Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis.
Before the Feast is set in Fürstenfelde, a small village in the former GDR, on the day before its annual feast. Why did you decide to set your story there? Do you know the area well? And is this central European location and scenery important to your writing?
I had a mosaic kind of tale in mind which was based on a really small village in the Bosnian mountains, a place where the ancestors of my family lived for centuries. The village is on the verge of disappearing; only about 20 people live there today. I wanted to write the stories of those still remaining, the legends of the region, its beauty and horrors, in order to keep something, anything alive and save it from being forgotten.
Soon I realized that this kind of approach was more of a documentary project than a fictional one. I continued the research but stopped the writing.
The topics of decay, disappearance, life and death in remote areas didn’t cease to interest me even after my work in that village was done. And so I created my own village, in which I could write fictional prose as much as I liked, and placed it in Germany’s northeast where many problematic issues of German and European societies are visible – unemployment of the youth, a strong right-wing movement, the loneliness of old people and so on.
I didn’t have a very deep knowledge of the region, which is why I spent a lot of time in Uckermark and did research, talked to people, read and learned. It is a region with a literary tradition of its own, but not much has been written in recent times.
I found that many stories from ‘my’ ancestors’ village were very similar in their core to stories I was being told or researched in Uckermark. There is something beautiful in the fact that such different cultural landscapes share similar motives and story-telling devices, which in the end means that Europe is nothing more than a village itself. A big and angry one, eerie and manifold, but in the end just a village.
You thank the people of Furstenberg, Furstenfelde and Furstenwalde at the end of your novel. How much is the book based on real local history?
I actually never went to those places (except Fürstenwerder). The thank-you note is itself fiction, since everybody is always trying to find the ‘real’ in fiction.
There is a bit of local history revolving around the end of World War II which I took as the background for one story; also bits of GDR history are relevant. But there is much more invented history and even pieces from Bosnia which I used and transferred to Germany without changing too many parameters.
The book was never meant to be a fictional mirror of history. It even plays with the fact that history is always different depending on who is writing it. The winners, the losers, the historians, the authors of fictions.
In the novel the local historical archive is mysteriously broken into and stories escape, allowing myths and memories flow through the village during the night. Why this fascination with collective memory and the past?
As a writer I am fascinated by memory (and its flaws) as a constituent of our present lives. I cannot write honestly about a 90-year-old former soldier without trying to understand his views on war as a young man or his thoughts on the military and his own time spent with a weapon.
Collective memory is a kind of a myth in itself. There is almost never such a thing as complete agreement on how historical events unfolded, because there is always that one person who will say, ‘I don’t believe,’ and, ‘This is how it went,’ no matter how much evidence would prove him wrong.
Even written records are never complete and perhaps not even correct, or they’re forged; in any case, many might say they are not to be trusted. I like the mistrust.
I like the flaws of remembrance and the insecurities of biographies. I am not interested in the past as a moment in time but in the present as a carryover of all the memories and dealings in and with the past.
The village of Furstenfelde is in decline. Is writing about this place your way of keeping it alive?
Not really. Maybe it would be so if it actually existed. While dealing with the past of the village of my ancestors, I realized that I am either a fiction writer, or a journalist or a museum curator, but never all of those things together.
Also – unfortunately? – fiction can’t save much from disappearance. It might provide insight for those who are interested and maybe even create a good story which will forever become a part of the cultural heritage of a place, but only a fantasist would give it actual healing powers.
This novel has a wonderfully rich host of local characters, from an aged painter, a teenage bell-ringer and a suicidal ex-soldier to the vixen who lives in the nearby forest. The reader has a strong feeling that the animals, people and landscape are all connected together. In fact, the book is often narrated by a collective ‘we’. Who are ‘we’ in the story? And why did you decide on this constantly shifting perspective?
In creating a mosaic of a village I kind of wanted the mosaic itself to have a voice which was stronger than its singular pieces. Only a ‘we’ could provide such force.
Also, ‘we’ is very often used in rural contexts, for example in conversations. It provides a sense of unity and agreement, and at the same time it divides ‘us’ (the villagers) from ‘them’ (the outside world), thus creating a strong group feeling which always has more credibility and strength than one single voice.
The ‘we’ in the story is a kind of collective voice of the village itself. I tried to imagine how it would sound if all the people who ever lived in this place merged into one. It would be protective towards the village since it consists of the village, it would be harsh because times were mostly harsh, but it would also be sensible and even poetic because of all the sensible and poetic voices that have lived in Fürstenfelde. And so on: the aim was to create a kind of a choir with singers long dead and some still alive, always singing, because a village is never quiet, not even in its darkest hours.
You arrived in Germany with your parents at the age of 14, having fled the war in former Yugoslavia. You now write your books in German. Beyond the Feast is stylistically very rich with wonderfully surprising changes in tone and timescale. Tibor Fischer in the Independent said that you manage to ‘put a bit of Balkan fun into the Reich’. Do you think that the fact that German is your second language contributes to your linguistic inventiveness? How has your mother tongue affected your writing?
Not much really. I have no idea what Balkan fun actually is, I lived there only for those 14 years and the last one or two were not really fun. People tend to believe that writing has much to do with our biographical upbringing. That might be true for some people but for me writing only has to do with the actual topic I am writing about. For me a good writer of fiction is someone who can adapt to any milieu, setting, person and bring it to life on the page – no matter how far away this milieu, setting and person is from the writer’s background.
So the answer would be: I am linguistically inventive because the language is there to be linguistically reinvented – if, and only if, it works for a story and a character’s way of speech.
How do you feel about your adopted homeland?
It is very hard to think about such a complicated, manifold, unreal construct as a ‘country’ as if it were a hat. Even hats are not really simple. But simpler than ‘Germany’. I’ll try:
I don’t really know how I feel about the very complicated hat Germany. It is colourful. To wear it makes me happy at times, sad at times, angry at times, confused at times. I like to wear it because it doesn’t really fit me or anyone else. Sometimes I must lift it for couple of weeks and put another hat on since it tends to get narrower over time. France is a good alternative hat.
Anthea Bell, who translated both your novels, is a wonderful translator. She has been widely praised for this and for her other translations. How do you work with her and with your other translators?
There are no words to describe the beauty, precision and literary quality of Anthea’s work. May she live and translate forever.
I enjoy working with translators in general. They are the best readers: very focused and critical.