Paul Verhaeghen: Answers

Teile des Interviews zu finden bei der Märkischen Allgemeinen Zeitung auf deutsch

The book started in Potsdam, yes. It is cast as three months in the life of a postdoc at the Uni Potsdam, coinciding with my own stay there, in the psychology department. I had an amazing time – there is nothing like the two cities of Potsdam and Berlin in the world. And 1995 was a strange time – the reality of the Wende was sinking in, it was not all good, and both cities were still very much confused and reeling and in chaos. The many layers of history all coexisted in one spot and in one time: the buildings with the pockmarks of the War still on them; Friedrich’s palaces covered in soot; abandoned Trabants at the side of the street, the Bundeswehr riding their tanks over the cobblestones in Potsdam. A whole country had suddenly disappeared. I sometimes joked with my colleagues that we were living in the Bundesdeutsche Besatzungszone, and they never contradicted me. I spent a lot of time in the Mitte and in Prenzlauer Berg in the weekends, there was something sad and at the same time energizing about those neighborhoods. And on Sundays morning I strolled through Park Sanssouci, all alone, and thought up stories that became part of this book.

And history of course – the Stasi, the Gestapo, the gaping holes in the city, the emptiness of the Scheunenviertel, the disappearance of the main Jewish cemetery there, the absence of Jews.

It was also good to go back to Berlin as a visiting scientist at the Max-Planck-Institut in Dahlem in 2001, to see how both cities had been slowly healing, had acquired yet new identities. Berlin and Potsdam are chameleon cities, always changing. One of the things I found very remarkable is that people there always seemed to live with a deep sense of nostalgia. In 1995 I heard I should have been there in 1989, or 1990. In 2001 people were nostalgic for 1995, and still getting used to the crass commercialism of the new Potsdamer Platz and Friedrichstrasse. You might wish America lived with the same taste for history; the same keen sense of responsibility for the future that Germans have.

Not just religion, but also science, and Nazism, and communism. We have tried them all, in the 20th Century, all systems, and they all knew sin; they all have failed. What shall we do next? There seems to be little else to do but to lose ourselves in our humanity. Somewhere in the book I quote (or misquote) Adorno: after Auschwitz no more poetry. But my main character, a camp survivor, thinks out loud that after Auschwitz perhaps all we need is poetry; that poetry should be the only thing still allowed – we don’t need analysis, we need art, we need to be the best humans can be. Only art can save the world, if the world is still worth saving.

‘Im Anfang war die Tat’ is a Goethe quote, of course. Faust wanders through the pages of the novel repeatedly – the scientists working in Los Alamos, Hitler in his bunker, my lonely postdoc looking for love in all the wrong places: they are all possessed by his spirit. More importantly, we are what we do. It is our actions, not our words, or motivations, or justifications-after-the-fact that count. In the novel, I wrestled, like any European, with the question of guilt, and the question of how Hitler could have happened, and Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. There is no answer – any answer is wrong. (Beware of those with answers, as recent German literary history has taught us.) But we need to ask the question; the question is important. In the book, there is a young Jewish woman who betrays other Jews so that she can save her family and friends, and herself. Would I have done the same, in the same situation? I do not know. There is a young SS-officer, who saves a child in Auschwitz. Does that erase his evil deeds? I do not know, and I want the reader to think for herself/himself about this. Our stories are made up of what we do, all of our deeds set things in motion. Karma.

A large part of Omega Minor was written in America. It is strange to write about the rise of Nazism, including the random acts of violence and torture, the creation of a fictitious enemy, and the glorification of the Leader, and see the exact same thing happen in my backyard – flags galore, an unnecessary war, Guantanamo Bay, Abuh Graibh, Bush descending from the skies on a warship, wearing a uniform that made his crotch bulge, the institution of a Heimatssicherheitsdienst, secret prisons, illegal surveillance programs. The regime here is proto-fascist, and if you speak up about that, you are suddenly un-American. The Bush government is the only government in the world still making the case that torture is an acceptable form of human treatment. Bush has now killed more Americans than Osama Bin Laden did, and no matter how you look at it, the 25000 and more Iraqi civilians killed since the war started are not a worthy monument for the 3000 dead of 9/11. I donated all the award money the book has earned in Belgium and Holland (the Bordewijk Award, the Culture Award from the Flemsih Government, a nomination for a commercial prize) to the American Civil Liberties union, who legally challenged the detentions at Guantanamo and the domestic spying program – 19500 euros well spent, and certainly better spent than supporting 3 seconds of war through paying taxes to the Bush regime.