About The Author
Steven Uhly was born in 1964 in Cologne and is of German-Bengali descent, and partially rooted in Spanish culture. He studied literature and has translated poetry and prose from Spanish, Portuguese and English. He lives in Munich with his family. His book Adams Fuge was granted the Tukan Preis of the city of Munich in 2011. His 2012 novel Gluckskind was filmed as a primetime production in Germany.
His new novel, Kingdom of Twilight, translated by Jamie Bulloch, follows the lives of Jewish refugees and a German family resettled from Bukovina, as well as a former SS officer, chornicling the geographical and psychological dislocation generated by war. A quest for identity takes them from Displaced Persons camps in Germany to Lubeck, Berlin, Tel Aviv and New Yrok, as they try to make sense of a changed world, and of their place in it.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Steven's translator Jamie Bulloch talks to Steven about overcoming the contradiction of being a victim as well as belonging to the nation of perpetrators, why he chose to tell part of the story through diary entries, letters and poems and why it's important to understand the personal trap that national identity can be.
Author photo © Matthias Bothor
Steven Uhly will be appearing with Jamie Bulloch at Wanderlust, a Free Word event on Monday 13th February,
Questions & Answers
JB: Steven, I’m a big fan of historical novels, which was one of the reasons I was very keen to translate Kingdom of Twilight. What drew you to the subject of the immediate post-war era?
SU: I wanted to understand the many continuities between Nazi Germany and the postwar country I knew. During my childhood, I had several encounters with racists that shocked me. When this started to happen more and more often I began to think about Germany’s history. As people around me were trying not to remember anything, I spent a lot of time listening to my grandmother, whose tortured mind made her tell endless stories about the two wars she had seen. I was aware of the fact that it was a huge subject, one that required an epic form. The funny thing is, I hadn't planned to do it with this story, which was meant to be a short satire. But when I began writing in 2004, it quickly got out of control and, no matter how hard I tried, it just went in a completely different direction. I realised I wasn't ready for this, and I stopped after 96 pages.
JB: The novel is indeed a very broad canvas. But you also manage to paint in incredibly fine detail. You must have undertaken a substantial amount of historical research to achieve this.
SU: In a way, I’ve been doing research all my life, but yes, while writing this particular story, the research almost became an obsession; I even researched the exact weather on the particular day I was writing about. And I talked to a lot of people. When German friends became aware of my project, they started telling me stories. I was given access to private letters and I talked to refugees from the eastern parts of the Third Reich. But the most challenging and impressive experience was of Israel. I had always been afraid of Israel - I felt like a late victim of the Nazis, but I also felt the shame every German feels when they're honest with themselves. But my project forced me to go there. I don't know if it was by chance or by destiny, but from the very beginning I had encounters with wonderful people who helped me substantially with my research.
JB: In our digital age of 24-hr news we expect immediate comment and analysis on current events. And in these momentous times the demand is even greater. But it’s only with distance that a more nuanced assessment of such events is possible. To what extent do you think that Kingdom of Twilight could only have been written now?
SU: My mother was born during the war, so I belong to the first post-war generation. I was born 20 years after D-day. In historical terms that's almost nothing. I was able to write the book because I waited until the wall came down and began to see how new generations deal with the past. At the same time I needed to understand and digest my own story in this country, and that took me more than 40 years. I had to overcome the contradiction of being a victim as well as belonging to the nation of perpetrators. I had to look beyond my own circumstances in order to let all my feelings flow. Because each of the characters of the book went through me, and each reflects a part of me.
Looking at current events, Donald Trump can on the surface appear like a resurrected Hitler - the same craving for attention, the same attempts to surprise, the same inner phlegm, the same lack of empathy or ethics, the same chutzpah. But when the analogy seems too obvious, I have to doubt my own perception. Trump may be like Hitler, but our world already knows Hitler. So, in a way, it's the very analogy that gives me the chance to see more than just a repetition. I try to be aware of the fact that analogy is part of the foundation of knowledge - it's not knowledge itself. A cup is a cup, but a different one. I think it's important to suspend the many hasty conclusions the mind keeps offering us. Writing stories is all about not going to the end but letting it come to you.
JB: In the novel you experiment with a variety of narrative forms. As well as playing out parts of the story inside individual characters’ heads, you use diary entries, letters and a few genuine historical documents. Did you set out in advance with the intention of playing with different styles or did it come as you were writing? And what was the chief reason for this?
SU: In the process of writing I discovered that the long form I had chosen was suited to a variety of styles and forms. It helped me to give life to my characters’ different perspectives. Lisa Kramer, for example: a very thoughtful person who likes to express herself, that's why she writes a diary. Wilhelm Kramer, on the other hand, only learns to write letters when it becomes a survival mechanism. The silent letter Anna speaks to her unborn child is like a poem, and that matches her complex and mysterious personality. On the other hand, poetry is close to demagoguery, propaganda and public speeches in general. That's why Ranzner’s speech to his S.S. men (which is one of Himmler’s speeches given in Posen) is put in verse.
The variety of styles is one of the aspects of the book I like the most, because they are not ornamental, i.e. superfluous, but they add information beyond the words of the story. Anna’s mother was a poet, and she feels attracted to Abba Kovner, who himself was a poet. To her, poetry and art are something natural. And it gives her continuity as a person: she has lost everything but this, and it is her way of viewing herself as a human being. Her husband, Peretz, has something of this too, but he is the son of a colonel and his ambition to be the man his family wants him to be keeps him emotionally detached. Grandma Kramer, on the other hand, is not erudite and with her we have a traditional third-person narrative. But she is a good talker, which is why she tells part of the story to Lisa. Then there is Chapter 11, the massacre, where the most important thing was not to pretend to be there, but to feel the action from the inside. That called for a unique form, a fusion of prose, poetry and tragedy, but always keeping it readable.
JB: And it’s true to say that this switching of styles gives a rich variety to Kingdom of Twilight, enhancing its readability. One final question: a major theme of the novel is the characters’ dislocation after the war - not just physical, but mental and cultural - and the search for identity, for a meaningful narrative to their lives. Do you think this is a very modern condition, a problem many of us face today?
SU: Yes, definitely. It's not only refugees and their children facing radical change, but also entire societies like ours, where people flee to in the hope of a better life. We, too, have to change our perception of the country we used to know. German governments, for example, refused to speak of Einwanderung (immigration) until quite recently. Instead, they invented the term 'Zuwanderung', which is effectively the same thing but without this uncomfortable notion of penetration and change. But the large movement of people unleashed when the Berlin Wall came down affects everybody personally.
I've always wondered why the British press loved to mention the war at every opportunity. Since Brexit I've come to understand that a little bit. It seems to me that the victory functioned as a link to the lost empire - it reassured the people that no matter how wealthy and influential Germany became, it would never be able to equal Great Britain. If I were British, perhaps I too would feel offended by having to bow to rules made principally by the Germans and the French, when we were the ones who had won all the wars. Now there is this great opportunity to change the whole perception of what it means to be British. A few days ago I chatted on Twitter with a European immigrant who lives in London, who is now afraid that he might be expelled. That's the new reality. On the other hand, there’s a German chancellor who invites almost a million refugees - 'illegals', as Trump would have it - to our country, making me unexpectedly (and cautiously) proud to be German for the first time since the Holocaust.
So, yes, many factors are changing our identity very fast. I think it’s important to understand the personal trap that national identity can be. We are only at the beginning of a process that I hope will turn us into citizens of this small world. Because nationalism and national identity cannot be superior to this in the face of the many global challenges that lie before us.
JB: Yes, it’s one of the supreme historical ironies that Britain’s most illustrious victory also marked the start of her sharp decline as a great power. Thank you very much, Steven.