Before my departure, one last train journey from Hamburg to Berlin. Sallow yellow, stubbly winter fields. Allotments. Patches of industry on the edges of towns, small stations in the mist. It is just this image that I will first have in my mind's eye a few days later, when I wake up at seven in the morning in a caravan next to a loudly rushing river, push aside a grey curtain and come up against the hard, gleaming light that my eyes have been struggling with since my arrival in Christchurch. What fortune to remember one's own life from the other side of the world! When I was asked if I'd like to spend six weeks in New Zealand, travelling and writing about it, I agreed without revealing that my wish to put some space between myself and my home, to see the place where I live from this incomprehensible distance for once, was just as important as my interest in getting to know two large Pacific islands, if not greater.
What would I give to see the world a single time through the eyes of a dog! I first came across this quote, which is said to be from a respected epistemologist, at school at the age of seventeen. It has accompanied me for decades and it was what prompted me to think about why I perceive things the way I perceive them. Just as I have quoted it here – perhaps not quite correctly – these words have stayed with me; I have never tried to find out who they originate from.
Days on the plane. The second of March 2012 is sucked up by the speed I'm travelling at, transported into a void that is inaccessible to me, a substance in which I seem to be immovable in my aeroplane seat, in temporary storage as if immersed in a preserving and life-sustaining fluid. While people in uniforms serve me food and provide me with a screen that offers me pictures of people, cities and streets so that I don't lose contact to reality, my body loses all sense of the times of day, my consciousness slips into a state between waking and dream.
Meanwhile, I think about how my writing relates to this trip. About my intensive study of the map beforehand. About texts and pictures I used to prepare myself: what I have kept in mind of them, and how I connect them to what I am and what I know.
Reading Olga Tokarczuk's book Der Gesang der Fledermäuse a few months ago. The way she introduces her characters, eccentric residents of a remote settlement in the mountains between Poland and the Czech Republic. The names the narrator gives them are extremely strange, as if made up. They don't match with the region where the people live, with their origins. And in fact, at a later point the first-person narrator admits she has invented them herself and also reveals the much simpler names these people really have. We are forced to reflect upon the fact that the voice that is speaking has everything in hand, that her description shapes what we experience as we read. Later it turns out that this woman, in whose apparently rational view of things we have placed our trust, is a murderess, killing people one by one with a plan and an idea in mind. The fantastic names, products of pure invention that she has given the characters, become an allegory for someone who has lost contact to reality. And as we read we are reminded that we ought not to accept what we comprehend as given, that we have to think about who is writing, and why. So where am I travelling to?
To a country of which I had to reassure myself to begin with that it is a quarter smaller than Germany, because distance and spatial size are two concepts that soon become indistinct if one doesn't keep reprimanding oneself to precision. To two islands with landscapes that seem, when I train my German eye upon the map, at least in the south to consist of an astounding amount of physical material I am familiar with, that I grew up with, that was the subject of my Eurocentric geography lessons: alps and fjords, for instance. To a region with a cartography that brings home to me the gap between land masses, compounded ultimately out of nothing other than silicates and carbonates, and the people who named them in all the mental constraints under which they lived, from our modern-day perspective: place names like Invercargill, Blenheim and New Plymouth. Alongside British and occasional Dutch titles the Maori names: Otematata, Kakapotahi. More mysterious, hard to remember and by that alone more real.