Six Questions

Interview · January 20, 2007

How do you feel about your book being published in Romania? Do you know anything about the Romanian public or can you anticipate, in a way, the reaction to your novel?

Every time a book of mine is translated into another language, there is that same thrilling sensation you get when you go for a swim in unknown waters. Will the immersion in the new language function? In the case of certain waters, like English, French or German, I can anticipate its depth, volume, and texture better than in that of others. Hence, I can dress my anticipation accordingly: in bathing-trunks and sun lotion in some cases, in full diving gear and lead-belt in others. As for Romanian, alas, my ignorance is complete. I have no inkling what to expect from your language. How does my sort of literature appear in Romanian guise? As an exotic bird wearing diving flippers? Or as a mermaid, practicing her strokes on dry land?

I’m afraid I’ve read only little Romanian literature. If you discount the misfits that you, too, have in your ranks — I’m thinking of Celan who wrote in German, of Cioran who wrote in French, or of people like Herta Müller and Oskar Pastior, who both hail from the German-speaking part of Transylvania — I’m not familiar with more than a handful Romanian writers. Like Gellu Naum, for example. Among contemporary colleagues, I’ve read Cartarescu and Manea, and admire the detailed oneirics of the former, the sardonic savvy of the latter. But I can’t say I know what they sound like in the original. Are they crawlers by birth? Or have they perfected the butterfly stroke? I can’t tell. Still, any literature that has produced such a stunning number of splendid writers surely is bound to have a discerning audience, a choicy public?

What kind of  “position” does the thriller genre — that you develope so accurately and fascinating with your novel — have in contemporary literature? Especially if we take into account the succes of this kind of genre during the years . . .

As you know, my book is by no means a straightforward thriller. The reader who picks it up expecting the same fare as he would get from the likes of Mankell or Paretsky, is bound to be disappointed. I’m not interested in instrumental prose, but in da capo literature. To me, for a book to be worth reading, it must be possible to re-read. At the very least, this means the text cannot exhaust itself with the denouement. There must be more to the story than meets the eye. In my understanding, the average thriller writer makes you flip the pages by having the plot gain momentum through murder and mayhem. Once this battle of wits is over — the writer trying to trick the reader; the reader trying to pickup the clues in order to anticipate the next move — there is precious little to return to. I suppose another way of putting this would be to say that the problem with what is usually considered a thriller, is that it requires crime.

How would you characterize your own book?

Thrillers were quite en vogue in the 1920s. To some extent, they were the medium in which modern man tried to come to terms with his anxieties in an era of general nervousness. The Truth about Sascha Knisch plays a little with the politically charged atmosphere and voluptuous erotic panic of the time. Still, it’s no straightforward thriller in the sense that I’m inclined to sacrifice details or emotional complication in the name of plot. Personally, as a reader, I prefer da capo literature. I like it when I’m able to pick up a book again and find new things to treasure, hidden in the text like Easter eggs.

I like problem-solving, but of a different nature. It must engage my whole being, not just that instinct that gets whatever pitiful satisfaction there is to get from learning the name of a serial killer. Still, as a genre, the thriller is interesting, not least because it’s the form that the interplay of truth and deception, of ruse and revelation, tends to take. The latter is not without its merits if your subject matter happens to be transvestism, as is the case with The Truth about Sascha Knisch. Also, what made me interested in this particular form of literature was its immense popularity in the period in which my novel is set: the urban and media-obsessive 1920s. In the hands of a master such as Walter Serner, it became a particularly cagey manner of disturbing the none too innocent minds of the readers.

I suppose my attraction might have been fatal. At least I’ve never received as many intrepid queries as I did with this novel. Just because of the sexual orientation of its hero! Everybody seems to want to know wether his inventor is a transvestite himself. If you’re able to put trust in a writer who has done his personal best to pervert any straightforward understanding of the “truth,” the answer is: no, sorry. Save for a brief episode in my ballet class as a six-year-old, I’ve no familiarity with transvestism of the first degree. But certainly of the second degree — that is, of languages as forms of clothing. When you grow up the way I did, with parents from two countries in a third one, you’re bound to experience languages as different forms of dressing thought.

Come to think of it, the sensation I experienced when, as a child, I realized there were different ways of expressing the same thing, was thrilling. The treacherous beauty and hidden abundance of words made me tremble. I suppose that’s why I’d like to take the genre literally: as something that should “thrill” your nerves. Isn’t that the hidden purpose of literature: to give you the shivers?

What curiosities did your book arise among it’s readers?

Oh, merely comparatively speaking. I’m convinced Santa Claus receives more mail in one day than I will in my entire life as a writer . But there seems to be something about sexuality that loosens people’s reserve — not in public, that’s obvious, but from a comfortable distance, when you remain on the other side of a letterbox. Reading is an intimate affair. When you respond to a book, there may well be an instinct to consider it the surest means of reaching the person behind it. Although I sympathize with this urge, I fear it’s based on a misguided assumption. Writers tend to be solitary but promiscuous creatures. We give away feelings and attributes to our characters without regard to anything but the inner logic of the text. Never trust a fictitious being to represent accurately his or her inventor.

Although writers appreciate the company of others just as much as carpenters or nurses, the book, considered as an object, serves us as a shield. After all, why write it if you could talk about that with which it deals? A book is our preferred way of entering into contact with the world. That is, we engage with what is in and around us, but in the form of deflection. Still, curiously, literature must be thought of not so much as a mask or a repellent as a force shield. In those rare, happy instances when it really works, it’s able to concentrate vast amounts of energy and produce that marvelous thing: a new world.

What do you consider to be the most attracting thing about your novel, The Truth about Sascha Knisch?

I fear attractiveness is a debatable value, at least when voiced by a writer in regard to his own work. It becomes even more dubious when, as in this specific case, the subject matter is sexuality. And it turns downright iffy when that sexuality is a particular form which, only eighty years ago, was classified as an “aberration of the sexual instinct” — and no doubt still is considered such by people who impose their own inclinations or trepidations on others.

To me, the book is about attraction — indeed, about fatal attraction. What makes a person respond instinctively to certain signals or circumstances while remaining blissfully disinterested in others? I can’t tell. Yet, although I don’t share the volatile preferences of my main character, I understand his bewilderment in face of attraction. It’s like a snowstorm. You don’t have to have experienced one in order to be able to describe it. You just take a handful of snowflakes and turn up the volume. Surely we have all experienced the glorious — but usually less than purely comfortable — sensation of being attracted to somebody or something? It’s a feeling of not being in command, of yielding, however little, one’s control. I wanted to pursue this sensation in my book. I wished to see what happens when instinct or impulse takes restraint by surprise. Hopefully, some of the sensations involved rub off on the plot. Another way of putting this would be to say that the book is about the hazardous attempt, both dangerous and comical, of a young man to put himself in the shoes of a woman. Whether he succeeds is different matter . . .

If you were to recommend your novel to the Romanian readers, how would you describe it?

Set in Berlin in the sweltering summer of 1928, it’s a novel about deceit, desire, and the cunning fidelity termed friendship. Take two parts emotion, one part peril, add a dash of mischief and a twist of fate — and there’s your cocktail. To be shaken, not stirred. For readers +18 years of age.