Thursday, March 29, 2007

Elvis Thinks All Politicians are Vote Whores, Not Me

"You know, maybe they're right," I said. "Maybe the German language is becoming to anglo-americanized."

Elvis, My Innerly Swine-Hound and I, were watching TV. In it, a literature critic named Karasek and a minor politician from the conservative party CDU were talking about how Germans are losing their language and will soon speak only English. Examples: Coffee to go, long-lasting lipstick, and more. There were a lot of examples. Plus, the CDU had just brought up some kind of proposal to re-Germanize the language. That was apparently the occasion of the talk show, though I hadn't heard about the proposal myself.

"After all," I said, "If a party as serious and important as the CDU gets interested in language, there must be something to it."

"Hansen, you're an idiot," said Elvis. "And you're as naïve as all the other idiots out there. You're so naïve, if a..."

"Okay okay already, I got the point," I said.

"If political party starts worrying about language, it's never about language," said Elvis. "What do these guys know about language? It's about votes. Here's some smalltime politician looking for attention, so she takes a subject that people think they understand because they watch TV and hear someone say an English word like 'team.' They open a newspaper and see an advertisement that uses an English word or whatever and they think: Oh my God, we're losing our language. And here's this woman who has no idea what she's taking about, ready to save them. Besides, they have already lost their language already – to the French."

"The French? You can’t just..."

"Of course French, you numbskull. Karasek is right – he knows a lot more about language than this woman. Half of German is already French. The other half is Latin, The next half is… well whatever. Language is there to be renewed by outside influences. If you don't have outside influences, you die. That's why languages die every day, not because they aren't kept up by language museums, but because they can't keep up with modern life and become obsolete."

"I thought languages die because some other bigger, stronger language comes along..."

"You don’t know anything about language either, do you? All these tribal languages dying of in the desert or in the jungle somewhere? They're dying because they've become obsolete to their speakers, and so the speakers are speaking some other language. Go with modern life or die, that's my message to the German language. Without outside influences, German would be dead. Germans wouldn't know how to look something up in Wikipedia because there's no 1000-year-old word for Wikipedia."

"Yeah, but we're talking about…"

"That doesn’t matter to politicians, though, all they see is the opportunity to take center stage and look like they're worrying about important things. It's like you Americans with your panic about tits on TV. Janet Jackson bares her breast and everyone thinks their children are going to hell. The Americanization of the German language is the Janet Jackson Tit of Germany. It's one of those things that politicians love because they know how easy it is to use to manipulate the voter with. And the people are stupid enough to go with it. And so are you apparently."

"I didn’t say I agreed," I said, in my own defense. "I just said maybe she has a point."

"Well she doesn't, idiot."

"Are you finished? Are you going to let me say something or not?"

"Sure, dimwit. But how about getting me a beer first?"

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why Europe Must Fail

My Beautiful German Frolein dragged me down to the Brandenburg Gate Sunday for the big celebration of the 50th anniversary of the beginning to the European Union. All along the Strasse der 17. Juni there were tents set up in which al the European countries – probably represented by their local embassies – showed enlarged photos of tourist attractions, handed out brochures praising their landscapes and scientific achievements and offered "specialties." Now, I don’t think I'm the only one who, when he hears "specialties," understands "wurst." I know for a fact that all these European countries know how to fry up a good wurst – if I'm not mistaken it's a prerequisite to joining the Union, in fact – and on top of that I was hungry.

So I politely shoved all the tourist brochures aside and went looking for wurst.

I could find it nowhere. Everyone had brochures, no on had wurst. What kind of a European party was this? Then I began to notice how very… European everything was. But in the wrong way. The tents all looked the same. Since when were European countries in a position to agree on a uniform single one-tent-for-all program? Clearly, these tents were chosen, designed and peopled not by real Europeans, but by bureaucrats in Brussels. Who had also decided that what people need a a party is information, a opposed to wurst. They had even invited lobbyists to join them in handing out leaflets: the Farmer's Union and the woman's Council. I looked everywhere, but could find no wurst. Lots of donuts, but no wurst. What kind of a EuroFest was this?

I was about to either go simply set myself afire on the fairway in protest, when I saw the Polish tent. The Poles know how to make wurst. So I as overjoyed to discover that they indeed did have wurst, even though it was cold, which seems like a half-hearted way to offer wurst. But the good part was, they also offered piroggis.

So I stood in line. And realized what the only thing worse than being at a European party was: Being at a European party and standing in line behind a group of Americans.
These kids would not budge. Clearly they had no experience in European lines. Americans are polite. They are friendly. They are nice. They don’t elbow. They let you go first. They don’t make sure they are not cutting. The result was that I stood behind these kids for about half an hour while everyone else in Europe elbowed merrily past us and scooped up the hot piroggis. After a while I couldn't stand it anymore. So I elbowed by way past them, too, and when I got to the front I literally turned around, grabbed the America girl nearest me by the shoulder, shoved here up to the counter and said "Just order your food." When she was done I grabbed her boyfriend and shoved him up front too and told him, "Don’t look at me, look at the woman, talk to her. Give her your order. Just do it."

Then, finally, I could get my piroggis.

I'm not saying that Europe will fail. It's too big to fail. But it won’t succeed either – not until every clerk in Brussels leans to fry a wurst.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Artsy Fartsy Night

There we were, standing around in this very cool new art gallery in the middle of Berlin admiring the photos by, among others, our friend Werner Huthmacher and going elbow to elbow with a packed roomful of his other admirers, when Andi the Graphic Genius turned to me and said: "I know what you're thinking"

"No you don’t, you presumptive, arrogant know-it-all."

"Artsy-fartsy," he smirked.

He was right, of course. As a card-carrying American Anti-Intellectual, I am almost obligated to think that in such a surrounding. But don't think I mean it in a bad way. Watching the people was almost more fascinating than the photos themselves. Each one of them was a little work of art in themselves. They were clearly artists, art students, art journalists, art scene hangers-on. Art was in the air, art was in their clothes, in their wine glasses (why it is always white wine at these things?) in their hair.

It was most obvious in the way they dressed. There was the girl in the pin-striped suit. There were many women in men's coats that looked like they were from second hand: the black and white plaid of another era. Some were simply dressed down, so consciously so that they were making a statement. If you are an artist, you have to pay a lot of attention to their outfit. It has to look like you don’t care about fashion - in fact, you have to make it clear that you are anti-fashion – but everything has to look unique. Thus all the other-era-second-hand stuff, full of irony and, well, individuality. The necessity of being an individual, of being different from the others – there is nothing more important to an artist. But why? What is it about these artists that they have dress so individualistically that you can tell they are artists? What do they have to prove?

Then I figured it out: It's the Second Son Syndrome.

"Second Son Syndrome" comes from the Middle Ages and is best described in the opening chapters of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival. It's when the first son inherits the entire kingdom and all the sons thereafter, from Second Son on, are either dependent on Older Brother or they have to go out on adventure and seek their fortunes. (This is where Errant Knights come from – they're seeking their fortunes because their Older Brothers have everything they father owned.) Wolfram von Eschenbach, I am sure, was a Second Son. He's the guy who never gets noticed when he does something interesting. He's never as smart, interesting, beautiful, strong or motivated as the First Son. He needs another way to prove himself.

So he gets into art, or literature, or culture, or something like that – the part of society that is prestigious but is "left over" by the others who got the good parts of society first. "No one else wants to do this," they say to themselves, "Then I will – if there's no competition, I can do it." So they become artists, writers, filmmakers. They leave their small town where no one understands them anyway and they go to the big city and they are careful to do everything that other people don't do, to show that they are individual, not of the masses. And they hope against hope that they will be noticed.

These guys were all Second Sons. I recognized them because I am a Second Son, too.

(His show is still on, by the way, at the Loris gallery in Berlin, Garten Strase 114: see www.lorisberlin.de)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where Would You Like to Be Buried?

How to identify heimat?

For people like me, who live between worlds, it is sometimes difficult. But just the other day I heard what has to be the most interesting way of identifying heimat ever. A typical way s to ask yourself the question: If you watch a soccer game between Germany and America, which side do you root for? Another way is: If America goes to war with Germany, which side would you fight on?

It was at the birthday Umtrunk of my friend Designer Boy (Germans have the charming tradition of "drinking into their birthday," which means you gather the night before and drink champagne together and sing Happy Birthday at midnight) where I spoke with a friend of his, a Chinese-German woman whose name I didn't catch.

We talked about Heimat. She was ton between tree worlds: Germany, were she grew up and where she is a citizen; China, where she has family and roots; and America or, more specifically, New York, where she lived for a time and fell in love with it *despite some rather harrowing adventures with huge rats).

When she thinks of Heimat, she said, she tries to imagine where she would most like to be buried. She has given it enough thought to be able to characterize the three potential burial grounds:

Germany, would be cold and lonely.

China would be peaceful and meditative.

New York would be fun.

She didn't say which she preferred.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Series Conundrum

He's finally arrived: a new detective on the murder mystery firmament.

The hero: Bruno von Leuwen, a police detective in Amsterdam with a chronically ill wife.

The murder: A 12-year-old boy, under mysterious circumstance.

The mysterious circumstances… lead van Leuwen to an obsessed, Nobel Prize-nominated anthropologist who researches New Guinea cannibalism…

Another thing about Van Leuwen: his wife is dying from Alzheimer.

That's what I like most about Van Leuwen: his melancholic, tragic, dark touch: His wife is dying from Alzheimer. It suits not only a detective, but the detective's writer, whose name is Claus C. Fischer – a good friend of mine with a dark side of his own.

This is new ground for Claus. Not because it's a thriller, or because it plays in Amsterdam, but because it's a series: He's already sold another three books with Van Leuwen.

Claus C. Fischer has been writing books for ages. He's an example for me – a working writer, a writer with a penchant for story, for narrative, for yarns; his books are exciting and human, epics sometimes, often thrillers, even love stories. His big early critical success was a dark historical fantasy called "Goya's Hand", "Die Wälder des Himmels" is an epic about multiple generations of a gypsy family; "Sushi in Paris" is a love story on the streets of Paris. His "Das Ende aller Tage" was very successful and he often writes TV-thrillers.

Now, if you write thrillers, there are two ways to go about it: The Michael Crichton Way or the Patricia Cornwell Way.

The Michael Crichton Way is to write a big bestseller and establish your name as the "brand" – from then on, you can write anything thrillerish and it will sell. The Patricia Cornwell Way is to write a series. The books don’t necessarily sell big, but they sell steady, and with each new book you become more and more established, the old readers keep coming back, they recommend you to new readers, etc. It's a slow build-up.

Up to now, Claus has been going the Michael Crichton Way (and his books are just as well-written and catchy as Crichton's). Now he's finally decided to try the other way – he's created a new detective/hero in the current trendy European mode, a jaded, tight-lipped detective in a small welfare-state (the most popular representative so far for his kind of European murder mystery is the books of Swedish writer Henning Mankell).

On the one hand, it's a great experiment: Is a series better than a one-off? Will it trap him into spending too much time with one character, will he get tired of Van Leuwen? (That seems to be the fear writers have about a series, though frankly I don’t know why – a jaded detective in Amsterdam… what more could a thriller writer want? If I could write thrillers, that's exactly what I'd do.)

I think this is it: the success he deserves will come with Van Leuwen. And I think it will go international.

Congratulations Claus, you deserve it.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Saw Whodunit, Still Dunno Whodunit

I know you've all been wondering who murdered Sir Lionel. I saw the play – "Die brillianten Ideen des Earl of B." (The Brilliant Ideas of the Earl of B.) by John Willenberg in Münster Saturday night and I figured out who the murderer is: It was Mr. French, the cook. No, wait a minute, he was ornery enough to do it, but he didn’t have a motive. It was Betsy, the maid. No, wait a minute, I don’t think that's right. She was nuts enough, but why would she do it?I know, it was Lord and Lady Aimswell (Aimswell!). They're the ones who were set to inherit the money. Wait a minute, so was Lord Kensington. But he didn’t have the guts. What about those little kids that kept running in and out of the scenery claiming they found the pistol I the attic, then under the stairs, then in the kitchen?

What about the body that kept disappearing? What about the murder we never actually saw? Why were there more shots fired than murders committed? What about the prostitutes and their madame, and why did they all turn out to be someone else than they claimed to be?At the end of the second act, they took a break and passed out sheets of papers with the names of all the characters on them – you had to guess which character was the murderer and turn in the sheet again.
I think I checked off and crossed out every name on the sheet. Or maybe I didn’t. That's how confused I was.I hung around the cast and crew a while after the show and I picked up some hints about what next year's play would be about. I think a pharmaceutical company was mentioned. And a murder. One of the children requested that she be the murder victim next time, Mr. French, who is also the author and director John Willenberg, refused. "More likely you would be the murderer," he said.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Are We All Humorless Germans At Heart?

You'd be surprised how much of my work depends on people with a sense of humor. What I do as a journalist is basically call up experts – historians, scholars, anthropologists, writers of books and treatises, collectors of information, Melvillian sub-subs – and ask them to tell me a little bit about the knowledge they have gathered.

Especially books like "Planet Germany" and my next book depend on experts taking a moment to talk to me on the phone. I write down what they tell me, put it into a more dramatic or exciting order, phrase a question to make it a little more provocative or add a comment to make it funny, and that's that: My job is to repackage knowledge in order to make it more interesting than it seems when it comes directly out of the mouths of scholars.

You remember reading Bill Bryson's exciting, funny, fascinating and page-turning "A Short History of Nearly Everything?" There was probably nothing in that book that you hadn't heard in school – but in the book it was more interesting. That's what I do. Oddly enough, you can’t just call a scholar and pick his mind. It seems like that should be possible. Especially when these guys are being paid with public funds, it seems to me they should be required in their contracts to stand in a booth in a shopping mall or a public square once a week and answer any question put to them by passersby. (Of course, probably no passersby would stop to ask questions, but still…)

In order for me to do my work, I need experts who have a sense of humor. Not every expert will talk to me. I tell a historian something like: "I'm researching the question of whether Hitler would have won the war, if he had had the help of the Jews." Ask a scholar that question, he hangs up on you. With this particular question, I figured it would be too sensitive to ask a German scholar. A common complaint that Germans have about… well, Germans is that they are humorless. And that they have no imagination. Can't think outside the box. So I e-mailed a director of a major technical museum in the US and put it to him. I figured: An American would have enough of a sense of humor to take a shot at that question. Alas, I had overestimated the American sense of humor. It happens again and again, but I never learn my lesson: Americans say they have more humor than Germans, but in practice that's not necessarily true. He wrote back in a rather offended tone that "such a question is not history, it's speculation."

That sentence is not new to me: I had heard it a thousand times in Germany, from the time I attended the university here to the time I worked on books such as this one. But I had not expected it from an American. Ah well, back the drawing board. Maybe I'll stick to Germans from now on.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Last Chance to See…


…the Greatest Agatha Christie-Homage Ever!

It's in German, it's called "Die brillianten Ideen des Earl of B.," it's written by my good friend John Willenberg (I know this guy since I was on a mission for the Mormon church here – never was able to convert him), and it's been described as:

"In dem turbulenten Theaterspaß des blinden Autors Johannes Willenberg werden nicht nur die Nerven sondern auch die Lachmuskeln gehörig in Anspruch genommen. Am 22. Juni 1923 feiert Lady Augusta Aimswell in ihrem Sommerhaus im englischen Badeort Brighton ihren 60 Geburtstag. Ihr Gatte, Lord Bartholomew, schenkt ihr zum Geburtstag ein Diadem mit Brillanten und einem großen herzförmigen Rubin. Natürlich kommt es, wie es in einem Krimi kommen muss, das Diadem wird gestohlen und obendrein wird auch noch Lady Augustas Neffe erschossen. Aber wer war es? Das Dienstmädchen, das so gern ein Filmstar wäre? Oder der verarmte Schwager? Vielleicht Mrs. Blackwell, die Leiterin eines halbseidenen Instituts oder eine ihrer "Künstlerinnen"?"

If you like an old-fashioned whodunit with a touch of irony and done by people who just like doing this kind of thing for the hell of it, you should check this out. I'm going to go see it Saturday. The remaining dates are:

Friday and Saturday the 9th and 10th of March in Muenster at the Pfarrzentrum Heiligkreuz (Hojastr. 22) and in Dortmund on the 24th of March in the Katholischer Centrum, Propsteihof 10. Curtain goes up at 8:00 pm.

Go see the show. I'm going to go see it Saturday in Muenster. See you there.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Why Are the Great Love Poems By Men?

I was having a pleasant nightcap with Elvis My Innerly Swinedog the other night. We were talking about poetry and authors and why men always seem to do more writing than women. Especially the great love poetry and love stories seem to come from men, though, at the same time, men seem to also be the most primitive of the sexes, especially when it comes to, well, sex.

So I asked Elvis My Innerly Swinedog, "Elvis, can you tell me why most great love poets are men?"

"That's easy enough," he replied. "Men see a woman and it immediately registers in their minds how much they want to take that woman, rip her clothes off, throw her into bed and pound her until they're both sore. So he takes that base, primitive, even immoral desire and translates it into a thing oF rare beauty, a thing consisting of flowers and poetry, candlelit dinners in quaint Italian restaurants and moonlit evenings watching the stars. What's more, they sit down and write about it, turning the most primitive and ugly of animal impulses into rare, ethereal poetry that reaches into the heavens and depicts women as angelic creatures whose feet barely touch the ground; they make movies in which women are only seen through gauzy filters and with a wind machine blowing their hair; they write songs that compare the objects of their desire to the gods, and make the gods come out wanting.

"Women, on the other hand, look at men, see how they are constantly trying to reach to the heavens, constantly trying to accomplish great things and put their marks on society, constantly battling with their demons, constantly trying to put their stamp upon the world around them, constantly trying to prove themselves. They see man's flawed and tragic soul and in it the beauty of a creature born of clay that all its life strives to become one with the heavens, and then they take up the pen and what do they write? They describe in detail how men only want sex, don't listen when you talk to them and never take out the trash."

At this point, I have to stress that any opinions expressed in this post are those of Elvis, My Innerly Swinedog, and not necessarily mine.