Uwe Friesel


Exile out of Free Will in Italy and Sweden

Of Words and Walls


Exile out of free will in Italy and Sweden

There are languages that will not tolerate such a title. For example, the Russian does not know the notion of an exile out of free will. To the majority of the Russians, therefore, exile means to be expulsed by force, to be driven out of your home country by those in power. Mostly for political reasons. The exiled author is punished for having uttered in public an undesirable political opinion or having characterised a person in power or a religious belief in a way contradictory to present rule. He who gets away alive may call himself lucky not to be tortured, mutilated, deported to distant places like Siberia. Or, as it were, to the quarries of Syracuse in Sicily, where the Romans kept their Greek dissidents and made them work themselves to death, by braking and carrying big stones, a method that was copied in our time by the Nazis in their Concentration Camps.

It is the truth that is driven out. During the Nazi regime in Germany, this meant exile for the very best authors, like Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Irmgard Keun, Anna Seghers, just to mention five out of hundreds. Others committed suicide, like Walter Benjamin, Kurt Tucholsky, and Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. All of the glory of post war German literature is owed to these writers and intellectuals, who withstood barbarism and the virtual destruction of the morals of mankind. As a German writer who was six years old by the end of World War II, I bow my head in recognition and gratefulness for these men and woman who kept up humanity in times of genocide, or who paid with their own lives for their better believes.

Now you may rightly argue: why is it, that you, being a comparatively well established author, privileged to live in a democratic country of high intellectual standards, and ample literary facilities in the midst of Europe – why is it that you should spend years of your grown up life in Italy and Sweden, thus diminishing your own literary market?

The answer is both simple and complex. Simple: because I want to experience other environments and people. Because I want to look at my own country which still contains many unsolved mysteries to me from the outside. Because I want to write in seclusion, not exposed to the everyday trash language of abusive media, like commercial TV. Of course, these also emerge in Italy, just think of Signor Berlusconi, and in Sweden, where they import almost everything from US, even the most scum of series. But I don’t listen, because I’m only marginally interested in why the Italian government changes for the fiftieth time in fifty years or why the Swedish Foreign Minister calls Norway the last Stalinist regime in Europe, while the microphones are still switched on. I register these sensations, but do not feel involved. So I can concentrate on what I’m really engaged in, that is, my own writing.

I continue to write in German and for a German public, even though the contents may deal with Italy or Sweden. This fact, incidentally, marks an enormous difference to those who are exiled by force and whose publications are prohibited in their mother countries. I do not have the need and extreme difficulty to earn my living in my host country. This makes life much easier.

That is why the explanation for my living in exile is simple.

However, such a lifetime decision out of free will is also very complex and therefore not at all easy to explain in the remaining time of one and a half minutes. One of my close writer friends in Germany, Uwe Herms, who at present happens to live in Berlin, who has been a writer in residence in China as well as the United States, maintains that a writer is in exile by definition, because by his very writing he positions himself outside society in order to get a better look at things. He is a bit of an outlaw. He doesn’t follow general rules, such as career and moneymaking, and by no means is he an enthusiast for national glory. Thus, he becomes a stranger in his own country. Even our latest Nobel Prize winner, Mr Günter Grass, has expressed this last week.

But this is only the general truth. There is always an additional personal truth that has to do with your own psychic set up. In post-war Germany (and I’m aware that this means a period of some half century by now, and eighty years since world war I) I still have the feeling of discontinuity, of interruption, of destruction. Just look at our big cities like Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Cologne, and Frankfort. Beautiful: but reconstructed. Where is the charm and metropolitan lifestyle of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” that Alfred Döblin described so vividly in his famous novel? Hamburg was destroyed by nearly 90%, with none of its historic centre left. Dresden was practically erased from the map. In contrast, if you come to a city like Rome, where your read some 3000 years of history just by looking at the architecture, or to a capital like Stockholm, which was never involved in any sort of war ever since her beginnings as the Viking settlement “Birka”, you have a feeling of continuous growth and wholeness. You experience a synchronisation of different epochs and characteristics.

Fascism never put an end to Rome. But Nazism did to Berlin.

The same feeling comes up when you talk to people. In Berlin, everything is recent history, shaped by separation and the Iron Curtain. There is no unification, as if half a century of divided history had not happened. Also this Günter Grass pointed out last week. The isolation of West Berlin has shaped psychic frames and social behaviour. During the time of cold war, the West Berliners (those whom John F. Kennedy addressed with his famous words “Ik byn ain Bälinna”) were exempt from two important German laws. One was military service. Living in West Berlin, you did not have to join the navy, or the army. The city was full of people who did not like German re-armament. This is one of the sources of the student movement of 1968. The other was the so-called “police hour”, i.e., official closing time for pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, strip tease and the like. The closing was abolished completely to compensate for the fact that Berlin was fenced in. The Berliners were imprisoned by surrounding communist territory. There were periods when one could get out only by plane.

All of this is still present in the talks of Easterners and Westerners of today. Collective memory is a cage that does not seem to be easy to escape from.

By escaping into another culture, like the Mediterranean, you manage to regain a broader view on the wholeness of history. Just think of Charlemagne, Karl der Große, or Barbarossa, Kaiser Rotbart, who were European figures long before Europe was talked about in terms of national states uniting. In the early medieval (which was no dark ages at all, by the way) “The Holy Roman Empire of German Nations” stretched out from Sicily in the South up to the North Sea, without any major wars or sufferings. At the times of German classic authors like Goethe and Schiller, the territory of Germany consisted of more than 300 Dukedoms and Kingdoms and other –doms, with only the German language to unite them. This year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Weimar, was a small place of a few square miles, where Mr Goethe was in charge of street construction. He went on a two years trip to Italy to discover the ancient world, and, as it were, the world as such.

It meant to discover civilisation and intellect as opposed to his own notion of culture and ingenuity. It also meant to discover another dimension of hospitality.

An easier way of life. The happiness of improvisation in contrast to the wariness of planning. Chaos may function, Goethe learnt. And so did I, whose father was a German policeman serving the Prussians, the Weimar Republic, the Hitler Großdeutschland, and the Adenauer, and Willy Brandt West Germany, before he finally was pensioned.

That’s why I’m living outside. I’m perfectly happy. I feel better balanced, eating saltimbocca instead of Schnitzel, drinking wine instead of beer, and having pasta instead of potatoes all the time. It’s a whole dimension of difference.

Thus, the one who lives in exile out of free will – “freiwilliges Exil”, the German language permits to say – is a privileged person. I am most grateful for the lessons I had to learn and the overwhelming hospitality I was to meet, both in Italy and Sweden. So I say “Mille grazie a tutti i miei amici italiani” and “Tack så mycket till mina svenska vänner” for letting me live amongst you as a friend. And in this “Thank you!”, as you may well understand, I now include the Rhodes Centre and all the people who make this wonderful work here possible. It is great hospitality. It is civilisation. It is humane. Thank you.

(published in Two Realities simoultaneously, Podium, Stockholm 2000)




Of Words and Walls

Dear hosts from the magnificent island of Apollo,
Dear guests and colleagues from all over the world,
Dear friends!

When in 1989, after 28 years of separation of both parts of Germany, the Berlin Wall finally tumbled down, it was also the historical moment for re-establishing "freedom of speech". And it were the writers of the Baltic who earlier than the politicians realized what they had always known in their hearts: that in spite of all language differences, they were in fact members of the same human kind, with the same dignity, the same hopes, the same aspirations. And it were the poets, those dreamers of the impossible, those fools of Utopia, it were us, the craftsmen of words and communication, who then mobilized a ship to sail around the Baltic Sea.
Still today, you may wonder how that could ever happen. Because, mind you: even in those days of historical change, in 1989, at the end of the so-called cold war, such a venture seemed extremely foolish. As a matter of fact, it seemed impossible, considering the political and financial obstacles, which stood against it.

In addition, in the years 1990 and 1991 history suddenly seemed to reverse its course. A group of old Soviet generals wanted to put an end to glasnost and perestroika. Suddenly there was new fighting in Latvia and Lithuania, and freedom of speech, end of censorship, opening of borders – everything seemed once again at steak. Our collective hopes seemed to vanish.

It so happened that at this critical moment Peter Curman, then President of the Swedish Writers' Union and myself, then President of the German Writers' Union, agreed not to let go of our glorious plans. The Swedish colleagues took the initiative and invited for a final preparatory conference at Hässelby Slott, an old castle near Stockholm. And there and then the writers of northern Europe decided that they should make their dream come true against all odds, that is to say, to send a ship of writers, translators, poets, intellectuals from all nations around the Baltic Sea sailing to all nations around the Baltic Sea.

We did not succeed landing in Latvia and Lithuania because of the still on-going military aggression of old Soviet generals. But we did succeed to sail on, discussing and reading on board our ship that bore the name of the fine anti-fascist Russian writer Konstantin Simonov. For the first time since the Second World War, East Germans talked to West Germans, Estonians to Russians, Latvians to their Polish neighbours without fear of control by police or hidden secret service. Because a ship when on international waters is international territory, where only the Captain is responsible. And all he is concerned about is the safety of his passengers, not their religion, neither their political believes nor their way of thinking and expressing themselves. In other words, on a ship the rules and restrictions of whatever kind of regime do not apply. A ship is a place without walls.

It seemed like a miracle.
But in 1994, again, thanks to the practical initiative of our Swedish friends – and here I must pay special tribute to Ewa Kumlin and her husband (present here in the audience) for their never ending patience and support – thanks to their diplomatic skill, a second hitherto unimaginable enterprise became feasible, namely, a cruise along the shores of the Black Sea and the Aegean.

Already in June 1994, I was able to write in the newsletter of the German writers' association: "We are offered here the unique and certainly not recurrent historic chance to once again, like in the Baltic Cruise, create lively relations with all these newly emerging writers' organisations. But even more: if we succeeded – and there are signals from both the Turkish and the Greek government to support our intention – if we succeeded to publish a first united manifesto at the end of our cruise, in Delphi, and likewise to initiate the construction of a Black Sea Centre, we would have done a decisive step forward. Because with two such Centres operated by us writers, we would have achieved a basis for understanding and communication such as never before existed."

This was nothing short of prophetic. Because only half a year later, in November 1994, the 2nd Writers' Cruise was launched, which lead us around the shores of the Black Sea and the Aegean. The lively discussions on this voyage gave me the necessary impulses to draft the text of the Delphi Declaration, to be adopted by all participants before the end of the cruise. In the final version, it reads like this:

"From November 14th to November 23rd, 1994, the motor-ship WORLD RENAISSANCE is travelling the Aegean Sea with more than 400 literary passengers from about thirty different nations. Thanks to the generosity of UNESCO and of various governments and private institutions, but also due to hard work of writers' unions and their representatives in many countries, for the first time in history it has been possible for writers and translators of three European seas (…) to come together on a ship of dialogue. Regardless of boundaries and different economic and political standards, they were able to discuss common literary issues on neutral grounds. Poetry in various languages was read. Diversities and common convictions came to be discussed in a spirit of mutual respect. In lectures and seminars on board, a multitude of essential topics were touched, such as freedom of speech and translation problems, minority languages and cultural identity."

Two paragraphs later, the Delphi Declaration goes on to say: "Now, at the end of our voyage, we are assembled here in our belief in the spirit of Delphi, the sacred place in the middle of the ancient world, were peace must rule and the future is determined. We believe, that our dialogue must continue. (…) We are convinced that the sad political situation we share, ranging from terrible wars to a multitude of minority problems must be changed to the better. (…) Hence, it is now our intention to found a WORLD RENAISSANCE CENTRE in the Aegean corresponding to the BALTIC CENTRE (…)."

And again, as we all know, the miracle happened: the envisioned international Centre materialized, thanks to the tireless generosity and compassion of Rhodian representatives and citizens. With deepest respect, I wish to especially point out the political efforts of Major Giorgios Giannopoulos and the noble support of Mrs. Lee and Mr. Vassilis Menaidis. Without their continuous engagement, there would not exist any Three Seas Writers' and Translators' Centre here in Rhodes whose guests we are today.

Any sceptical witness of on-going wars and catastrophes may of course say that our dreams of a better world have not come true and will never come true. He could even maintain that on the contrary, at the beginning of the third millennium history has turned to the wrong direction. Just the same, let us keep in mind that we are celebrating here and now a really remarkable jubilee. And furthermore, let us always keep in mind our own task in this world. We are no silent observers: we are the ones responsible for Utopia! We are the ones to find the right words! Words are important! If it were not for us writers and poets who imagine dreams and put them into words, who else should do it? Words have the power to overcome walls, real ones and imaginary ones.

Words are dreams, walls are reality, say the so-called realists. But who says that dreamers do not realize reality? As history shows, to build walls has been one of the many errors of mankind. Walls to fence in or to keep out other people, to isolate us from new ideas. But did such walls ever succeed? Did the Great Chinese Wall keep away the Mongolians?

As we know, the Great Chinese Wall was built of brick by thousands of slave workers. By contrast, in the 20th century, the Berlin wall was made of concrete with industrial machinery and it was put there in the name of socialism. But did it ultimately succeed in fencing in a whole population? No, my friends: it crumbled before the end of the millennium. And now, in the 21st century, does the North Korean Wall really keep out the evil from the South? Can the beautiful island of Cyprus stay divided for good? Does the US-American wall along the border to Mexico prevent migration from Latin America? Do the European walls in Greece and Spain keep away the fugitives, who need to escape hunger and religious intolerance? Does the wall of Israel bear the chance for any kind of civilized neighbourhood with Palestine?

No, my friends, on the long run none of these walls ever succeeded, nor will they succeed in the future. Let others build the walls of out-dated thinking, of wrong policies – our task as writers and poets and translators is to overcome them.

Dear friends: let our words tear down the walls of yesterday!

(Speach held at the International Writers' Conference on Censorship in Rhodes, October 2014)







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