I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Ingo Schulze became famous in Europe early on as the first important writer to come out of the “new Germany.” It was literally true: Born in Dresden in 1962, he had spent his life in the GDR (East Germany) but didn’t begin writing fiction until a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Moreover, the unification—which, as he says, was more a nonhostile takeover of the East by the West than a true unification—permeates his wonderful stories of the unheroic.
In English, he has been extremely fortunate to have as his translator the astonishing John E. Woods, who specializes in three utterly dissimilar writers: Schulze, Thomas Mann, and the more-Joycean-than-Joyce (and funnier) Arno Schmidt. Available are 33 Moments of Happiness , stories written out of Schulze’s time working in Saint Petersburg; the novel or linked stories ofSimple Stories ; the long epistolary novel, New Lives ; the book of stories called One More Story (which had a better title in German, Handy—the word for cell phone); and, most recently,Adam & Evelyn , set in the GDR and Hungary, which partially transplants the Fall of Man to the Fall of the Wall. All are published by Knopf.
Germany, unlike the US, takes pride in its cultural producers, and Schulze is one of the many German writers who are sent all over the world to give talks and readings. This interview, which starts with Ingo in the Amazon and makes a side trip to Vietnam, was interrupted when he went off to Sri Lanka. We first met in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2004, and have been friends since, with dinners at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Berlin which is better than it sounds—and readings and public conversations in New York and various German cities. He always draws a huge crowd. This time, we “talked” via email, with our mutual friend and my editor at Berenberg Verlag, Beatrice Fassbender, acting as translator along the way.
Eliot Weinberger Before we start talking about your new novel, let’s get down to the real dirt: what is terra preta and how did you become involved with this?
Ingo Schulze Three years ago, I was invited to a workshop about the significant narratives of our times at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen. Among all the artists and humanities scholars, there was one scientist, Ralf Otterpohl, an expert on wastewater treatment at the Hamburg University of Technology. Ralf was very intimidated by this group of people and he only spoke very briefly. But one of the interesting things he said was that the flush toilet was an aberration of civilization, a fatal aberration. With it, close to 90 percent of much-needed nutrients are being flushed into rivers and oceans, and 10 percent into sewage plants, where the sludge is extracted, dried, and burnt, using up a great deal of energy. On the one hand, hundreds of thousands of people die every year from polluted water. On the other hand, within a few decades, the global resources of phosphate will be exhausted. Therefore, according to Ralf, the need for change is imperative.
After his talk, I came up to him, told him I’d like to write my next novel about him, and asked him whether I could come and visit him. He thought I was joking, but I tried to explain that his words seemed to me a powerful metaphor. I can’t imagine my life without a flush toilet and had considered it a great achievement up until then, wishing everyone on earth would have one. And suddenly it’s discovered that it’s all wrong, that with this blessing of civilization we actually work against, not for, our survival.
So I visited Ralf in Hamburg and heard much about terra preta. It’s Portuguese for “black earth”—the term comes from the Amazon. Like almost all tropical soil, that of the Amazon is of very poor quality. There are only a few centimeters of humus—all the nutrients are in the vegetation. After only a few very poor harvests, farmland created from cleared forests will turn into a desert, the soil depleted and wasted.
But there are islands of high quality soil amidst this poor land. Some of them the size of a garden, others several hectares. These soils are neither washed out nor washed away by the rain, and they don’t leach out. They are immensely high yielding, and can’t even be improved by chemical fertilizers. That’s terra preta. And a few decades ago—though some people still argue about it—it was discovered that this is an artificial, not a natural, soil, which means it was created by the indigenous people of the Amazon.
EW So what exactly is it?
IS It sounds almost too simple to be true, but it’s basically their trash heap. Whatever they couldn’t use anymore they threw on a pile: vegetable wastes, but also bones, fish bones, clay shards from broken pots and, most important, the remains from their fires and ovens: charcoal. It’s the charcoal that is decisive. It stores water, binds nutrients, and also detoxicates. There are also certain microbes, due to the high temperatures and humidity in Amazonia, which, if we were to adapt terra preta, would have to be added in our latitudes.
EW I’ve heard it lasts hundreds of years and, completely inexplicably, even expands. A kind of natural perpetuum mobile.
IS There’s indeed a fairytale quality to it, once you read the reports or see the crops that grow on terra preta. On my first trip to Amazonia, a friend who’s been occupied with the phenomenon of terra preta since the late ’70s told me that one just has to look out for beautiful spots that are conveniently situated near the riverbank. That’s where Indians used to settle and that’s where terra preta can be found.
EW And what’s your interest in this?
IS Terra preta could be the solution to two vast problems. It can turn poor soil into high-quality soil and free small farmers from expensive fertilizers and pesticides and from patented seed. And it could help, in many parts of the world, solve the disastrous waste situation. Anyone who has ever visited a slum knows that the worst part is not the wretched shacks, the dust, the rusty water tanks, the crowds of people, crime, etcetera, but the smell. Slum dwellers live in a constant blight—they literally don’t know where to piss or shit. Strangely enough, it’s difficult to talk about this—it’s a taboo. Even back in the tale of Heracles, King Eurystheus hoped that Heracles, who was clearing out the Augean stables, would stink with shit and embarrass himself. Instead, by redirecting a river through the stables, Heracles more or less invented the flush toilet.
EW Didn’t you make a documentary about it?
IS Last year, the city of Mainz appointed me writer-in-residence. Mainz is home to ZDF, one of the two national public TV channels. The channel donates the money that comes with the award, and they allow you to make a 45-minute documentary.
I shot and edited the film with my friend Christine Traber. From the very beginning, we knew it wouldn’t be about Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America alone, but also about Germany, Europe, the West—an idea that was intensified during the process of making the film. Here in Germany, the soil is already wasted, because everything organic is constantly being removed from it—only chemicals get back into the earth. We also have the problem of fecal matter.
Moreover, in Germany there are attempts to patent the production of terra preta, which would mean a new kind of colonization. In the film, we also wanted to repopularize knowledge that was destroyed by the conquistadors. You can’t talk about terra preta without talking about the history of the Amazon. They are discovering an unknown civilization over there. What used to be conceived of as primordial nature, as primeval forest, turns out to be a 19th-century construct, a cultural landscape. Instead of small nomadic groups there were settlements with thousands of inhabitants. Archaeologists are now able to verify the accounts of the conquistadors of large and prosperous towns along the river, which used to be taken for bragging or feverish delusion.
EW They now say that 90 percent or more of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out by disease—that most or much of the New World was not wilderness at all. But, back to the film …
IS It’s not a piece of art, but then, it wasn’t designed to be one. At least, we got our demand accepted that there would be no voice-over commentary, just the words of the speakers. While working in Brazil, we coincidentally met Morgan Schmidt, an archaeologist from the US. He told us about Indians who still make terra preta today. No one had known about this, not even Brazilian scholars. If we had the money, we would have flown or driven there and looked at it, but we didn’t. But maybe one day I’ll write about it. Ultimately, these are all preparations for a book I’d like to write.
EW In Germany you’re considered the meistersinger of unification—of the effects of unification on the lives of ordinary people, and so on. So it’s curious that meeting the wastewater treatment expert at the conference, you immediately knew you wanted to write a novel about him.
IS Oh, thank you so much for the meistersinger—that hurts!
EW Sorry, I thought it was a compliment. Should I have said minnesinger? German is too subtle for gringos.
IS Labels like this are terrible, and, alas, “unification” itself isn’t true either. The East simply joined the West, depriving the West of the chance to question and reform itself (or even revolutionize itself). Literature can’t be defined by its content. If it could, Shakespeare or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Stendhal wouldn’t interest me—it wouldn’t be “my world.” I write about the times I’ve lived in, and the events of 1989 and 1990 were and are still crucial, because they continue to have an impact on the world as we know it today.
I don’t know whether I’ll succeed in writing this novel I have in mind, but terra preta opens up so many rooms, it leads you through history, back to the conquest and colonization of America, and on to our world’s social and economic and ecological disasters, to science and to people I wouldn’t meet otherwise. Suddenly, the accounts of the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors are linked to the oversized sewage plants that were built in East Germany after 1990. Also, I’m happy to leave behind purely humanistic contexts. The two cultures, humanities and science, didn’t use to be separated from each other. Today, in everyday life, they virtually have no connection anymore. And that’s terribly dangerous.
EW So how do you bring them together?
IS Something like your own work, in which I always see the attempt—a successful attempt—to never stick to what is predetermined. I can’t think of another writer who manages to connect so naturally his own Western roots with curiosity and open-mindedness, who is so far from lapsing into some kind of West–centrism (or even a New York–centrism). And in your texts, this kind of dissolution of boundaries also happens—I’m not quite sure these are the right words for it—on a structural and formal level. What I mean is, many of your texts may be read as essays, but also as poems or as stories. This may well be one of the secrets of your success in Germany. People read your books with pleasure and, without immediately realizing it, they find themselves in another state of being. How shall I put it? Your texts put me in an intimate relationship with the world. Part of this intimate relationship is a critical directness, which—I’m understating—surprised me very much and delights me.
EW Well, thanks … I always thought Germans read me because of their traditional fondness for eccentric scholarship.
IS As for me, for three years, I haven’t written any major text dealing with our society’s political situation. In fact, I don’t know what to say anymore, everything is both so obvious and so clear: profits are being privatized, losses are being socialized. To still speak of democracy as ridiculous. When the Greek prime minister wanted to put the cutbacks imposed by the EU to a national referendum, he was virtually chased out of the conference room in Cannes. When our chancellor talks about “market-compliant democracy” she doesn’t have to step down, she doesn’t even get criticized for it. We have now reached post-democracy, haven’t we?
EW In what sense?
IS Right before Christmas, I attended an event called “Threat to Democracy”—it marked the attempt for all of us to start speaking up again. Harald Welzer, one of the leading German humanities scholars, said he was back at where he was when he was 15—that the way he used to perceive the world then is how it really is today. He cited a study from the Swiss Technical University in Zurich, in which mathematicians and economists analyzed intercorporate relations. According to this study, 1,318 corporations dominate four-fifths of the global economy, in terms of revenue—with their own revenue and the shares of an average 20 other major corporations each, which they hold as well. The elite’s elite consists of 147 companies that don’t just decide their own fate, but also that of about 40 percent of the global economy.
How about you? Are you back at where you were when you were 15? Or have you possibly never left that position?
EW In the sense that my values haven’t evolved much since the civil rights, anti–Vietnam War, and hippie movements—and the belief that poetry was inextricable from all three. But it seems to me that the expulsion from paradise is one of your favorite themes—not only in Adam & Evelyn, where it is, of course, overt. It’s not, needless to say, the GDR that is the lost paradise—though there may be some childhood nostalgia there—but rather the democracy movement within the GDR.
IS Oh no, in my case, there’s no such thing as childhood nostalgia. Even as a child, I wanted to get done with childhood—and later also with school—as quickly as possible. I was very happy once school was over. Though the fall of 1989 was euphoric, it was also connected with a great deal of fear. For me, it’s still a miracle that the GDR administration didn’t take more forceful action against the demonstrators. We were all afraid of a “Chinese solution,” as Tiananmen Square had happened just a few months before. In that sense, some respect is due to the other side, since they allowed themselves to be thrust aside without bloodshed.
In New Lives, I tried to describe all this. And Adam & Evelyn was another attempt, but this time as simple and as poor as possible, the plain guitar song following the orchestrated version, so to speak. But I also wanted to describe the change of worlds as a change of dependencies. To me, 1989–90 marks the end of the postwar order and our world’s hour of birth. This may be very Eurocentric, but I believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall had an even greater impact on Africa or Asia than on Europe. Evelyn might be closest to paradise when she, toward the end of the book, believes that things just can’t simply continue as before. She is certain that with the end of the arms race and the Cold War, the real problems in the world would become important. Back then, for a few days or weeks, I shared these hopes.
EW In the US, there was talk of the “peace dividend.” With the end of the Cold War, the money could go to education and health and infrastructure—just like Western Europe!—instead of so-called defense. That didn’t last long.
IS A year ago, I had the occasion to travel through Vietnam for three weeks. I was completely surprised to find hardly any awareness of the past. According to the official interpretation, the Communist Party chased the foreign forces out, unified the country, and installed a market economy. But in terms of politics and culture, there’s strict control. Apparently, the most admired public figure is Bill Gates. I couldn’t help wondering: wouldn’t there have been an easier way for you to get to that?
EW I was in Vietnam a month ago and had the same thoughts. And then, when you consider the utter pointlessness of the war—more bombs dropped there than by both sides in World War II, the hundreds of thousands dead—so that they could end up with Chinese-style uncontrolled development and, ironically or pathetically, an economy where everyday transactions are routinely done in dollars.
IS To me, it’s a terrible paradox that China’s rise to an economic superpower followed the massacre on Tiananmen Square.
EW There’s no longer any talk of utopia in the Communist countries, except perhaps in North Korea, though they were all founded on a utopian vision. It’s one that you surely grew up with—and one your characters often make jokes about. So I’m wondering: You say you don’t have any nostalgia for your childhood, but many of your stories are set in Altenburg, your childhood home. You grew up in the “workers’s” paradise.” And now your latest novel is about none other than Adam and Eve. There must be something there!
IS Actually, I was born and raised in Dresden.
EW Well, there goes that critical insight.
IS In Dresden, when I was a child, there were still many ruins, among them the most distinctive places in town. The opera wasn’t rebuilt until the 1980s; the castle remained a ruin until the mid-’90s; the Frauenkirche served as a memorial. As a child, I was happy about every new building. Although no one in my family was a party member, I firmly believed that, due to the developing relations of production, sooner or later the whole world would end up first in socialism and ultimately in communism, where everyone would work according to his or her abilities, but live according to his or her needs. That was also what we learned in school.
EW In school in the US, we learned “from each according to my needs”…
IS But that doesn’t mean that I was in favor of the GDR state—most of us weren’t. We cheered Olympic gold medalists and got upset by football failures, but we thought the Wall impossible, and everything interesting simply came from the West and not from Moscow—music, chewing gum, jeans, cars … and later also books. We all wanted to be “on the road” like Kerouac. (Anyone without a worn copy was pathetic.) And nothing was as important as literature.
EW It’s interesting that kids everywhere still read Kerouac. I think it’s because he was one of the last authentic bad boys, unlike today’s bad boys and girls, who are the products of corporate marketing. But wasn’t Wolf Biermann, in a way, the GDR Kerouac?
IS I hadn’t yet turned 14 in 1976 when he was expatriated. I had never heard his name before, but I realized that a few lines of poetry could destabilize a whole state. Its order seemed to be built on words, and words had the power to destroy this order. The newspapers were all outraged about Biermann, but paradoxically the only way to know his name in the first place was through West German radio or TV. I wanted to write poems like that. I wanted to become that kind of hero and teach the GDR the meaning of fear. So I never seriously considered applying for an exit visa to leave the country. I didn’t feel that the pressure on me was unbearable. On the contrary, it gave a kind of shape to my life.
EW It’s true that some writers who go into political exile lose that reason for being, that spur to write provided by what is otherwise often an impossible situation.
IS And even more, I thought that somebody would have to be around for “X hour,” the moment of the big change, which after Gorbachev had not become so unrealistic at all. I studied Latin and classical Greek. Back then, there were only five people in the whole GDR studying Greek, and if I hadn’t found a job on my own, the university would have been obliged to either offer me a position or find a job for me elsewhere. I started working at the Altenburg Theatre in 1988. At that time, because of Gorbachev, because of Poland, the bad economy, but mostly because of themselves, the GDR top brass were being very defensive. They didn’t even have a language for reality anymore. (These days, by the way, Merkel & Co. equally have no language that can capture reality.) But it was only under the sign of socialism that I could imagine change.
When it all began in August and September, I thought we could perhaps accomplish something like a Dubcek-GDR—a reformed state. It never even occurred to me that East and West Germany could be united. The states were so utterly differently structured, how could they ever fit together? Then there were a few weeks when the citizens’ movement seemed as if it was about to take power. But before we really had power, we had to let it go, or rather had to allow it to be taken from us. After that, I was politically paralyzed. As Boris Groys once said, it was a return from the future. All of a sudden, the present was all there was. The majority wanted the West, and apparently there were only practical constraints, words were mere decorum. The newspaper that I had founded with a few friends to accompany the transition to democracy became a rag for advertisements. Instead of a writer, I had become a manager. It took me a while to find the words again, to realize that the West too is built on words.
EW So the task then became not only finding a language for this new world, but charting the new world by telling the stories of certain of its inhabitants. Is this when you begin writing fiction?
IS I didn’t start writing until the spring of 1993, when I was in Russia. I had moved to Saint Petersburg on behalf of a German entrepreneur, whose plan was to own the city’s first give-away ad newspaper. I honestly had no ambition to write since, after all, the Russians knew Russia much better than I did. I was in my early thirties, with no literary history. I thought that, in order to become a writer, I would first need to find my own unique voice, but I hadn’t found it.
Back then, Saint Petersburg was a place where different times were present simultaneously—the 18th century, the 20th century, obviously … Every day, I walked through the Dostoevsky quarter, early 20th-century modernism was visible everywhere, and so was the revolution’s Petrograd, and World War II’s Leningrad during the German blockade. More than a million people died at that time—two of my colleagues still remembered it from their childhood. Then there was Leningrad as I had known it as a GDR tourist, and now there was this brutal, new capitalism.
I realized that what I was experiencing in Russia was my own history, this transition from one system to another. Except that in Germany there had been almost no transition time at all. And I understood that, in order to do justice to this place, what I needed wasn’t a voice of my own, but a number of voices. Once I saw myself as a Sputnik rather than the sun, I was able to write.
Style was something that—as I later learned from Alfred Döblin—needs to evolve from the subject, each time from scratch. It’s not about creating anything new, but about finding the appropriate narrative style. Needless to say, the latest Soviet/Russian literature was important to me, especially Vladimir Sorokin, Lev Rubinstein, Dmitri Prigov. And so my first book came about, 33 Moments of Happiness: 33 very different short stories, where one style is put into perspective by another, just as one notion of happiness is put into perspective by another.
EW And—the old question, a cliché, but one that writers actually face—did fiction somehow seem more truthful to the situation than journalism or nonfiction?
IS In both German and English there’s this telling relationship of Geschichte and Geschichten, or history and story. To me, history only becomes fathomable through literature. Everything Stendhal’s The Red and the Black tells me about the revolutionary phase after Napoleon’s fall, no history book is able to tell me, although a history book might, in turn, help me to better understand Stendhal. The one doesn’t oppose the other; I need them both. But I would much rather pick the epic, the novel, the poem.
When I read the Epic of Gilgamesh, I know that Gilgamesh is so afraid of death that he almost loses his mind and that he pulls off the worst kinds of mischief in order to gain immortality. It is only when he comes to terms with his own mortality that he becomes bearable. And that’s when I think: This is about me, about us. What do I care about the thousands of years in between? But others are completely unmoved by all this. They don’t seem to need poetry. That’s a kind of life I imagine to be terribly boring, void of everything that matters. I believe that stories are crucial parts of human existence, no matter in which shape they may come. Some may turn to tabloid newspapers for stories, others to the Bible, others to the movies, and a few people read poems and novels. One has to tell the story of one’s own life to oneself over and over again to stay alive, to feel oneself and to feel the world.
Eliot Weinberger’s most recent books of essays are An Elemental Thing and Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions), which were published in Germany as Das Wesentliche and Orangen! Erdnüsse! (Berenberg Verlag). His conversation with Forrest Gander appeared in BOMB 93 (Fall, 2005). (Photo by Claus Gretter.)
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee