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15 November, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Hanna Trehub

An Unembellished World

Josef Winkler talks about contemporary Austrian literature, historical memory and linguistic virtuosity

Josef Winkler is recognized as one of the most prominent contemporary German-speaking authors. His works are not intended for a mass audience. In his intellectual prose, Winkler sides with the homeless, deceived and persecuted – all those who are treated mercilessly at the hands of today's indifferent consumer society. With the support of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Winkler was one of the honorary guests at the Second Book Arsenal International Festival in Kyiv.

U.W.: You raise a number of sensitive issues in your works which are sometimes controversial even in a contemporary, liberal Western society. Are there any taboos for literature?

Everyone who writes tries to find his own topics and language. In this sense, we in Central Europe have no taboos. We can write about anything. We are not limited in this by the state or any other entity.

For example, there are many blasphemous things in my books. I don’t care if some people don’t like me or can’t read my works at all. To understand what I write about, they need to have experience reading different literature. I don’t deal with banal readers or non-readers — I’ve never come across them. Several times, people have approached me to rebuke me for my writing. But that happens once or twice in 10 years. I tell such people that they came to me, not I to them. If readers don’t like a book, they are not forced to spend money on it. We have freedom of choice, and this is a great blessing. But we always need to be careful and be able to defend ourselves. There are political parties in the Austrian parliament that would want to have a totalitarian system according to their ideas. We need to fight them by all means available to us in a rule-of-law state, barring violence, of course.

U.W.: Austrian authors and film directors tend to focus on acute social issues, particularly violence. What is behind this trend?

You are right – this has been a permanent trend for the past 40 years, even though we have no shortage of love stories and kitsch. Several decades ago, we saw the arrival of so-called Heimat and anti-Heimat literature. Heimat literature portrays an unrealistically nice Austria, but this picture is deceptive. It is a kind of ideological embellishment. Our country is, in fact, not as beautiful. Anti-Heimat literature was inspired by Thomas Bernhard, Peter Hantke and Elfriede Jelinek. And I have been writing for over 30 years now.

U.W.: What trends and genres dominate in German-language literature now, especially in Austria? Is there a sense that Austrian literature is overshadowed by German literature?

German-language books are written in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, which together have some 90 million people. We all say we are German-language authors. Understandably, Swiss writers are somewhat different and write not exactly like German authors. Each one of them has a special colouring, because German has different dialects. There are linguistic expressions in Switzerland which we Austrians don’t understand. Conversely, there are Austrian expressions which people in Germany and Switzerland don’t understand. But we all write in standard German, Hoch Deutsch, so this is not a problem.

U.W.: There has been a resurgence of the topic of the Second World War in German-language literature recently. Is this a new interpretation of that event or merely a fashion?

I feel that this comeback has nothing to do with a fashionable trend. There are many authors in Germany who have extensive personal experience and write all kinds of texts associated with WWII in one way or another. Each of them has found his own material. Some write about history, while others talk about things that have nothing to do with history. I think that the main thing here is how well an author covers his chosen segment.

U.W.: Why did you choose the memoirs of a Ukrainian female Ostarbeiter as the plot for your novel Die Verschleppung (Kidnapping)? What got you interested?

I met Njetotschka Wassiljewna Iljaschenko by accident in the early 1980s in a village where I was writing my third novel. Actually, I could have met her elsewhere. I was about 28 at the time and I didn’t know anything about her world. But I immediately grasped that hers was a horrible story filled with difficult experiences. When people like that depart life, their stories are lost. What I heard had to be recorded, written down and preserved from oblivion. I never did anything like that either before or after. Die Verschleppung is my fourth book and has a special place among my 20 works.

This novel should be interesting to Ukrainians, because a number of people have been deported from here and there is still no information available about many of them. Effectively, they have gone missing.

U.W.: What is biographical and fictional in Die Verschleppung? Was it hard to write fiction as non-fiction?

I was not knowledgeable about that material and didn’t have a clue what it was. And I wanted to convey this story just like Njetotschka experienced and told it. I wanted to write this book in a way that she could read it and say it was her story. And I didn’t want it to partly become my own story. So, there is no artistic interpretation on my part there. And this is also why I chose to write it as a chronicle. On the first 60 pages, I describe my life in that village and how I listened to her story. The next 200 pages are the chronicle itself. Authenticity set the scale. I was merely the writing hand. As far as the writing style is concerned, it is of course my novel. But the story is hers, and I didn’t want to falsify it in any way.

U.W.: Contemporary Europe is largely urbanized. You entered the Austrian literary stage with the trilogy Das wilde Kärnten (Wild Carinthia). What moved you to write about life in the countryside? How does rustic Europe reveal itself now?

I grew up in Carinthia and wrote novels there. As they read my works, the residents of Berlin, Hamburg and other German-speaking cities learn more about my this area. It is so small that in the north of Germany no-one will say a word about it. But if it suddenly becomes associated with a big corruption scandal, as was the case in the past months, the entire country hears about it. The contemporary Austrian press largely speaks about a given land as a hotbed of corruption. But art, including literature, contributes to a positive image of a region. Incidentally, Peter Hantke is also a native of Carinthia. There are a number of authors from this region that made names for themselves in both Austria and Germany. This small federal land is known in the German-speaking world primarily thanks to literature.

Austrian authors  – Thomas Bernhard for one – write with a good deal of irony about the country. This interpretation is interesting to many people even if they are city dwellers. For example, they are curious about how we handle folklore.

U.W.: What do people in Austria know about Ukrainian literature? How can Ukrainian authors appeal to European readers?

As far as we Austrians are concerned, we don’t know Ukrainian literature as such, neither classical nor contemporary. A chance to get to learn it would be if Ukraine were presented at the Frankfuhrt Book Fair in mid-October. One country is the Guest of Honour every year. For example, India, Turkey and Hungary have made presentations. I hope your country will one day become the Guest of Honour, too. This will promote German translations of Ukrainian books, and Austria will be able to learn more about your literature. Another great chance is if a Ukrainian author is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He or she will be translated in Austria and other countries. And then people will ask themselves: What else is there in great Ukrainian literature?

The main thing here is not any specific topic, but rather the way a book is written. What captivates is the linguistic art. For example, Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) is known throughout the world because it is a linguistic masterpiece. This is where a chance for Ukrainian literature lies – in linguistic art which crosses all boundaries and stretches across borders.

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