Two books in German

Two books in German

Simon Urban’s Plan D appeared in August 2011, Bei Ling’s Ausgewiesen has come out in March 2012. Both are tied to my experiences in Taiwan, in different ways. Simon Urban is a young German author. He is not from the East, the former GDR, and there seems to be nothing in his biography to make him destined for writing a novel on history. And yet he belongs to a continuing thread of history in German literature, told in various forms, often through family stories. Female authors tell family stories, and there are many immigrants writing in German. Their writings are often set in the regions where they come from, and many tell histories of families. History is a topic that just doesn’t seem to go away in Germany and Austria. Nobel prize laureates Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller both write about painful topics from the recent histories of their countries. Herta Müller is from Romania. She is a Romanian author writing in German, mostly about Romanian contemporary history. And she’s living in Germany, for historical reasons. Elfriede Jelinek writes on Austria’s contemporary history, through her plays and novels. She writes in a very special language, a language that unmasks the thoughtless style of the media and contemporary discourse throughout Austrian society. One of her plays is called Winterreise, evoking Schubert, in her own special way. Another play relives a murderous party in the small town of Rechnitz in 1944.

Simon Urban’s novel is a thriller. It is the story of an East German police officer who has to find the murderer of a mysterious man, hanged near the Berlin Wall. The wall still exists, the GDR still exists, in 2011. Agents and counter-agents, state security and the Energy Ministry. Don’t trust anyone. Including your colleagues from the West. It’s a thick book, bursting with very evocative descriptions of situations in Berlin inside a frustrated policeman’s mind. Often funny, as well as haunting.

Simon Urban attended a creative writing academy in Leipzig. One of his teachers was the Austrian Writer Josef Haslinger, who also became famous through writing a thriller. It’s about a terrorist coup at the Opera Ball, related to Austrian contemporary history, of course. But Mr. Haslinger was not supportive of Mr. Urban’s project. “The GDR is deader than dead”, he used to say. Mr. Urban has proven him wrong. Plan D will come out in English in early 2013.

Bei Ling’s memoir begins in 2009, the year he got famous in Germany. He was invited as an exiled Chinese writer to speak at a panel at the China-focus Frankfurt book fair, then asked not to attend, along with Dai Qing, a veteran female writer and environment activist in Beijing. Both of them gate-crashed Frankfurt, with German media support. The book then jumps back to 1979 and the Beijing Democracy Wall. Activism and literature are inseparable for Bei Ling. He gives a very personal account of the 1980’s underground poetry scene, and goes on through his years in the US and his friendship with Susan Sontag, who helps him out when he is imprisoned for printing an illegal literature journal in Beijing.

Suhrkamp deserves credit for recognizing some of Bei Ling’s potential. They certainly helped to make him known in Germany. The translation of “Ausgewiesen” is good. Most of the book reads very similar to Bei Ling’s essays in the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and in Der Spiegel. The empathy, the little details, the very personal atmosphere. Bei Ling can make you feel as if you were there with him in Beijing in the early 1980s. Maybe you know some of the names, like all the famous Misty Poets. But nobody has  told it in such an intimate way, not even Bei Dao, in his fascinating recollections. When “Ausgewiesen” came out in March, the FAZ carried the first review. It was dominated by the complaint that Bei Ling didn’t include much, much more about all these fascinating topics. That’s the fault of his editors at Suhrkamp, of course. The original manuscript was easily twice as long. I’ve seen it. And like other publishers, they don’t have an editor who reads Chinese. Maybe you know Jung Chang, who wrote Wild Swans. I am pretty sure Bei Ling mentions her, but in the German text she becomes a man called Zhang Rong. Hu Ping, editor of Beijing Spring and one of the oldest Chinese exiles in New York, becomes Hu Pingzheng.

Plan D is a rather thick book. Well edited, nothing important peeled away. Simon Urban is a maniac for detailed descriptions, and you always feel these locations in action. Urban succeeds in creating a Berlin that can feel at least as real as the one you know. It is all there, this is how it could have turned out. How it is, behind the surface, at many places.

So how are these books related to Taiwan? Simon Urban was at the 2012 Taipei book fair. His book was very well received, and many people asked questions. They have a real life Communist country to deal with, which is related to them in various ways. Bei Ling runs a small press in Taiwan called Tendency, which grew out of the literature journal with the same name. They print works by Havel and Celan, among others. Taiwan is a place that accommodates many different ventures and makes many things possible. A long tradition of immigration, everything thrown together. They had a one-party dictatorship themselves, and an economic miracle too. But since 1987 they have an ongoing process of democratization, including recognition of their own history, their various ethnicities and so on. It makes one think of recent history and present times in parts of Europe and elsewhere. These are the connections, between the late Vaclav Havel and a fictional Undead GDR, between Paul Celan, exile and reckoning with the past, between poetry and stories of spies.

Addendum: Exiled Chinese writers, like Ma Jian and Bei Ling, have protested against official China monopolizing the China focus at the London book fair this spring. Click here for press coverage in Dutch, English and German.

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