There are subjects that go round and round in your mind but you can’t write about them. I don’t know what the reason for that is with other people, but for me it’s a question of place.
For years now, I’ve been thinking about a short story in which a couple travel to another continent with their child, who has just recovered from a life-threatening disease, and end up in an existential crisis. I’ve been to the place where I want to set the story but I still can’t write it.
I once heard of a writer who spent a while living in the Philippines and then installed a character there in a novel. There are poems by Sarah Kirsch and a novel by Jürgen Becker, which have in common Niederer Fläming, a tiny place an hour and a half south of Berlin by car. There’s a small village there and a castle where a significant number of my German colleagues have stayed on writer’s residencies.
No matter where I’ve been in my life, for long or short stays, my writing can only be set in the Rhine-Main region or in Berlin. Why that is, I really don’t know. The people I think up have to move around their surroundings perfectly naturally – that might be one explanation. And these just happen to be the two places where I can do that myself.
I’m sitting on a beach in Okarito as I write these lines.
Ahead of me, the Pacific throws a swirling white mass of water onto grey rocks several times a minute, and behind me a huge glacier juts into the valley in a gap between two mountains. Over the past few weeks I’ve come across more landscapes than even exist in Germany. I’ve seen fjords with mountains protruding dramatically out of the water, and deserted bays populated by sea lions. I’ve stood at the most varied shores of lakes and seas, and I’ve walked through forests and almost cried with joy at the beauty and diversity of the flora and fauna.
Travelling – that’s my task here. Describing what I see. And I can do that. Because there are no people moving around these places – for me, at least! – who are part of stories.
Perception – slash – categorisation, it says in my notebook, dated from a day last October. Every time I come across this entry I vow to expand on my hastily scribbled note. To set out the sensitive relationship between the two processes. On the one hand we need gauges for evaluating what we see and experience, otherwise what we take in disintegrates, doesn’t stay with us. On the other hand we barely pick up on anything when we bring too much of the baggage along to a new situation that has weighed us down for years.
Ever since I wrote a book about an East German I’ve realised that my interest in such fundamental issues is a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the fact that I lived and grew up in one part of Germany during the 1970s and 80s, something I found artificial, a state of exception in retrospect. What kind of construction was it, that time, that state in which I lived? A place with another place as its prerequisite, and neither of those places exist today. I can never trust my perception as naturally as I did then. I have to examine it, over and over, in my writing. And acknowledge that the end of the division was a rupture for us West Germans too – it’s just that not everyone is willing to admit that.
I’ll be back in Berlin in a while. A character for a novel is waiting for me there. She’s standing in front of a cash machine in a bank on the corner of Bornholmer Strasse and Schönhauser Allee, and she knows that nothing in her life will ever be the way it used to be. Having been away for weeks – very far away, further than ever before – I hope I’ll be able to look at her more impartially.
In the year of New Zealand’s guest country of honour appearance at the Frankfurt Bookfair 2012, the German novelist Inka Parei is criss-crossing the “Land of the Long White Cloud - Aotearoa”, travelling in a camper van. She will reflect regularly on her impressions and encounters in this blog.