A Little Kracht Music

Avner Shapira
Avner Shapira

In 1844, in his famous poem "Germany, a Winter's Tale," Heinirch Heine described noxious fumes rising from a chamber pot in a prediction of a bleak future for Germany. Now, "Faserland" by Christian Kracht has been published by Ahuzat Bayit, translated from German into Hebrew by Hanan Elstein as "Eretz Pruma" (no translation into English is available as of yet), and 150 years after Heine's epic poem also describes a journey full of probing and painful humor, revealing Germany's tribulations.

The narrator of Kracht's novel, an anonymous, young, protagonist, not only grapples with ghosts of the Nazi past that will never be put to rest, but he also lashes out at the united Germany of the 1990s, a well-lubricated, capitalist machine in which the young become addicted to temptations, pleasure and the allure of consumerism.

From another vantage point, Kracht's book enters into a confrontation with the German literary tradition, which simultaneously attracts and repels the protagonist.

In an e-mail interview, Kracht enjoys jumping back and forth between fields or interjecting cryptic and provocative observations whose seriousness is not always evident. He rarely gives interviews and is not very communicative. Perhaps he is hinting at a worldview (manifest in the novel) whose gist is avoiding commitment to any absolute dictum.

Asked why he chose a protagonist who evinces fierce hatred for Germany or anyone or anything that smells like Germany, Kracht replies:

"'Hatred' is a strong word, Avner, which could be tempered by the word 'obsession.' Perhaps it is my friend, the Scottish singer Momus, who has best summed up how Germany is to be seen, indeed, sees itself. I reproduce below the lyrics of his song "Germania" for your esteemed readers:

There are bloodhounds and burial mounds upon these metal maps

Iron curtains tumble down, iron walls collapse

A thousand acorns trampled upon make a thousand oaks

In Germania, in Germania

Tannenbaum in Tinseltown, the legend goes before

The queen puts on a snowy gown, Frederick's at the door

Assign no blame, place no strain on the frail neck of the swan

In Germania, in Germania

Rotten flowers, forgotten powers, glory gathering

So childishly history is dancing in a ring

An old romance, a Totentanz, hear the sirens sing

In Germania, in Germania

Kracht is not German. He was born in 1966 in Saanen, Switzerland to a very wealthy family. At the start of the 1960s, his father was named chief representative of the Axel Springer publishing company. The son was educated at prestigious institutions outside his native land - in the United States, Canada, France and Germany, where he attended the Schule Schloss Salem, a boarding school for the children of the wealthy near Lake Constance. The protagonist of "Faserland" is also a graduate of that school.

As an adult, Kracht worked as a journalist in Germany but continued to be attracted to the wide world: He was Der Speigel's correspondent in New Delhi and afterward lived in Bangkok; he writes of his travels through Asia in one of his books. He now lives in Buenos Aires with his wife, film director Frauke Finsterwalder.

Yet, half a world away, Germany is the center of Kracht's cultural space, and the novel he published at 29 has made him a star in the cultural firmament of Mitteleuropa. "Faserland" is a neologism meaning a country that has unraveled and also hints at the German pronunciation of the English word "fatherland." The novel is considered a formative work of German pop literature, which blossomed in the 1990s and continued to create a stir. It came out against German culture's traditional elitism and used subjects, writing styles and language registers from contemporary youth culture - reflecting consumer culture and the mass media, with all the brand names, concepts and celebrities they serially create and bury.

There's a plethora of names in the book, including brand names, major works, popular nightlife spots and German cultural heroes of the time and canonical names. Most of the more than 70 brand names mentioned flicker for a moment and disappear, but one comes up frequently: Barbour, a cotton raincoat from Scotland. It links the protagonist and quite a number of the people he knows.

The Hebrew translator, Hanan Elstein, has written an epilogue entitled "On the Depth of Superficiality," saying the book is a brand novel, dealing with the place of brands in society from a critical stance and exemplifying "the possible use of brands as formative elements of a literary text in our time."

The book's protagonist, a scion of the wealthy, has no economic worries and plenty of psychological ones. He makes a pointless north-south journey across Germany, from wild party to hasty encounter, trying various drugs, drinks and other delights and meeting numerous characters whose significance resides not in their communication with the protagonist but in the way they exemplify absence of communication and perhaps an inbuilt failure in the attempt to communicate - showing how human communication is Germany is unraveled.

The people he meets lead him to critical thoughts. A cab driver of retirement age causes the narrator to say, "From a certain age all Germans look like 100 percent Nazis."

In a bar in Berlin he meets Wim Wenders, the director of "Wings of Desire" and asks whether its beginning was influenced by the opening scene of Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." To his disappointment, Wenders says nothing and does not confirm his analysis. He meets installation artists of whom he says: "If you listened really closely to what they are saying, you would discover they have nothing to say."

However, the book expresses far more than expanding vacuity in an an unraveling Germany enslaved to materialism. It is also a layered work in which a sophisticated dialogue focuses on remnants of high German culture, Greek mythology and such writers as Goethe and Thomas Mann. The book, and especially the last chapter, echoes Mann's "The Magic Mountain" but also tries to free itself from the masterpiece.

Would you say that that pop literature was a kind of cultural reaction to political events, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany?

Germany during the 1990s witnessed humankind's first scientific attempt to reconcile Darwin's biological theory with quantum mechanics, no doubt prompted by successful developments in the Human Genome Project in Iceland and elsewhere. Concomitantly, "Faserland" focused on a spiritual reconciliation between the re-death of Stalinism in 1989 and the sexual mores of postmodernist European society. Goethe said, "The longer you look, the more stars you see."

Kracht has published nine books, including three novels, and has been translated into 17 languages. His second novel, "1979," describes two gay young Germans going to Iran during the Islamic Revolution (one of them goes on to Communist China). The book shows the West's haplessness in dealing with the rise of radical Islam and appeared in Germany days before September 11, 2001. It was translated into Hebrew by Avi Garfinkel and published by Am Oved in the Proza Aheret series in 2004; it has not been published in English.

Thanks to his literary success, Kracht has become a celebrity in Germany and has even participated in an advertising campaign for a clothing brand. Since 2006, he has had a column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung despite his physical distance from Germany.

Kracht, who recently became a father, sees himself as a cosmopolitan, a "citizen of the world" and says: "To be cosmopolitan is to occupy a realm of sociopolitical aboveness. America itself, for example, is a giant cosmopolitan person, though a bad example, being ingravescently [ingravescent is a medical term for becoming more severe - Ed.] swaddled in layers of material and cultural villainy - insufferable wet blankets that would be inconceivable for me to live inside of, even though I studied there."

What are the disadvantages of being a citizen of the world?

"The disadvantage to cosmopolitanism is that it recalls one's prater-human existence within the epididymis (the place in the testicle where sperm matures), when, as independent, predatory spermatozoa, we were each in his towering sovereignty utterly bereft of morals in the company of our fellows."

You have visited many countries and written books about your travels. Is there any chance you will write a book about a journey to Israel? And if so, could you say how you imagine such a book or at least its the beginning?

"Of my various sojourns, the two to Israel have proven among the most peaceful and rewarding. When I was in high school, I traveled with my ethics class to Be'er Sheva. It saddened me then to imagine the cost of that peace, yet now I am happy that it exists for me to be sad in, to reflect quietly in. Were I to write a book about Israel, I would write it in longhand, and I could only write it in Be'er Sheva. Thus it would begin. "An owl would be kept nearby, in the apartment, in case I longed to peck."

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