Cristian Pătrășconiu, editor of LaPunkt in a dialogue with writer Jan Cornelius.
Do you ride without a horse? That’s what they said about you and your writings in Berliner Zeitung. And that it’s something helpful both for the one who lives in the East and the one in the West…
First of all, thank you for your interest, Mr. Pătrășconiu! I’m certainly glad that you’ve read Me, Dracula and John Lennon, and with “great pleasure,” no less! Speaking about riding without a horse, yes, it is one my favorite means of travel, an action that works marvelously and is similar to traveling in a car with no car, or flying great distances with no airplane. These alternative travel methods are especially recommended, both in the East and the West, especially when we don’t have the material means to pay for the trip, or for other reasons are unable to take the trip. There are always ways that can be found to avoid an inconvenient reality and escape to parallel worlds.
In my childhood and youth, for example, I couldn’t travel abroad, but I still travelled the entire world by avidly reading everything I could get my hands on, from Jules Verne to Jules Renard and Jack London, from Carrot Head to Pinocchio or The Picky Princess, from The Three Musketeers who were in fact four, to Maupassant, Camus, Kafka, etc. The child riding a stick, or a rocking horse when traveling in style, is an impeccable rider even without a horse. He can always reach precisely the place he desires.
What does it mean for you to exist between two different worlds? You’ve lived half of your life in Romania, and the other half in the West, in Germany.
To be in-between two worlds has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you realize all sorts of things that you wouldn’t notice if you had stayed in one place. I was often asked: “How come these things happen only to you?” My answer is always: ”They happen to you too, but you don’t recognize them, you’re too used to them”. And when I don’t feel good in the West, I can always go East, and after a while, when I’m no longer comfortable and miss some western things, I can return to the West, where after a while… and so on and so forth… A perpetuum mobile of cardinal points.
Reality is usually dreadfully disappointing, our hopes and expectations are infinitely more beautiful. So I feel the best when I’m in a plane flying from Germany to Romania and back. Not coincidentally, my book has Groucho Marx’s words as a motto: “I would like the East better if it was in the West.” Not to be confused with Karl Marx’s affirmations, which had much less happy effects.
How was your laughter in the East and what has become of it in the West? If that has happened, of course…
There is no eastern or western laughter, there is only laughter. On the one hand there is certainly a social context for the situations we laugh about, and on the other hand, a type of humor that works in every circumstance; for example, a self-important guy, one who thinks he is the center of the universe, slips on a banana peel and falls on his head. Everybody will laugh at that. As an aside, this could never have happened during communism because bananas were hard to come by.
Depression in the East versus depression in the West?
You are probably referring to my serious depression after I escaped from Romania, which I mentioned in my book. And the depression continued for quite some time in the West, and sometimes it returns. Well, yes, this is human nature. We run away from a place, but we can’t leave everything behind, and we certainly bring ourselves with us. Certainly, the communist regime was an endless source of depression. But capitalism also leaves something to be desired.
Times of depression are, in general, both a form of lack of acceptance and adaptability to an absurd existence, and a sign of excessive sensitivity, and they are a part of most of my friends’ lives. It’s not always easy to live, and some people even consider suicide. For example, in a bout of despair, Cioran confessed once: “If the possibility of suicide would not exist, I would have committed suicide a long time ago”. This is how humor saves us in desperate times. All great clowns were in essence depressed people. Picture Buster Keaton or Chaplin or Jacques Tati laughing hard, and all their charm disappears.
Regarding the toxins and the architecture of communism, where do you think the West resembles what you experienced in the East?
During my student years in Timișoara there was a joke going around: “In capitalism people are exploited by people; communist society is much more advanced and fair, so the opposite of it takes place”. The joke is still valid today, both in the East and the West. Setting this serious joke aside: of course Germany also has corruption, lies, abuse, but considerably less than during communism in Romania. Generally speaking, a functional democracy and fair judicial system immediately sanction any deviation from social norms. Humanistic values are applied and are not just found on paper.
What happened when you couldn’t laugh anymore because you understood what communism really was?
It’s very simple: when you couldn’t laugh anymore, your laughter died. In any case, laughter is not permanent. Some can laugh more, some less, some cannot laugh at all. I think there is a gene for humor, you either have it at birth, like brown or blue eyes, protruding ears or Superman-like senses, or you don’t have it at all. I don’t want to claim that any nationality has the best sense of humor, but if I were to do so, I would place Romanians somewhere near the top. With some exceptions, which might number in the hundreds of thousands, if not a few million.
Comedy and tragedy are two different forms of presenting the same conflict. We can either laugh or cry in the same situation, depending on who we are. There was a joke during communism: What is the first prize for the best joke about communism? A free trip to Siberia and free stay for ten years! I can rephrase the joke and say: During communism everyone making fun of the regime jeopardized his freedom. As another example, read Milan Kundera’s book, The Joke. I think humor is better served bitter and dry. You can laugh at anything, even death. I was profoundly impressed and enthused when I translated Ion Creangă’s genius tale, Ivan Turbincă into German, and people here also laugh a lot reading it. Read it again, you’ll find it charming.
“Generally speaking, a functional democracy and fair judicial system immediately sanction any deviation from social norms. Humanistic values are applied and are not just found on paper.”
There is a history of people falling into the abyss as a consequence of living those times and their absurdity. It remains a largely unwritten history. In your opinion, what happened here?
Nothing good happened under communism. Everything was based on an enormous lie: equality among people, respect for people and human rights were all stated on the communist flag. But in reality, everything was just the opposite. Human rights were trampled, human dignity was worthless. Any cad or human beast could besmirch you as much as he liked, as long as he had an important official position, and those people could be found everywhere. They could treat you with contempt and were never held accountable.
There was an omnipresent fear. You always had to watch what you said, and to whom. Any sane person who lived during those times and claims today that those were good times, either don’t realize what they are saying, or they are lying or suffering from Alzheimer’s. At the top of the pyramid was Ceaușescu, a dictator full of venom, a rambling idiot, partly illiterate, an obvious fool before whom millions of people bowed humbly, some for social advantages, and some after being infected by “rhynoceritis,” as Eugène Ionesco said, the contagious kowtowing to those in power.
Any attempt to revolt was repressed immediately. There was an omnipresent fear in the air, the fear to do something the comrades would dislike. To not play along, to not applaud, to not become a member of the communist party was already an honest form of quiet resistance. Nothing was really at risk, except the possibility of ascending the social ladder and losing some advantages.
Unfortunately, millions of people complied with this monstrous regime, kowtowing until their foreheads were rubbed raw, and kissing the butts of those in a position of power with gusto. Some of them, as I understand, even pose today as dissidents and revolutionaries.
The truth is, you could count on one hand the people who risked absolutely everything to protest openly. In Me, Dracula and John Lennon, I tried to describe what happened during the regime through small encounters, from a different angle, with humor. I do, of course, have many good memories from those times, in spite of the situations I described. But they have to do more with childhood itself, with the strength and zest for life that young people inherently possess, with friendships and the ever-present possibility of escaping by immersing oneself in friendships, books, films, music.
Later, at some point in life, you reached the West. What lies at the “heart” of your experience in the West?
The heart of my experience in the West is probably the experience of freedom. In his song Ma liberté from 1970, Georges Moustaki said something I identified with: “Je t’avais tout donné/Ma dernière chemise/Et combien j’ai souffert/Pour pouvoir satisfaire/Toutes tes exigences/J’ai changé de pays/J’ai perdu mes amis/Pour gagner ta confiance.” So you gave up everything to be free. You crossed the border, you left the big jail behind you, and now you’re suddenly free. Is that true? Of course not. There is a well-known parable of the bird who returns to its cage because there it’s easier, more comfortable, well-known and familiar.
This new-found freedom is for the one who spent a long time imprisoned in a huge unknown territory, filled with traps and thickets. It also means searching, losing your way, frustrations, disappointments, failures, and to the same extent, taking the initiative or making decisions that could prove to be wrong. No one forces you to do anything nor do they show you the right way to go, and this can lead to terrible uncertainty, especially when you’re accustomed to living with a bridle on. But life outside of the cage deserves all your efforts.
“To not play along, to not applaud, to not become a member of the communist party was already an honest form of quiet resistance.”
How does the West see communism in your view? Do they regard it with too much gentleness, by reducing it to cliches or by being indifferent to it? Or do they judge it too harshly?
When I arrived in Düsseldorf in 1978 I saw communist students (to be more precise, students who believed themselves to be communists) in front of the University every day, spreading communist fliers, maoist students spreading fliers with Mao’s doctrine and anarchists who protested without much conviction. I asked myself whether they are complete imbeciles. Well, they weren’t total idiots, they were protesting against capitalism by virtue of their youth.
“How are things really in Ceaușescu’s Romania?” I was asked this by new acquaintances and coworkers. When I tried to explain, I was soon interrupted with the remark: “Well, it’s not much better here, things are the same here, you’ll see!” Well, I have yet to observe the same things. I think for people who never directly experienced communism it’s hard to understand what happened then. And I think we should never stop saying what happened, never stop trying to understand what happened. I think this sinister tendency to forget, to brush over what happened, to minimize the horrors of communism is relatively wide-spread in Romania. We can learn from history, but if we don’t, we’ll repeat it in a horrible way.
Maybe you find it hard to believe, but in Germany not a day passes without hearing something about the horrors of nazism in mass-media, or in some show or another, at all levels. And the horrors of communism are mentioned again and again, especially in the mass-media of Eastern Germany, where there are many neo-Nazis, mentally defective people who are the result of 50 years of censorship, but this is another story. Because eastern Germany was communist for so many years, Germans in that part of the country are more sensitive to and have a better understanding of the subject. Here is a relevant anecdote about the twists of history: a few years ago I went to Prague and visited the Museum of Communism. It was near the Wenceslas Square, in the shopping district. The directions on the posters said: the Museum of Communism is located a floor above the McDonald’s. So even the McDonald’s was now a landmark for finding communism in the East. Times change…
Is the West able to make fun of what communism really was, or not?
Right after the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1989, people made fun of communism more than they do today. A lot of books were published with jokes about communism, the great majority of which were, of course, from the GDR, the so-called democratic Germany, and up until then, had only circulated in verbal form. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party, the one that allegedly was the base of communism, ended with the revolutionary slogan repeated to us in Romania ad nauseam: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” Well, now you can see Karl Marx smiling ashamedly from a well-spread poster saying: “Proletarians of all countries, excuse me!”
Nowadays people from the former “democratic” Germany have long since lost their ability to laugh and take refuge in nostalgia and foolishly idealizing communism. Or they take refuge in Switzerland, where they can earn twice the amount of money, following a certain kind of logic. Viewing communism with nostalgia is illogical though. It’s caused by ignorance, disinformation, and the way our memory works by beautifying the past, especially when we stop thinking.
Coming back to the subject of Romania: when you look back over your shoulder at your life in Romania before 1989, how does it look? Time will continue to pass between now and then. Was it terrible or not?
My childhood and youth took place during communism, and these times of our lives are always directly connected with explosive vitality, endless energy, joy and beauty. Your first love, the natural nonchalance, and close friendships are not something you can forget. Regardless of the political regime, these things have nothing to do with communism, like some nostalgic people declare today. In fact, the truth is that our childhood and youth were stolen during communism. I belong to a generation called in German “die 68er,” generation 68. The Zeitgeist was very favorable then, that was a time of great vitality, emulation, joy and creativity among young people, who protested and rebelled against the rigid and standardized thinking of previous generations in Western Europe and the United States.
Take music, for example, those were the years when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Joplin appeared, with the delirious flower power, the hippy period and Woodstock. In Romania, all of this music could only be heard on Radio Free Europe. I would have walked to the Woodstock festival, but the comrades from the Communist Party decided that I should stay in Romania forever and serve communism, repeating like a parrot, with my hand over my heart: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” Grotesque, but true. I tell some of these stories in the book and most people laugh out-loud reading them, but I’m glad, because the situations were grotesque and terribly ridiculous.
Fundamentally, not professionally, what/who are you in the West?
Who am I? A human being like everybody else. Do you think I should try to seem more important than that?
What does “home” mean for you? What elements make this rather emotional place?
Why not ask me a simpler question? Yes, as you’ve already suggested in your question, home is an emotional rather than a geographical place. It can be anywhere in the world, or it can even be outside the world. In Creangă’s genius tale, Ivan Turbincă searched after his death for a permanent place, a forever home, and so he ingeniously asked Saint Peter at heaven’s gate: “Is there vodka? Or tobacco? Musicians and pretty women?” When Saint Peter answers all of his questions with: “Of course there aren’t, Ivan, why do you keep pestering me?”, Ivan realizes with a start that is not the place for him and prefers to go to hell, where all that he desires can be found in abundance. I understand him very well. In his place though I would have asked some extra key questions: “Are there any good books? Can I write without being censored?”
Still speaking about the notion of home: last year it occurred to me to create a show called Zauber der Heimat/The Charm of Homeland, and we staged it with Julia Coulmas, an opera and jazz singer from Florida and Michael Carlton, a Scottish pianist from Edinburgh; they sing and play, and I read different satyrical texts about what is called Heimat in German, meaning home or homeland. All three of us have been living in Düsseldorf for many years. In the show, we are trying to define a sincere and unconventional way of viewing the idea of home, which for us, does not depend on where we come from, whether it’s Düsseldorf, New York, Timișoara, Bucharest, Havana or Paris, or a mix of accents and languages, or a Gershwin melody or the Turkish coffee we had in London or Hänsel și Gretel, Brothers Grimm’s tale, but also an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck. It’s a beautiful mess and the show is a hit, so we’re always asked to perform it again and again.
What is exile for you? Is it salvation in a way?
Right after I escaped from Romania in 1978, I wrote a letter to Ion Vianu and asked him for advice, how to get rid of my depression that I brought with me from Romania. He was also in exile in Switzerland, where he worked as a psychiatrist and also suffered from depression, as I recently found out reading his memoirs. He wrote that we all live in exile “with a grafted heart,” and that for each of us, the capacity to adapt, and our perseverance, luck and destiny, will improve things to some extent. He was absolutely right. With a small addition: I was in exile in Germany, but in my own country, I felt exiled even more. I definitely wouldn’t consider exile something geographical.
Beyond political regimes, Albert Camus rightly talks about human beings who are in exile in this absurd and eternally foreign world into which we were thrown without being asked if we agree or not. Speaking of exile beyond the Iron Curtain, once you escaped from communism you could not return without harsh and dreadful consequences. Nowadays, the younger generations of Romanians have the great happiness of coming and going as their heart desires. The young writer Dana Grigorcea, who lives in Switzerland when asked how she felt going into exile, was right to say: “I did not go into exile, I took a stroll”. She thus precisely and ironically defined the difference between yesterday and today that many either don’t realize or have forgotten.
How do you translate Romania to people in the West? Do you translate your homeland to the westerners as you want, or not completely?
I translate my homeland as I want, like I did with Me, Dracula and John Lennon. For many years I did not “translate” Romania at all. I had this feeling that I couldn’t intermediate or transfer something that no one has an interest for in the West. I avoided the subject of Romania for a long time and preferred to write instead about the West, where I lived. In writing about Berlin, Zürich, Paris, San Francisco, I said to myself, you have a better chance to find an audience from the start. But we don’t choose our subjects, they choose us, and at some point I realized something was bothering me, that I was missing something.
“I was in exile in Germany, but in my own country, I felt exiled even more. I definitely wouldn’t consider exile something geographical.”
I was then confronted with the eternal, inevitable problem of identity. Being born and raised in Romania, I often feel this country through all of my pores and know it better than any other place in the world. We don’t choose our parents or the place where we’re born. Some people are unhappy with the place where they were born, and that’s understandable… In German they talk about die Ungnade der Geburt am falschen Ort, the disgrace, bad luck to be born in an inadequate or wrong place. But you cannot change it. The place defines you just like fingerprints. It’s a part of you, so the idea that you can forget or ignore it is utopian. And then again, if everyone would be born where they want, the royal palaces would not have enough rooms.
Cioran tried to totally eliminate the sinful, vulgar and obsessive Romania from his thoughts, but the illustrious philosopher, who lived in a self-imposed, absolute exile, recalled how his subconscious would make fun of him. The elegant, perfect stylist of the French language had dreams in authentic Romanian.
Speaking about “translating” Romania in the West, I previously had a chance to have a show for many years on national radio here about the East and West, which was initiated by me. I spoke about Germany and Romania to a very wide audience. I was lucky to find editors open to my original way of presenting things, with irony and humor, grin and bear it. The reaction of the audience was always stronger and more positive than it would have been had I talked about New York or Paris. People actually want to hear authentic, truthful stories, and they could not care less if those stories take place in a remote village, in Bucharest, at the Obor market, in the Gobi desert, an eskimo igloo or on the 98th floor in the closet of a skyscraper.
They say that some of the ones who leave the country and are gone a long time forget or start forgetting their native language. What happened with the Romanian language in your case?
My mother is also German, and so are my grandparents in Timișoara, who only spoke a German dialect to me, but not Swabian. I am not Swabian, my mother’s side of the family is partly from Bavaria, partly from Austria. So I spoke this dialect, very similar to Viennese, and I still speak it when I have a partner in the conversation, for example, Germans from Reșița, Bavarians and Austrians. But the dialect was not pure, it was a type of Esperanto from Banat. I sprinkled it with Romanian words, and sometimes Hungarian or Serbian words. We shouldn’t forget that Banat was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that’s something that can be felt to this day.
At school I studied in Romanian and spoke Romanian to my father and friends, and I wrote in Romanian. When I was a student in Timișoara (French and Romanian majors) I published occasionally when censorship did not get in the way, onirist prose in Orizont magazine or in Forum, a student magazine at the University, where I was an editor. When I escaped to Germany, all of a sudden I was deprived of the instrument I had learned to play: the Romanian language. If I would have used the Southern Bavarian-Austrian dialect that I had spoken in Romania here in Western Germany, everyone would have laughed their heads off and thought I was a clown. It took me many years until I could speak Hochdeutsch, literary German with nuances, without mistakes, like people here, and many more years until I started to feel in German and was able to automatically transfer what I thought and felt into the language.
“People actually want to hear authentic, truthful stories, and they could not care less if those stories take place in a remote village, in Bucharest, at the Obor market, in the Gobi desert, an eskimo igloo or on the 98th floor in the closet of a skyscraper.”
During those years I had almost completely abandoned the Romanian community abroad. I didn’t want to live in a ghetto, anchored in the past, so I tried to adapt to my new country, to feel, understand and learn the language as well as I could. After about ten years I started to write easily and systematically in German, and I’m not talking about simple texts or letters. Things were getting better and in time, I published many books in German and worked as a freelancer at the National German Radio in Cologne.
Then one day I discovered the writer Dan Lungu from Iași, through a book translated from Romanian into German called Hen Heaven by a publishing house called Residenz in Vienna, where I also published a book. The book was funny and poetic, and I liked it a lot, so I contacted Dan, and we met and became friends. Then I discovered more of his books, and some other contemporary Romanian authors, and that’s how I started to read in Romanian again and write many magazine articles in Romanian. I was surprised and happy to discover that after so many years, the language came back to me with all its beauty and its advantages, and I enjoyed using it immensely and nothing I knew had been lost.
Of course, I had used Romanian, but only in a small, colloquial way, like: Where have you been? Can you pass the salt, please? Look at this rude guy! and so on…
Things evolved, and I translated a few Romanian books into German. And one day Humanitas told me they wanted to publish my book Me, Dracula and John Lennon, which I had written in German and was entitled Narrenstück (Buffoonery). We discussed a translator and they proposed a very good one, and I kept thinking about it. I was afraid that, being the fastidious perfectionist that I am, I may not like the way I am being translated by somebody else, no matter how good they are. Eventually I steeled myself and wrote to Lidia Bodea at Humanitas: “Excuse me, I have a crazy idea, what if I translate the book myself?” “I’m glad you said that”, answered Lidia Bodea, “I thought about it and I did not dare ask. Who could understand you better than yourself?”
So I rolled up my t-shirt’s sleeves and translated the book myself, or to be more precise, I rewrote it in Romanian, because I adapted and changed some fragments, using a more colorful vocabulary, more sprightly, spicier and sometimes stronger than in German, compelled by the playful Romanian language. And I could make these changes as a translator, being comfortable and certain that the author will not get upset with me, since he was the one that gave me total freedom to transform the text the way I saw fit. I would like to thank him for the confidence he showed in me, it honored me and I really enjoyed working with him. The changes shifted the meaning of the book a little since language is always at least as important and relevant for the author’s intentions as the content is when we are speaking about literature. So here I am, and I write with equal enjoyment in German and in Romanian. Returning to the Romanian language is in a way returning to Romania at a deeper level than returning to the geographical country.
What is your writing about? And who are the authors you feel you have an affinity with?
It’s easier for me to say what my writing is not about: I am not trying to teach lessons or change the world. I just want to tell stories about this and that, about stuff I consider incredible, absurd or relevant for who I believe we are. I don’t think literature can change the world and eliminate the evil in the world; if it could, we’d already be in heaven. In Anglo-Saxon literature the term entertainment receives a great deal of respect. This also has great value for me, therefore, first of all, a book should not be boring, the reader should enjoy it, be entertained by it. Otherwise why would he or she go through the pain of reading it, like the instructions for a washing machine? I am convinced that in order for the reader to enjoy it, the writer should have enjoyed writing it. You will feel that when reading it. And then, as an author, I think it’s an elementary form of common sense and politeness to do your best and not bore the ones who invested their money in your book. If one of my books amuses, makes readers laugh, if they enjoy it, if they obsess over it a little and it makes them think, then I achieved my goal. The writers I have an affinity with are Caragiale, Creangă, Hašek, Cekhov, Vișniec, Eugène Ionesco, Philip Roth, Dan Lungu, Hrabal, Vonnegut Jr., and I have to stop here out of embarrassment, since with every name I mention, I am doing an injustice to everyone I’ve omitted.
Why did you decide to write children’s books? Can adults understand children and write stories that touch their soul?
I wrote and still write for children sometimes because I enjoy it. I enjoy becoming the child I still am in essence. I like playing, especially with words, wondering, being curious and disquietingly naive. Do adult writers understand children? If we think about Alice in Wonderland, about Pinocchio, about poems written by Shel Silverstein, Jim Knopf, about Peter Pan or Winnie-the-Pooh, I would say at least some of the writers have a better understanding of children than the children themselves do.
What do you really tell children in your books, Mr. Cornelius?
I don’t want to tell them anything. I just want to tell them stories and play with words. They’ll discover the meaning by themselves.
What should we tell children, Mr. Jan Cornelius, so they don’t forget what is important?
I don’t think we need to tell children a lot of wise things, moral or historical stories, things to be memorized, or to give them advice in general. They forget it immediately. As they say, children should play! I think much more important than what we tell children is how we treat the present and the past, what we do and how we behave, these are the things that children definitely notice and emulate.
And a last question, somewhat inevitable: what does Dracula mean for you? Dracula occupied a distinct segment of your narrative in the book published by Humanitas…
Here in the West, Dracula is the most famous character from Romania, next to Nicolae Ceaușescu and Nadia Comăneci. I have a very personal relationship with him. If you don’t mind me saying, you are putting me on a spot by asking me this question. If I answer it, I would give away the shocking ending of my book. So if you want the answer, please read my book! Many readers contacted me on Facebook to tell me with much enthusiasm how they read the book laughing out-loud, but at the end their laughter suddenly froze up when they found out the truth.
Article first published in LaPunkt magazine in February 2017.
Translated from the Romanian by Elena and Paul Richard
JAN CORNELIUS is a German writer and translator born in Reşiţa, Romania, in 1950. He studied French and English at the Universities of Timişoara, Düsseldorf and Stirling (Scotland). After leaving Romania in 1977, he lived in Düsseldorf and worked as a high school teacher for several years. In Germany, he published numerous books of satyrical prose, children’s books, and poetry and essays about contemporary literature. He published articles in satyrical magazines in Germany and Switzerland, and wrote commentaries on modern culture and radio plays for the National Radios of both countries. In Romania, he published literary articles in various cultural magazines. He translated several Romanian contemporary authors into German, including Dan Lungu and Matei Vişniec.
Personal website: http://www.jancornelius.de