Writer and literary researcher Professor Hans-Ulrich Treichel arrived to Vilnius International Book Fair to meet readers of his novel “Pražuvėlis”. We talked in his hotel room in February 2019.
I came without any preparation. Normally when I’m traveling I don’t read books about my destination. I came with my own knowledge about Lithuania yet it was not very much.
Based on my experience, traveling is a kind of an education. There is a saying in German for that — “reisen bildet”, which means “traveling is formatting you”. When I travel in a country I’ve never been before, the learning process usually begins after I’ve come back home. I read about Lithuanians in the newspaper before coming here, but I did not concentrate too much on it. After the trip I may dig into some books or other texts about this country. Even in Mexico or Brazil, I often noticed that my interest in them usually begins after being there personally and physically. I’ve met very nice, interesting people yesterday evening and I had very good company. I realized that people are interested in strangers, which was a good experience.
In Russia, I was there for my book “Tristan Chord”. It’s about the music, about a young man and the famous composer. Russians organized a piano and played “Tristan chord” during my reading, some music by Wagner on stage. It was interesting.
It was in St. Petersburg. It was not really a concert, but they demonstrated what “Tristan Chord” is and they played a little bit the piano to illustrate it. It was interesting.
I can’t tell the difference. I realized that in every country, especially if I come to present the “Lost”, there are people with traumatic experiences within their families, experiences like losing someone or being lost. I remember in Bolivia while I was reading in some schools, some young people told me about their parents’ experiences. The teachers also told me about their experiences with migration or about losing their homes.
This is the same in Canada and countries with many immigrants coming from other places, and Brazil where Germans have been migrating to... So I think that the story of my family has a global character and meaning. There are certain differences; everybody has his own tragedy but many families in the older generation have had this same kind of tragedy. They also feel a need to communicate it.
For some time in Lithuania, there has been an ongoing discussion about trauma from the Second World War and the periods before and after that, because it was so bad for this region. Sometimes Lithuania, the North Eastern part of Poland, Western part of Russia, Latvia, and Estonia, are called “bloody lands”. Armies marched in one direction and retreated back. During the Holocaust some people helped Jews while others killed Jews and now these stories are being told and discussed. It’s interesting that you’ve said you catch the similar feelings in countries like Bolivia or Canada.
It’s true. The 20th century is often called the explosion of migration and flight. Perhaps our century also has this quality. I think there is a continuity of that sentiment in the Middle Eastern countries and it has not stopped.
I noticed that one of your personal methods is to deal with this issue through humor. One can enjoy some good humor reading your books. Even in translations, I notice the satirical attitude. I would say it’s quite bright as there is not much of sarcasm. Do you see this method a proper way to deal with trauma?
I think so. [Laughs] Irony and sarcasm, for me is always important in life, especially trauma related. But it’s not easy.
But this incorrectness comes from my childhood. My parents often spoke about the Russians or the Polish. For them the Polish are lazy people and the Russians are brutal. When they spoke about other migrants in the neighborhood, they used these kinds of stereotypes. Sometimes I heard them saying that there were also “good Russians”, yet I never understood what they concretely mean by that.
When I heard about the flight and what happened with my parents, then I understood what they meant. The Russian should have killed them, executed them, but he went into the wood with my father and mother, then he shot bullets in the air and released them to go. I learned this only after six or seven years from their death and only then I did understand what they meant by “good Russians”.
My parents lived in East Prussia. They were with other civilians escaping from approaching Russian troops. It was a political decision to arrange a caravan of trucks, but the soldiers caught them. Then they lost their baby child, they had to leave the lorry so quickly. They gave the child to some person and lorry followed to the West. Three Russian soldiers arrested them and took them to the little wood. My mother was raped. The commandant of the three soldiers gave a command to execute them. He sent one of the three soldiers with two people to a hidden place to shoot them but the soldier didn’t — he simulated the shooting. They were saved by a Russian soldier who had initially sexually abused my mother.
That was information from my 80 year old cousin who heard it from her mother, who was my mother’s sister. My mother never told me anything about all these things. But that was a real situation during the flight. I never knew this before but my parents had to hide themselves in a wood for one week in January 1945, in Poland. It was cold. Then they were arrested again and sent into separate prison camps for one year.
Why all this happened? I don’t know. Maybe because they’ve seen that my father had only one arm. He was a soldier fighting in Russia and he had lost his right arm. So everybody could see a young man who must have been a soldier. That could be the reason that they stopped the lorry, they saw they had to do something to him.
I could tell you a story which came into my mind just while we were talking. It happened about ten years ago in an Austrian skiing resort. We were staying at a hotel with some German people skiing in the same place. We went to the sauna together.
You might know, it’s not common for people from some countries to get nude, but in Germany it’s perfectly normal. It’s like a regular tradition. Lithuanians came in with swimsuits and the Germans were nude. We were talking in Lithuanian and some German man addressed us in Russian, “You should take your swimming suits off”. One of my friends immediately reacted saying, Hitler Kaput! [Laughs]
He felt humiliated being addressed in a rude way and also in a Russian language and he could not think of anything better than that. [Laughs] I find it funny, as it represents a common misunderstanding. Initially there was no intention to insult each other, but then it caused some stupid reaction. If the German did not address him in Russian, but rather in English or even German, it could have been different.
I had a similar case, only without Hitler. In Bolivia I went into the sauna and they said to me, “You need costumes.” In Germany, it’s kind of an obscenity not to be nude. [Laughs]
Anyway, even humor does not cure wounds. I read memoirs of Janis Grinvalds’, a Latvian who wasn’t fighting on the Russian side and went all the way from Russia to Germany. His diary was published just recently, after his death. He was not taking part in those atrocities, the abuses and raping but he was documenting it every day — after they crossed the Ukrainian border. Every night the high officers were mostly interested in robbing and looking for gold. Regular soldiers drank vodka and raped women, and then killed them. He described this in the most horrible way. Those journals were published in Latvian and translated into Estonian. I realized that it was also a traumatic experience for those Russian soldiers, of course, because no human could survive such things without consequences.
Some of the perpetrators have also been traumatized from what they have done or seen.
That journal of the Latvian guy was so touching. It was only an abstract from his memoirs, not full text, but I couldn’t go to sleep after reading it. He was describing those terrible things daily in his journal. Other soldiers looked at him suspiciously. Sometimes, he even tried to report them. I can’t imagine how those people felt after. It’s also traumatizing, like going through hell.
Let’s discuss other written pieces of yours. How autobiographical is “Leaving Sardinia”? I read the available information about you and I could notice some parallels. Have you studied in Italy?
I taught the German language in Italy. After my studies and before I got my doctorate, I taught German literature in Salerno, South Italy, and in Pisa.
But in “Leaving Sardinia” I felt extreme melancholy from your character — Albert. I guess it could still be the case all around the world all the time — young men may feel the same way. You managed to pass that feeling. Was your intention to implant melancholy into Albert?
I think melancholy is always present in the characters of my books. [Laughs] Sometimes I understand it’s source when it is connected to my family history.
I often ask myself why I never liked to live in my hometown. As a child, I did not like it. Friends from the school and one of my brothers still live there today. I felt very strange, alienated and only saw emptiness. I don’t know if this is a kind of melancholy. [Laughs] Today, I think there’s a connection to the non-narrated family trauma. It was present in the mood of my parents, but there was no narration about it. I also felt this kind of depression from my parents. They had so much energy to work, but they had to work seven days a week, from morning to evening and never going on holidays. The grandparents were farmers in Poland. Life was a combination of self-exploitation and creating an existence in a middle class life. This non-articulated sadness is connected to all that had happened before.
So my personal theory is that my own psyche or emotional condition was a historical result from the situation of my parents. [Laughs] It was conditioned by the emotions of my parents. If you’re a child you will be conditioned by your parents.
I felt so strange sometimes, looking through my window and seeing a cross — a pharmacy’s sign on the corner of the street. I didn’t know what was so terrible in that provincial atmosphere. I often asked why I found it so terrible. This kind of melancholy, like in paintings from Edward Hopper , a certain kind of emptiness, is filled with invisible historical contents. The theory is not perfect, but it could explain a little bit about my own youth and emotional status of my childhood.
The need to write arises from the necessity to produce a narration — to fill this empty room of sadness or melancholy with irony and sarcasm, with real, narrated stories. I also asked myself why I write. It’s not because I feel like an artist or a creative person, there’s another motive, I think — with creativity or with some other positive things to fight against the emptiness.
Yeah, I think so.
Yes, I met some psychoanalysts, especially for these infantile experiences. Many people think that if they meet with psychoanalysts, they can’t write any longer. [Laughs] It’s not true. You don’t lose the drive to write if you go to a psychoanalyst. For me it was important to do it. And I’m also interested in the theory of psychoanalysis, psychology and so on. I did it after I came to Berlin as a young man, to a big, grey city. I was not the only one who went directly to the psychoanalyst. [Laughs]
But not Frankfurt and not Hamburg. It had to be West Berlin, because there was a wall between Easter Germany and Western Berlin. I think many younger people in the 70s fled from the provincial situations in Western Germany and Berlin became a concentration point for young rebels, melancholic young students, intellectuals. It was very interesting there. But objectively, it was a very ugly, grey town. We had terrible living conditions and it was difficult to find an apartment and all other things. We had toilets outside.
Yes. Many interesting people went to Berlin and we shared the conditions. There were theaters, universities, high schools, art and technical universities and so on. There were many interesting things to learn, see and do, so it was a rich experience.
Nephews. I think they are also a bit infected, not by their parents but by their grandparents. [Laughs] They were also interested in my book “Lost”. For them it’s a story of their grandparents, and it’s a bit emotional. They did not get any indoctrination from me, I did not confront them with stories. They could read the books if they wanted, or watch a film based on the novel through the German television. They began asking me things, so its trans-generation. The same kind of melancholy. I could also see it in my nephews. [Laughs] Strange.
But it’s true. Empirically I’m a lucky person. I have never seen any moment of violence in my life from 1952 until today. It’s a privilege that our generations have no problems.
I wanted to ask a couple of questions about your method of writing when you create a poetry. A character George from “Tristan Chord” is a very disciplined poet who could write poems every afternoon. What about you?
I did but when I changed to prose work, it became less and less poetry writing. I made six or seven poetry books but… I don’t know if I’ve lost the ability to write poems, I was always doing something else. A prose project, a novel. I also wrote an opera. I have lost some of my concentration for poetry. Maybe when I’m retired, I can. [Laughs] You need a lot of time for poetry. You must have a possibility to waste time, because you can’t do it with efficiency, systematically. You must do it like a Bohemian, go outside, drink coffee, write some words and think.
It was just during student times when you had a lot of time. Then, when you are writing in the evening, you can destroy it and write again the next day. You can only do this when you are younger. In the middle period of your life you have to work systematically and not spend days and days writing lines.
Why not? You’ve got skills. I’m sure those skills are imprinted in your brain. Perhaps you can do it again during another period of your life. On that note, have you read the novel by Orhan Pamuk called “Snow”?
No, I haven’t.
There are so many of them. I haven’t read every novel by Pamuk, but I loved that one. The topic about writing poems an important part of it. The lead character writes three poems, and every one is so special. I loved the feeling that Pamuk gave to his readers about how special every poem was. You might enjoy reading it. Your story reminded me of that text.
But you also wrote poetry.
I used to write poetry when I was young and I still have those texts. I never published any collection of my poems. Sometimes I feel an urge to write a poem, and I recognize the feeling that you need lots of time. I really need to focus then and I need to have plenty of time. You need tons of time for one very short poem. But later I discovered translations. I started to translate poems, which I loved, from English and Russian. [Laughs]
I have noticed that many young writers begin with poetry then over the years become novelists. They really become writers. Only seldom I’ve seen a novelist who becomes a poet in later years. It always begins with poetry and then one day the poet begins to write novels. The poets who stay with poetry also change when they get older. I know several who try to find systematic possibilities as they begin to write programmatic things, series about philosophy and big ideas.
Sometime ago I read a nonfiction book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami . There he discloses his approach to prose writing. He says that you need three things when you write a novel, since the novel is a special form of art. So, first of all, you need some gift, which is never certain. Then you need a focus, a concentration. The third factor is an ability to perform a physical job, you are required to show some endurance. It’s not enough to feel an elevation and inspiration. You need to spend lots of time by a desk and keep writing.
That’s true. Engage physically, he said?
Yes, I think so. A little bit like a clerk in the bank or in a financial institute where, every day at nine o’clock, you have to open your counter and begin to write. I’ve also seen it with the composer, Hansen. He has a villa in Tuscany but he worked like a regular worker. He works for six hours every morning, pauses, and then works for another three hours every day. Non-spectacular everyday-working is very important for writing.
Don’t wait for an inspiration. You have to work and an inspiration will reach you. I was lacking that when teaching in the university. I couldn’t do it. I could only do it on special terms. That’s the problem.
I also read the same thing by John Maxwell Coetzee , who said that he would have been a better writer if he could have only done writing. He was teaching in universities and going on tours, that distracted him from writing. He stated in his autobiographical book that he felt disappointed and regretful, because he could have written more and better. He’s great at what he does, but he feels like he could have done even better, if he only did more writing, if he could afford making a living by writing.
That’s the feeling, but I’m not sure it’s true. I had a time when I was free after my graduation and before my professorship. I had nothing, just the qualification to look for a job. I was free and I was also writing at that time. It was not easy to have the discipline to concentrate and not to spend the day buying things, going out, grabbing some newspaper. I’m not sure about, if I am really free to write all the time, those things would have been good for me. I think it would be better to use such times like a privilege and to accept the frustration that you must stop writing, because you have to prepare for the next academic term, the next seminars. For me it was better this way.
Sometimes, I also think that if I had more time then I would do big things, but perhaps it’s an illusion.