him, for he had become a builder of wells. By building wells, he had a very meaningful occupation and, most interestingly, was a man who had no racial prejudices.
These are people with whom I spoke personally. The other things derive from the stories that I remembered from my childhood. The rest I researched: Gottschalk is a veterinarian, and therefore, I obtained information on the status of the veterinarian medicine of those days; for instance, I read books on whether embryotomy existed at the time. It did.

Stoehr: And the dentures for cows?

Timm: Indeed, everybody thinks that is a joke, but those dentures really existed. Even today such dentures are used for cows in areas where the grass is very tough and the cows' molars are worn down quickly. In this case, there are dentures for those cows that produce milk particularly well. This is indeed correct although it sounds fantastic. But reality is fantastic; everyday life is wonderful.

Stoehr: If everyday life is so suspenseful, will you approach the Third World again with a story at some future time?

Timm: I don't think so. The Third World will perhaps play a role like it did in KopfjÉger [Head Hunter], where the protagonist escapes to Brazil. But this is a subordinate role because it is much more the story of the mentality of the Federal Republic of Germany and its changes in terms of language and consumerism. For the future projects as I see them at this point, the Third World no longer plays a role in the sense that it becomes the subject of a literary project.
But this doesn't mean that I am no longer interested in the Third World. I still visit there frequently, still am a member of the Anti-Apartheid movement, and keep a close watch on the developments. I believe I should write something about foreign aid because I think it is being handled in a disastrous and incorrect way. Another model should be deÜ veloped.

Stoehr: A model of mutual help?

Timm: Yes, exactly. I think it should be a model that doesn't distribute minimal and ridiculous sums of money according to the principle of giving everybody a slice of the cake. I think it would make more sense--although it sounds like an injustice at first--that the highly developed, industrialized countries would search out partner countries. For instance, Germany would pick Nigeria or Tanzania or Brazil--I don't know; I am just presenting an outline--as partner country that is appropriate in terms of the size of the population.
Then the total sum for foreign aid and more would go there--exclusively into this one country. There would be also be partnerships between towns, between villages, between schools, between kindergartens. This way, everybody could control how things progressed without the other country being dominated, this means without saying that their schools have to look like schools in Hamburg or in Bavaria; rather one provides knowÜhow and has a responsibility on top of it. The individual school then would see at its partner school: Are they building a small house outside of the city where school classes can stay for shorter visits, how are they maintaining this house, and so on.
This is a very long process. You just can't set something up the way it is done now and say: That's it. Then it will decay, and this way we have the absurd ruins that have been built with foreign aid and are just standing around uselessly. With the other model, a learning process for both countries takes place. For the people in Europe and America because they learn which problems the other people have, from which perspective they would like to have something or not. Conversely, the people in the developing countries take of the things offered those that make sense for them. I ought to write something in this direction, but this cannot be done in terms of literature but only of theory.

Stoehr: However, literature would be useful here, too, because it could help to think through models.

Timm: I think this is what I did in Morenga and, in a sense, with it my literary work has been done. I indeed worked at it for a long while and invested time, in fact, life time. It would be necessary now to look at numbers to see which relations there are, which problems there are, and to think everything through once more. This process of thinking things through thoroughly would also provide helpful arguments. Yet I shy away from this project because at this point I think literary projects are more important.

Stoehr: In this context: If one helps think through such a model, then many fellow human beings are likely to counter with the "pressure of events." In Morenga , I found a very fitting sentence that reads: "Only a Don Quixote can attempt to fight such pressure of events."

Timm: Yet it is necessary.

Stoehr: I see the role of literature in part as that of playing Don Quixote and fighting the pressure of events. One option is to keep asking questions. In Morenga such questions keep surfacing, for instance: Why did this animal have to give its life for this experiment? This reminded me of Bertolt Brecht's poem ñA Worker Reads History.î In my mind, from this follows the aspect of a critical potential. Especially in regard to your literary presentation of the principle of mutual help, I wonder if you have certain expectations concerning the responses to your novel Morenga .

Timm: Oh yes, I do have to admit it. However, my position has changed in this respect as well. When I was writing the books, Heißer Sommer and Morenga , it was still out of the period of a political fresh start, this means the student movement or political activism within the circle of Marxist groups, in my case of the DKP [German Communist Party]. There the experience was that all this ended for political reasons, the details of which would go beyond the context of our conversation. There were political reasons internal to these leftist groups, simply because they were splintered by fighting factions or into an abstract solidarity with the GDR, which was plainly wrong.
There were also external reasons, consisting for instance, beginning in 1973, in the legislation to blacklist members from political groups that were deemed radical and prevent their employment with the state. Because of this legislation a great number of people (I believe approximately 200,000) were checked and exposed to being spied upon. So this movement was attacked and disrupted due to internal reasons but also purposely from the ruling side. I think this is one of the very large errors of the SPD [Social Democratic Party], which has not yet been recognized in its importance, for when the SPD introduced this legislation at that time, it was aimed very soon against its own members.
Even worse was that this legislation cut off a situation of a fresh start that had made democratizing society on all levels an issue for the very first time since 1945; this means the student movement, teachers, women's rights. There were Marxist pharmacists, critical associations of engineers who simply didn't want to build weapons systems and wanted to have a say about their own products. With hindsight it is interesting to see that there was no ecological movement within the student movement. It is strange; one--and this includes me, trained and read in Marxism--just did not perceive the ecological problems. In spite of everything, we believed too much in progress, that is almost everybody whom I knew from the student movement with the exception of Rudi Dutschke, who early on, for example, included aspects of the environment, also of animals.
This is such a moment which puts somewhat into perspective the hopes that one has tied to literature and one's own work. Of course, we realized that these flowery dreams--literature changes awareness--wilted away; this means that precious little can be moved by literature. But precious little is still sufficient: it should be moved.
This is what I insist upon, and I feel obliged to the tradition that one doesn't give up on this element of enlightenment and somehow ends up in this metaphysical nonsense and suddenly rediscovers Stefan George's "Park" and what not, that is that one looks for being inside of language and, thus, produces linguistic plaster. There are prominent colleagues who propagate just this. And I have really no part in it.
I indeed insist that this is an element that always contains a different reality within itself, a utopian element of brotherhood, more freedom, more equality borne of an aesthetic line of argument because literature--especially the one that proceeds by narration--also creates a free space in which things could be different. This is the wonderful subjunctive: it does not have to be like this, but rather this element of freedom is a part of it if one, as author, imagines or, as reader, reads another destiny, another behavior, another reaction, or another person. This is the wonderful thing about literature while direct influence is possible only within limits.
But even the latter has happened. Due to Morenga, for instance, the historical Morenga was discovered. I think one of the best qualities of this novel was that the Swapo itself was able to discover their pioneer for freedom. Morenga had indeed been pushed into oblivion through the history of the ruling class as it was written by the colonial historians. Morenga's son was rediscovered, and he was interviewed. The oral tradition was reappraised. Thus, the novel helped discover a strand of the traditions of exploited peoples.

Stoehr: You said that, in spite of all consistency, your positions have changed. How has your writing evolved? Were there, for example, changes due to the new media, the computer?

Timm: Writing has become easier. In my own writing process, I used to rewrite each novel five times; writing with the computer has tremendously simplified this process. There are things that stand for themselves; it would be mindless to retype them; these things I just save on disk. This is a form that is appropriate for my way of writing, to move texts back and forth, to juxtapose them and to work with montage; however, you have to watch out for the danger of letting something pass prematurely and instead you have mainly to press the "del"-key. This key is a pleasure for me. I let many things disappear, and I find it quite nice that it disappears altogether and doesn't remain crossed out on the page.
What I am interested in at the moment--and that's the case now in Die Entdeckung der Currywurst [The Invention of Curried Sausage]--are all these stories about everyday life. I believe the political left is currently in a state of helplessness, which also relates to my situation. One can demonstratively demand more equality and freedom, but how to get there has indeed become very complicated after the disastrous collapse of the socialist countries.
First of all, the terrible mistakes and stupidities that were committed need to be reappraised. One has to confront this. This is also part of my own biography. Yet I think literature has the possibility to carry out a kind of field study, the way ethnologists do. One has to describe people and their wishes in exact detail but also describe how they put up resistance to the dominant oppressive ideologies and to claims and thoughts of dominance. There can be a lot of sand in the gears, and I am interested in this sand--or at least in the people who throw this sand into the gears.
I am interested for example in desperadoes, white-collar criminals: someone who from within reduces to absurdity the system, which is based on commerce, arm twisting, and selling--selling is always an inequitable exchange so that somebody can earn something--, by being a swindler and showing to the system what's really behind it. There is Peter Walter from KopfjÉger or Lena Brucker from Die Entdeckung der Currywurst , who harbors a deserter. This is resistance in everyday life. A small, tiny--yet very important--deed in the life of a woman, which becomes an unheard-of love story and which in passing leads to a discovery. I think these little discoveries are crucial: Who discovered the meatball, the hamburger, the BigMac?
It also interests me how this is linguistically anchored into consciousness; this means that colloquial speech and dialect are important for me. At present, it interests me how out of colloquial speech new images emerge for describing reality in a different way and for interpreting it anew. To promote this process and to participate in it is what I attempt with my new novels--most recently in Kopfjäger and Die Entdeckung der Currywurst . I am currently writing a novel about someone who is searching for a catalogue of the tastes of different sorts of potatoes. He plays only a marginal role, but he wanders around Berlin, and many strange things happen; he meets people some of which are alive and some of which are dead.

Stoehr: I would finally like to ask you if there is anything else in the context of the topics that we talked about here that a reader in an Englishspeaking country should know about you or your work?

Timm: No, I think that a reader should read the novels. This is also possible for EnglishÜspeaking readers because three of my novels are available in English: The Snake Tree, Headhunter, and The Invention of Curried Sausage. The translations are by Peter Tegel or by Leila Vennewitz, who are both excellent translators. All three novels were published by New Directions in New York--an American publishing house that strongly supports German literature in its program.

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