The light. The focus it drives into your eyes. I spend six weeks travelling around New Zealand, and even by the end I won’t have got used to it, I’ll ascribe all kinds of characteristics to it in an attempt to understand it. Including in the last few days, when my gazes goes back again to a windy afternoon in Wellington.
A hill rises steeply behind the main road. You can go up it in a cable car and end up at the entrance to a botanical garden. Lovingly tended lawns, trees identified with signs, exotic gardens, on a knoll the white-painted wooden house of a historical observatory. From here, her gaze might have wandered down to the harbour, and from there longingly out to sea.
I imagine her standing in the constant wind, the unsettled, fast-changing weather, the glaring Pacific light. Thinking about the world in which she lives, its inherent constraints and absurdities. Until at some point she realizes how strange it is that the people around her hold on tightly to a way of life with its customs and rituals anchored somewhere else entirely, in a Europe that is 12 000 miles away.
Is there such a thing as German identity, and if so, how can we describe it? Two films and one book have given me important insights into this issue over the past two years: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, a film adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s novel Der Untertan made directly after the war, and the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield’s short story collection In a German Pension.
What they have in common is that they deal with the German character and the German mentality before the Nazi period. And they give me a feeling for the extent to which certain typical German characteristics – a sometimes rather sinister-seeming efficiency and thoroughness, for example, obedience to authority or the need to suppress certain thoughts and memories – are linked to a Germanness that was clearly pronounced long before the Nazis. Why didn’t I see that sooner myself? What are the values and notions that determine my thinking, can I recognize them? And: What does that mean with respect to my country’s recent development, that of the past twenty years?
Mansfield, who I just mentally placed on that hill, was an outsider in her times in a number of ways. She was highly intelligent, educated, ambitious and libertarian. And she wanted to write. For a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, that was an extremely difficult situation, even hopeless. Leaving all the security and conventions of the family behind, she went to Europe, living a short, intensive and restless life in England, Germany and France before she died of tuberculosis at the age of only 34. What’s fascinating even a hundred years later about her stories, which she wrote about Germans but also about other Europeans and about life in New Zealand, is a very special relationship between closeness and distance. Her ability to step up very close to her characters’ everyday lives, to describe them in their routines, with an astounded, almost ethnological approach that always comes from outside, is never involved.
Does a writer have to break with everything to arrive at this incorruptible perspective, or to maintain it? What can we do to keep liberating ourselves from what clouds our view of our own lives? These are questions that went around my mind over and over while I was travelling in the opposite direction, covering the greatest possible distance on earth from my home.
I’d like to thank the Goethe-Institut Wellington for inviting me on this trip, Sally-Ann Spencer in Wellington, Yannick Muellender in Auckland and Antonie Alm in Dunedin for good conversations and readings, Henry Mex for his support and photos, and especially my two translators Katy Derbyshire and Te Tumatakuru O'Connell, who made these notes accessible in English and Te Reo Maori, to my great joy.