The bad German
For some people, just hearing his name can almost bring on a heart attack. For others, though, he seems to have magnetic powers. Women's eyes focus on him with marvel during his public readings. In the streets of Berlin, it's not unusual to see dreamy girls enter a cafe simply because they have spotted him through the window.
Maxim Biller - novelist, short-story writer and newspaper columnist - is one of Germany's best writers. He loves to think of himself as a younger, German version of Woody Allen, with a good dose of Mephistophelian meanness. He is sharp, provocative, witty, rude and romantic. Fans of his cool, playful irony buy the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung just to read his regular column, "Moral Stories," which deals, according to his own summary, "with Jews, Germans, Hitler and sex." More sensitive readers may prefer his simple, slightly melancholic prose about childhood memories and love, as in his 2004 novel "Bernsteintage" ("Days in Amber"). Partisans of trashy guitar music are more likely to like the shamelessly amateur singer-songwriter Maxim Biller. The 2004 CD "Maxim Biller Tapes" may have received the worst of reviews, but was nevertheless illegally copied and passed along as much as a Samizdat book in Soviet times.
And since 2003, Biller has also had the distinction of being the author of a novel whose distribution is prohibited by law. The case of "Esra" - the title of the book, in which an ex-girlfriend of Biller's, as well as her mother, found themselves exposed, and claimed to be victimized by its publication - is currently in the hands of the German Constitutional Court, which is being asked to rule on the limits of the freedom of expression.
Now Biller, born in 1960 in Prague to a Russian Jewish family that in 1970 emigrated to Germany, two years after Soviets tanks brought the Prague Spring to a violent end, has announced his plan to move to Israel.
"I have always been such a good German, but by the end of this German summer I decided to leave Germany. I will go where buses explode and Katyushas rain down. And I will still be better off." With these words Maxim Biller concluded his contribution to a jubilee, one-off revival edition of the German lifestyle magazine Tempo, last December.
From 1986 to 1996, Tempo served as a mouthpiece for German pop writers with a subversive, ego-driven and pro-capitalistic revolutionary spirit, and it was here that Biller directed his outstanding polemical talent, in a regular column he called "A Hundred Lines of Hatred" ("Hundert Zeilen Hass"). In his latest lines of "hatred," Biller gave a disillusioned summary of a Germany of the so-called soccer-patriotism, as it amazed the whole world last summer. He is very uneasy about the new "relaxed German": "This, in short, is someone, who no longer feels embarrassed by the idea of Hitler as grandfather." This was Biller, the spoilsport (Spielverderber).
The massive presence of black-red-and-gold flags all over the country during the World Cup last June did not cheer Biller up. The following month, he was not inclined to join Germany's discussion of the Second Lebanon War, at least not in the terms by which it was presented on the cover of Der Spiegel: "Can Israel Survive Like This?" In August, he found Germany disturbed not by the fact that Gunter Grass had served in the Waffen-SS, but only by the fact that it took him so long to admit it. In September, he read complimentary obituaries in all the main German papers of the conservative historian Joachim Fest, who had been the biographer and friend of Hitler's architect Albert Speer. Then the radical right-wing National Democrats once more proved their political acceptability, gaining seven percent of the vote in September in the regional elections of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
It was then that Biller wrote his column, with the result being something that a narcissist can only dream of: A whole nation, or even better, the intellectual class that sees itself as the nation's elite, was talking about that discontented speaker in their midst. And people are still gossiping about his whereabouts.
As if Putin had resigned
"It was just a column, but it became like a German Press Agency announcement. As if Putin had declared his resignation," Biller says today, with his typical modesty, and continues: "There is still no other country in the world that is so minimally anti-Semitic or racist as Germany, in reaction to Nazi times. But it has made a step toward nationalism that one would not expect from the Germans. A self-admiring nationalism. Suddenly people are saying they are proud to be Germans. One shouldn't be proud of anything, pride is a disgusting characteristic."
So, one wonders, were all the international visitors who came to Germany last summer really wrong in describing both a self-confident and open-minded place?
Biller: "They don't know what's really going on in Germany. In the past, when there were really just one and a half Nazis, CNN would show a Nazi rally in a way that made it look like Nazi hordes were marching in the streets of Berlin again. But now, Nazis can make it without difficulty into regional parliaments. And in the same country, you had this most ridiculous film, 'The Downfall,' running, showing just how human Hitler was.
"One day, Hitler will be a figure just like Napoleon in France. But his actions differed from those of Napoleon. After 1989, the Germans stopped being strangers to themselves. Overnight, criticism of Germany became embarrassing. Nobody realizes what an influence these things can have on a generation, the one that is forming just now. People live only in the today. But it is today that the tomorrow is made. And the German tomorrow, in my opinion, looks very, very right-wing and nationalistic."
Biller's sense of disaffection also derives from the reaction of his countrymen to the Lebanon war. "The German public clearly took the side of the Arab party in the war. Sheikh Nasrallah wasn't an issue, but the destruction of Lebanon was. And one could hear over and over: Soon, Israel will not exist anyway, and actually, that's not so bad.
"Moreover, we have this huge problem with Muslim Arabs. If we take just Berlin, [quarters with large Arab populations, like] Kreuzberg, Neukoelln, Wedding, are very anti-Semitic. This will become a problem for all Europe, but in particular for Germany."
So, maybe Biller endorses that most unusual proposal that recently made the rounds of Tel Aviv's intellectual circles? Namely, that Israel should warn Europe, that in the event it is targeted by Iran, it will will bomb European cities in response ...
"All I can say to this is that Israel has always known, and it's an old story for the Jews, that it cannot count on anybody's help. That's why once again they are in the situation in which only they can help themselves. But here's another question. The only thing I've always been aware of - and maybe it's unfair to some people - that Israelis still believe, is the idea 'We are the victims, who need to defend ourselves, and in so doing, we sometimes make mistakes and do stupid things.'
"But Israelis aren't the victims. They really have colonized this land. And they have to deal pragmatically with the consequences of this colonialization. The moment this fact is acknowledged, all the idealism will be gone, and only pragmatism will be left. And the days when Israel wandered around the Middle East like a hurt prima donna will be over.
"But - and this is important - it's lucky the Jews colonized Palestine. All the other nations of Europe got to conquer their piece of land, why should the Jews be the only ones not doing it? Yes, we did it, but we should stop acting as if we didn't."
Oz is full of hot air
Biller is certain that if in 1970 his parents had decided to go to Israel, he would have made himself just as many enemies there as he has in Germany today. In his world, good guys are extremely rare. And while other German writers of his generation may try to avoid the words "Hitler," "Auschwitz," "Nazi," "Holocaust," fearing that their heaviness will bury all the other words around them, Maxim Biller plays with these words the way a juggler plays with little balls, standing with a big grin on the other side of political correctness.
In Biller's 1998 novella "Harlem Holocaust," the Jewish-American writer Warszawski - fat, ugly, unsuccessful and a sex maniac - finds Germany to be a welcoming place for his obsessions. Biller's first novel, "The Daughter" (2000), tells the story of the Israeli Motti, who commits a war crime in Lebanon and after running away from his trauma to Germany, sees himself getting lost in a deeply cold society, as he begins to sexually abuse his daughter.
When asked about his favorite Israeli writers, Biller hesitates only a second before declaring Amos Oz full of hot air and boring, and David Grossman - except for his novel "See: Under Love" - "not deep enough for a German Jew" like himself. Biller prefers a novel like "It Happened in Gaza" by Amos Kollek, he likes Yaakov Shabtai's "Memories of Goldman," and he thinks Etgar Keret is "really, really great, because he is absolutely non-ideological. Keret blends humor and tragedy so closely, something that can be done only by a great writer, one who doesn't take sides, who doesn't believe he has to be a politician."
There are clear similarities between Keret's short stories and Biller's "Moral Stories." Both like to turn reality into a surreal scenario that aims at the inner truth of that reality. But Biller is careful to give every theme the literary form that best suits it, and when it comes to love, his third major theme, after Jews and Germans, the jeering and mean Maxim Biller can become very soft and deep. There is a wonderful scene in the forbidden novel "Esra," in which the author needs only an open window in a Munich apartment, a summer breeze blowing the curtain, children shouting from afar, and the two lovers - he Jewish-German, she Turkish - eating watermelon, to express a strong longing for a summer somewhere else, an oriental summer: "So there we were sitting and playing the south." The question of exposed privacy, though, that brought the novel before a court after Biller's ex-girlfriend and her mother sued the author, is already built into the story. "I don't want to show you my breasts and afterward read somewhere that I showed you my breasts," says Esra, the Turkish woman, to Adam, the Jewish-German writer. Maxim Biller loves to describe bodies and what can be done with them. It's not by chance that he once accused his German fellow writers of producing Schlappschwanzliteratur, "wanker literature" or "literature without balls."
"German literature, with very few exceptions, sounds like it was written by professors or clerks. I find the German used by German writers mostly very bloodless, bureaucratic, formal, not concrete, long-winded, stagnant. And it is simply not by chance that the only great German writer of the 20th century was a Jew from Prague, Franz Kafka."
Biller insists that "I am not saying this because I am also a Jew from Prague. Kafka wrote in a German that one can sing and speak as beautifully as French, Italian or Hebrew. What I call 'Emperor Wilhelm German' has to be avoided, like everything that comes from the bureaucrats and the military."
And what does he have to say about the banned novel, "Esra"? "I don't want to compare myself to Jean Genet - he had real problems - but Henry Miller also couldn't publish in the U.S. for a while, and James Joyce, and Nabokov with "Lolita." By the way, this happens very often when sexuality comes into play. That's when the bourgeoisie gets cold feet. I believe, in a single novel of mine there is more sex than in all the books of German post-war literature combined." Then he adds, "Well, this might be a slight exaggeration."
There is definitely a lot of sex in Biller's new book, "Liebe heite" ("Love Today"). The short stories portray heterosexual, cosmopolitan and often Jewish Germans, Czechs and Israelis, aged 35-45 and involved in short partnerships. The protagonists struggle with the unbearable lightness of their being, they are torn between places, possibilities, people. Again, Biller creates moments that contain everything and nothing. It's about stroking a woman's back on a balcony in snow-covered Berlin, it's about exploring the other's feet with your tongue, it's about breaking up via SMS and still, in one's mind, talking with your lover a month later. Cheating and lying and loving all appear in these laconic texts, there are no happy endings, nor does that old tradition known as marriage make an appearance.
"For all I know," says Maxim Biller, "nothing is as exciting as waiting for the love of your life. And mostly, when you think you've met her, it goes wrong, because you don't get her, or if you do, the relationship doesn't work, or you yourself don't want to be the love of his or her life. In the past, only bohemians wanted free love, but now everyone is into it. I know people who settled for a small love, and they found that they felt much worse than those who hold out for true love, and fail again and again. It's not funny at all to resign yourself to the fact that there is no such thing as true love, it's like being buried alive. If lovemaking didn't often lead to the birth of children, I would say that people should always hysterically run after true love."
Some of the places where his characters pursue true love in "Love Today" are Prague, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin and Tel Aviv, all places that appear in Biller's biography. He was 10 when he came with his sister and his parents to Hamburg. There he studied literature, before moving to Munich, his chosen town before he came to Berlin. Biller's sister, Elena Lappin, is a writer living in London; his mother, Rada Biller, was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and lived many years in Moscow. The urban space is very important in Biller's writing, like a home is to someone who has been on the road for a long time. Reading his stories, it becomes clear, that a part of Maxim Biller still lives in the cities of his past. Where does he really feel at home?
"I am giving up on this slowly. For a long time, it was Prague. But then I went there again, and worked for a couple of months, and that satisfied my longing.
"A burdened German poetic phrase for this is Sehnsuchtsort, 'place of longing.' And the place I long for most now is Tel Aviv. When I am there, I feel very much at home. When I was a child, we went every year to Israel, especially Tel Aviv. I love Tel Aviv. It's a place where I will be a lot in the future.
"But it's not easy to be a wandering Jew, it can get on your nerves. Once you've left, and even if it's only a single time, you will always miss what you haven't got. If someone were to invent a device that measures happiness, that could check the one who always misses the place where he is not and the one who stayed where he was born - I would have myself examined and would act accordingly, and stop wandering around."
So does Maxim Biller, to come back to that announcement of his, seriously see himself moving to Tel Aviv?
"I write in German," he answers, "and no writer can live for a long time where the language he writes in is not spoken. And where thoughts and information aren't circulating in that language."
But it is time for his books, which have been translated into six languages, to be circulating in Hebrew, Biller believes. He is very unhappy that up to now not a single line of his has been translated into Hebrew. "The only explanation I have is, that for Israelis, a Jew in Germany is still a highly unappetizing idea, all the more if he is an author and he writes about this. But, I think that maybe it doesn't make sense anymore to close your eyes to the fact that there is again Jewish life in Germany. It is, probably precisely because it is forbidden, especially interesting."