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Interview Julia Franck

'You left the East and I left prison,' said Hans, 'but where have we ended up? Haven't you noticed we're living in a camp with a wall around it, in a town with a wall around it, in the middle of a country with a wall around it? Did you think that here, at the heart of it all, was the Golden West? The freedom you were looking for?'

from: Campfire

Stacey Knecht
Julia Franck


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SK — Julia, the situation you describe in your latest novel Campfire, the dynamics, the tensions, the relationships in a refugee camp: these things are still happening today, in refugee camps around the world. Yet Campfire describes a German refugee camp in the late seventies. Why did you choose this particular place and time?

JF — You cannot avoid the topic: it’s part of our history, a result of the Cold War. But most Germans seem to have forgotten that. They seem to have forgotten that the Cold War, and particularly the building of the Berlin Wall, was not a conscious decision made by the citizens, as if everyone in East Germany suddenly said, ‘I’m a Socialist!’, or,‘I’m a Communist, I want to belong to the Russian sector!’ The separation of Germany began much earlier – it was the result of World War II. The Germans were divided among themselves, by their own guilt. But instead of looking into their own hearts, instead of confronting themselves with their guilt and shame, they blamed each other. Perhaps not consciously, but still. The Wall was a symbol of the mistrust that was already there.
Even now, fifteen years since the fall of the Wall, they mistrust each other. It’s not even so much about politics anymore, it’s an economical issue. Nowadays people in the West say, we rebuilt this country, all by ourselves, and now the Easterners want to share in the wealth! I’m always amazed at how short their memories are, because if it weren’t for the support of the allies after the war, we’d never be where we are today.

SK — Could you have written a similar book that took place in another country?

JF — I don’t know, I’ve often wondered about that. Especially after meeting the Italian writer Melania Mazzucco. We were both in Rome recently, doing readings, and we talked about the refugee movement, about this intense hope for a better life. Her novel Vita is about Italian immigrants who went to America in the early twentieth century. Different time, different place, but there are still similarities. In those days, the ocean was a huge barrier you had to cross, like the Wall during the Cold War. In both our books there’s a journey: you leave home to become a hero, to find a new existence, a better life, yet you return with nothing at all. German-German relations were tricky – not only for political reasons, but also because people in the West were very abusive towards people from the East. As if the Westerners were ‘the better Germans’. You saw it in the language: if someone said, ‘Your shoes look Eastern,’ they meant they were ugly. Or instead of saying, ‘Are you stupid?!’, they’d say, ‘Are you Eastern?!’
But it wasn’t just the Westerners. My own family moved from East to West in 1978, and when we got permission to go back and visit a few years later, our friends, even my grandmother, regarded us as strangers. Traitors, even. Because we hadn’t stayed to fight for better politics and a better society. For some people, that was impossible to understand.
It was difficult on both sides, East and West. In Western German, a democratic society, it was extremely complicated for people to become integrated. Even to get a job, you needed a certain education and all sorts of documents and forms – very frustrating.
And yes, it’s still happening today.

SK — It’s interesting: both you and Melania Mazzucco are about the same age, same generation and you’re both looking back at your family’s past, in a similar way.

JF — We’re trying to understand how history becomes history. And how the history of a society can be mirrored in a very private, personal history. In an individual life.

SK — Carlo Ginzburg calls it 'microhistory'.

JF — Yes, I believe it’s a very good way of understanding the past.

SK — Did you know, by the way, that Campfirehas been described here in the Netherlands as a ‘psychological novel’?

JF — No, I hadn’t heard that. But then, people always expect female writers to be ‘psychological’. Their novels have to be ‘intuitive’, understanding, full of warmth, lyrical and romantic. Several German critics have said that my language is ‘cold’ -

SK — Were they talking about this book?

JF — No, about my earlier work, but I think they’d say it about Campfire, too, because the language is very minimal and rather distant. That’s one of the reasons I love the work of Natalia Ginzburg – Carlo’s mother, and a great writer – she uses very simple language, she says what she wants to say and no more than that, so that you have more room to feel what’s behind the words. I don’t think my novels are cold – on the contrary. My language is just very clear. But readers would rather a female writer give them a happy ending, or at least offer them comfort. They want us to say, for instance, yes, yes, the Westerners are much better Germans than the Easterners. They’re disappointed when we don’t provide that sense of security.

SK — Let’s talk about the four main characters in Campfire. There’s Nelly Senff, an East German Jew with two young children, John Bird, an American Secret Service man, Hans Pischke, an actor, and Krystyna Jablonowska, a Polish cellist who lives in the camp with her sick, elderly father. They each have their own voice and they each describe their camp experiences from their own point of view. Sometimes they turn up in each others stories. It’s fascinating when they come together – in various combinations.
Tell me about John Bird, for instance. I love that name! How did he evolve?

JF — He’s a mixture. I met a lot of American men when I studied in the States, but what interested me most about John Bird was the fact that he worked for the CIA. I have a German friend whose father worked for the German Secret Service. She told me about how difficult it is to have such a father, a man who’s always a stranger, because he has to live such a schizophrenic life. The wives suffer, too – they feel a great distance from their husbands. Often the husband and wife begin to lead parallel lives. My friend once asked her father how he felt about his work – she couldn’t ask him specific questions, because he wouldn’t be able to answer them. She’s a documentary maker, and when she told him she was planning to make a documentary about refugees from East to West, her father’s face fell, and he said, ‘Those poor, poor people.’ It had never occurred to her that he ever even thought about ‘those people’. Then she realized that he may even have worked with them. She asked him whether, when he had to investigate someone, how he felt about his ‘subjects’. He told her he found it very stressful – and that was true for most of his colleagues, too. They couldn’t help but feel compassion for the people they were dealing with.

SK — But they couldn’t show it.

JF — No. They had to keep it to themselves and keep on working, questioning, investigating. I found that very interesting. Especially with regard to a refugee camp situation. John Bird himself is also a kind of refugee – from his wife. But not only that: it was also because he’d fought in the Vietnam War. He had gone into the war really believing he was doing the right thing, being a hero. I think most Vietnam veterans in the States had a great problem with their own self-confidence and identity. You thought you were doing your best, but afterwards you realized that you had done so many terrible things, you couldn’t possibly hold on to that belief. It was a complicated situation, because these people had to live on. They had to recreate, somehow, their self-image and their image of society.

SK — So what you’re saying is that John Bird, in a sense, is trying to make things right?

JF — Yes. That’s always been his intention. First as soldier, but that failed, and now as a Secret Service man, serving a better organization. He hopes to do the right thing. To help people.

SK — What draws him to Nelly, other than the fact that she’s attractive and sexy and smells good?

JF — (laughs) I think it’s also because she refuses to cooperate with him.

SK — She refuses to cooperate with anybody! (laughs)

JF — (laughs) In the very first scene, when she crosses the border, she refuses to cooperate with the East German Secret Service, but that’s not surprising. But you do expect her to be open and cooperative with the Westerners, which she’s not. Instead, she says, ‘If I didn’t work with them, why should I work with you? You ask me all the same questions. I came to the West to be a private person, I don’t want to show you my inner feelings or explain my motivations.’ I think that John Bird is fascinated by her independence, by the way she keeps her secrets. She’s not for sale – you can’t just give her cigarettes and Coke and expect her to open up. She likes having sex with him, she takes what he has to offer, but she won’t tell him her secrets.

SK — What about Hans? He’s a sad character.

JF — Very sad. Hans is nearly paralyzed by his own experiences in jail. He’s lost his sense of what freedom might mean to him. He’s passive, he doesn’t believe in love, or much else for that matter. But when he first sees Nelly, and runs into her again and again, he begins to form an image of what she must be like. When they finally get to know each other, he tells her: I’m unable to love. At first I even believed him (laughs)! I know it’s quite cruel of me, but I portray him as a character who’s not even able to take his own life. He’s unable to flee, unable to achieve the freedom that death would offer. He just kind of implodes.

SK — The people in the camp are very dependent on one another, even though they may not always show it or want to admit it. For instance, that Sunday morning when Nelly has to go out – to get food, I think – and leaves her kids with Krystyna, whom she’s only met briefly the day before. That implies a certain trust. It surprised me.

JF — It probably surprised you because the whole novel deals with mistrust. And there’s plenty of that as well. But I think Nelly is just trying to be pragmatic. She has no choice, she has no other place to leave the children and she doesn’t want them to be on their own. But it certainly is a strange situation – everyone so full of mistrust and suspicion and fear, and yet forced to rely on each other.

SK — It’s not surprising that they mistrust each other. They’re thrown together, they have no privacy, the doors are unlocked –

JF — And they’re all strangers…

SK — … who often have to share the same room. There seems to be no regard for familial ties. Krystyna, for instance, shares a room with her father… and some other guy! Was that what really happened?

JF — Oh, yes. When the camps weren’t full, they tried to give each family their own room and put men in rooms with other men and women with women. But when there wasn’t enough space, they just put them all together.

SK — A very troubled kind of unity.
I suddenly wonder about something: does the title of the book, ‘Lagerfeuer’, ‘Campfire’, have the same connotations in German as in English?

JF — Yes, definitely. I’m not actually very good at titles. In order to give a book a title, you have to be able to view it from another angle – the title has to draw people’s attention. I thought about it for a long, long time and finally asked my twin sister, a graphic designer, whether she had any ideas. She hadn’t read the manuscript yet, so I told her what it was about. She immediately said: Why don’t you call it Lagerfeuer? At first I laughed, but then I thought, maybe she’s right, because it hints at the idea of a better world, of unity, but also a vision of freedom, adventure, independence. Like in the Marlboro ad (laughs). I thought, perhaps that will provide the right contrast to the themes I deal with in the book, which are really the very opposite.

SK — The characters in Campfireare trying to find a new life, to leave the past behind and move forward. Do you think they succeed?

JF — Hans certainly doesn’t – he’s moving backwards! (laughs) I’m not sure they’re successful in finding ‘eternal happiness’, but at least they have a few new experiences, which is certainly not the worst thing you can do in life. At least they come a bit closer to realizing what is important, what counts.

SK — I keep seeing the camp as a kind of machine: you go in one end, get ‘processed’, and come out the other, or never come out at all…

JF — Krystyna gets out first. We haven’t really talked about her yet – she’s very pragmatic, not too proud, she just goes and finds a job and uses it to get out. By the way, her character was meant as a critical comment on the typically passive behavior of many Germans. We live in such a privileged country and we act as if we have a right to be happy. A right to have money, to be successful. At the same time, we’re too proud to actually do the things you have to do to achieve happiness. We simply expect it to be given to us, like children. That’s one of the differences between the Germans and the Poles. I have two Polish friends who told me about their experiences in refugee camps in the early eighties. They told me about the hierarchy in the camps. East Germans were ‘better’ and Polish were ‘ugly and smelled of cabbage’. At the same time, the Polish people, as well as the Romanians and the Czechs, were much more able to assimilate. They learned the language, got jobs, built up a new life, much more quickly than the Germans. Germans are always complaining – about everything. Especially about what we’ve lost.

SK — You spoke a moment ago of the German tendency to ‘expect’ happiness. Were you referring to both East and West Germans?

JF — After the Wall came down, people in the West said that only the Easterners had that attitude, that kind of passivity. But for years now, if you read German newspapers, you see that it’s all Germans. And as I said before: everyone mistrusts each other. The mistrust was there when the wall went up and it was still there when the wall came down – and it hasn’t changed. It’s worth thinking about, though, where those feelings come from. Nowadays, some intellectuals say that the German people may not have reflected enough on their responsibility for World War II. They should’ve mourned, grieved, instead of comforting each other and saying, ‘We have to move on’. But they didn’t. And yet they instinctively felt, and still feel, that they had missed an important step along the way. Perhaps that makes you mistrust yourself. Unconsciously. And if you can’t trust yourself, you can’t trust anyone else.
The Jews have virtually disappeared from German society – there are very few left, because they got almost everyone. And the ones they didn’t get, emigrated. But the collective German memory is so short, they pretend that there were never any Jews in our everyday life. There’s a big, blank space where the Jews used to be. But nobody really sees it.

SK — What about all the monuments? Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, and the Jewish Memorial? Is it all just show?

JF — No, but it only involves a tiny group of people. I think most Berliners aren’t even interested. It’s a political thing. They knew they had to do something, They had many, many proposals, and competitions among famous architects and artists – it took ages for them to decide what to do. And in my opinion, it’s too late, really.
I sometimes ask people, German people: What did your grandparents do during the war? But the strange thing is, none of their grandparents were ever in the war! What does that mean? If an entire society rewrites the past?
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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