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Monolingualism and the Spatial Imagination
David Jennings Gramling
B.A. (Middlebury College) 1994
M.A. (University of California, Berkeley) 2002
A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
University of California, Berkeley
Committee in charge:
Professor Deniz Göktürk, Chair
Professor Claire Kramsch
Professor Minoo Moallem
The dissertation of David Jennings Gramling is approved:
Chair ______________________________________________ Date _____________
______________________________________________ Date _____________
______________________________________________ Date _____________
University of California, Berkeley
Where Here Begins: Monolingualism and the Spatial Imagination
David Jennings Gramling
Doctor of Philosophy in German
University of California, Berkeley
Professor Deniz Göktürk, Chair
This dissertation argues that twentieth-century multilingual authors writing in dominant
languages engaged in a poetics of aesthetic constraint, rather than a process of cultural
assimilation. The historically disparate, yet critically kindred texts I consider—those of
Franz Kafka, Primo Levi, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, and Orhan Pamuk—translate their
authors’ multilingual dilemma into spatial figurations—whether in the form of uncanny
“other rooms” and inaccessible castles in Kafka; indecipherable and distant utterances
in Levi; an inn with two doors in Özdamar; or an “identityless” modern library in
Pamuk. In foregrounding spatial relations that allegorize the multilingual world beyond
the constraints of Western Europe’s (national) literary traditions, these texts potently
critique the limits of monolingual epistemology in the modern German context.
Were cultural identity the implied concept linking these authors, Primo Levi and
Emine Sevgi Özdamar might appear an odd pairing for analysis. Even the assertion of a
textual kinship between Primo Levi and Franz Kafka based on their relative
Jewishness—or one between Özdamar and Pamuk based on their Turkishness—would
present all the problems of reductive identarianism. The constellation of texts I have
chosen here is rich for conceptualization precisely because it does not rely on shared
background and heritage—but rather on a common double-bind with monolingualism in
the German twentieth century. From the Jewish German Kafka to the Turkish German
Özdamar, from the Italian Levi to the Turkish Pamuk, what remains salient is a
productive irreconcilability between the multilingualism of their narrative worlds and
the monolingualism of their texts. Whether in Kafka’s anxious travelers, Levi’s
comrades at Birkenau, Özdamar’s itinerant lyricists, or Pamuk’s disoriented poet Ka—
each strives to signal how linguistic plurality is in a passionate conflict of interest with
twentieth century literary norms.
If we may speak of a linguistic lineage among these texts, it is therefore one of
adverse positioning within the modern project of (linguistic) nation-building. Each of
these authors draws on subjugated linguistic sources to which their respective implied
readerships do not and cannot have adequate access, given the meta-formal constraints
of monolingual writing. Whether Yiddish, Czech, and Hebrew for Kafka, camp
language [lagerzspracha] for Levi, or Turkish and Ottoman for Özdamar and Pamuk,
the linguistic Other remains menacingly sequestered in the spatial landscapes of these
texts. This basic asymmetry between monolingual text and multilingual hypotext gives
such prose experiments as Kafka’s The Missing Person (1914) and The Castle (1924),
Özdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai (1994) and Pamuk’s Snow (2002) their lateral,
horizontal structure and their air of unfinishability.
Resulting from this research are a number of conceptual hypotheses about
monolingualism in the domain of literary studies: 1) that monolingualism remains an
unmarked critical category, as whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity once were,
and is in need of a parallel critical conceptualization, 2) that monolingualism and “the
native speaker” are inventions of early modern Europe, 3) that being multilingual is an
epistemic and social position, as opposed to a set of acquired proficiencies—in other
words, that multilingualism is differential, rather than additive, 4) that manifest code-
switching and language-mixing are not the only proper domain for literary inquiry about
multilingualism, and that monolingual texts can be imminent—even from a formalist
perspective—with an awareness (or apprehension) of neighboring languages, and 5) that
one of the greatest challenges for literary history and German Studies in the twenty-first
century will be to conceptualize monolingualism as it relates to culture, text, and
prevalent theoretical traditions.
In future writings, I will supplement this dissertation with research on the following
questions: to what extent were post-structuralism, formalism, New Criticism, and New
Historicism—not to mention the “New Formalism”—motivated by dilemmas of, or
apprehensions about, multilingual subjectivity? How does gender identity parallel or
undermine monolingualism? How can film history—with its enduring debates about
synchronization, dubbing, accents, and authentic representation—offer a fruitful
counter-context for a nascent discourse about literary multilingualism? How can the
texts considered in this dissertation contribute to a language and literature curriculum
that critically engages with monolingualism in its historical and textual dimensions?
INTRODUCTION: THE NEW COSMOPOLITAN MONOLINGUALISM........................................... 1
PRELUDE IN THE SCHOOLYARD: BERLIN’S HERBERT HOOVER HIGH SCHOOL.............................................. 1
SHARING SPACE: MONOLINGUALISM AND MULTILINGUALISM SUPERIMPOSED............................................ 3
LEOPARDS IN THE TEMPLE: FIGURING MONOLINGUALISM AS SPATIAL CONSTRAINT .................................. 7
TOWARD A MULTILINGUAL STYLISTICS OF SINGLE-LANGUAGE TEXTUALITY............................................ 12
HISTORICIZING MONOLINGUALISM................................................................................................................ 16
MODERNITY’S IMPLIED MONOLINGUAL ........................................................................................................ 18
MODERNISM VERSUS MONOLINGUALISM IN LITERATURE............................................................................ 20
SPACE-DEIXIS AND MULTILINGUAL NARRATIVE .......................................................................................... 21
MULTILINGUALISM OR HETEROGLOSSIA?...................................................................................................... 24
MONOLINGUALISM IN LITERATURE AND LINGUISTICS.................................................................................. 26
A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY............................................................................................................................. 29
ON POLYGLOT EXPERIMENTATION IN LITERATURE ...................................................................................... 32
PRELUDE IN THE PARLIAMENT........................................................................................................................ 35
THE NEW COSMOPOLITAN MONOLINGUALISM.............................................................................................. 40
IN THE OTHER ROOM: MULTILINGUAL HYPOTEXTS................................................................... 46
KAFKA: THE FOURTH UNITY................................................................................................................... 49
KAFKA: MONO- OR MULTI ............................................................................................................................. 51
AMID A DOUBLE MONOLINGUALISM............................................................................................................. 57
THE CHAUVINIST HAS LOST HIS WAY........................................................................................................... 59
LINGUA NON GRATA: THE SPECTER OF YIDDISH .......................................................................................... 63
A MONOLINGUALISM ARTIST......................................................................................................................... 67
THE MISSING PERSON (1911–1914)............................................................................................................... 69
VOLATILE COGNATES AND FORLORN PRONOUNS ......................................................................................... 77
TAMPERING WITH LANGUAGE ........................................................................................................................ 83
FIGURING THE OTHER LANGUAGE................................................................................................................... 85
ALWAYS THAT CRY OF THE JACKDAWS......................................................................................................... 90
THE FOURTH UNITY........................................................................................................................................ 92
LEVI: THERE OCCASIONALLY CAME A WORD................................................................................ 95
SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE OF THE THIRD REICH.......................................................................................... 98
INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION IN HITLER’S NEW EUROPE................................................................. 101
A LINGUA GERMANA.................................................................................................................................... 107
SPEAKING IN THE AFTERMATH.....................................................................................................................111
ASSIMILATED RECOLLECTIONS, TRANSLINGUAL MANUSCRIPTS...............................................................113
WITNESSING THE UNPUBLISHABLE .............................................................................................................. 115
LEVI AND THE UNSAYABLE ..........................................................................................................................120
BIRKENAU’S NATIVE SPEAKERS................................................................................................................... 123
SILENCE AND SEMIOTIC AWARENESS .......................................................................................................... 124
THRESHOLDS OF REINITIATION .................................................................................................................... 128
TRANSLATING THE SPEECH OF THE ANNULLED...........................................................................................130
THE ONLY MEANS......................................................................................................................................... 132
DISCIPLINE AND BARBARISM........................................................................................................................135
ON THE OTHER SIDE: THE LANGUAGES OF TURKISH GERMAN FICTION.........................138
ÖZDAMAR: AN INN WITH TWO DOORS..............................................................................................144
COMING TO VOICE......................................................................................................................................... 146
WHAT IS NIYAZI’S BUSINESS IN GERMAN LITERATURE?............................................................................ 149
TILTING THE LITERARY CUBE ......................................................................................................................153
IS THERE A GUEST WORKER IN THIS TEXT? ................................................................................................155
LIFTING THE BAN .......................................................................................................................................... 158
RETHINKING THE TACTICAL INVENTION OF GUEST-WORKER LITERATURE.............................................. 162
FROM INTERNATIONALISM TO SPEECHLESSNESS.........................................................................................165
OTOBÜS: A NATIONALLY INDIFFERENT EXCURSION.................................................................................. 168
A (NOT ONLY) GERMAN LITERATURE......................................................................................................... 174
HYPOTEXTUAL EXPERIMENTS ......................................................................................................................176
INTERESTING STUFF CAME FROM FOREIGNERS...........................................................................................179
PURLOINED HYPOTEXTS ...............................................................................................................................182
AN INN WITH TWO DOORS............................................................................................................................186
A SECRET LANGUAGE FILLS THE SOUL ....................................................................................................... 190
A LITERARY HISTORY OF ACCESSIONS AND SUCCESSIONS ........................................................................ 197
THE FRANKFURT TRAVELOGUE.................................................................................................................... 198
PAMUK: DISORIENTING THE CASTLE................................................................................................200
COMPARATISM, MADE DIFFICULT ............................................................................................................... 203
A MOVEABLE EAST....................................................................................................................................... 209
SURVEYING THE LAND.................................................................................................................................. 217
MIS-MEASUREMENTS .................................................................................................................................... 218
THE IMPLANTED AUTHOR.............................................................................................................................222
INSISTING ON DIFFÉRANCE ...........................................................................................................................224
THE CASTLE IN RUINS................................................................................................................................... 227
MEANING IN THE SNOW................................................................................................................................231
VANISHING ENCOUNTERS .............................................................................................................................233
THE FURNACE IN THE NATIONAL THEATER................................................................................................. 236
GIVEN LANGUAGE......................................................................................................................................... 240
The more we forbid ourselves to conceive of
hybrids, the more possible their interbreeding
becomes—such is the paradox of the moderns.
—Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
What were the languages of twentieth-century Germany? After 1955, millions of labor
recruits traversed and settled in its two eastern and western Republics—making meanings
in Turkish, Korean, Italian, and Spanish. From 1945 to 1955, expellees from Eastern
Europe crossed linguistic paths with Soviet soldiers and French Displaced Persons
throughout the four occupied sectors. From 1933 to 1945, while millions of Yiddish,
Polish, Spanish, and Hungarian speakers were forced into transports toward concentration
camps, the Third Reich’s soldiers and language teachers were promulgating German as a
new global language as far south as Sofia and Gibraltar, and exiles like Leo Spitzer and
Thomas Mann relocated their eloquence to Istanbul and Pacific Palisades. Before that,
demographers counted Yiddish-speaking Jews as the vanguards of Germanness in the
East, and Franz Kafka practiced Hebrew to get ready for a voyage to Palestine. Long
before declaring itself an immigration country in 2005, such juxtapositions of language
were both inevitable in, and formative of, the states and territories called “Germany” in
the last hundred years.
But Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was voicing a majority viewpoint among
German lawmakers when he opened and shut the question of multilingual identity in the
following way: “What can we expect from foreigners who are living with us
Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1993. 12.
permanently? We can expect that they want to live here with us. They should learn
German and take part in the diversity of civic-societal life. They should not want to live
as if they weren’t here.”
This deictic and spatial unity—this hereness—that organizes the
nation had a new criterion for exclusion or inclusion: demonstrable fidelity to the German
language. As German Studies reforms its canons, and German politics reforms its
naturalization requirements, monolingualism remains a primary and invisible gatekeeper
on what is admissible as “German” culture, literature, and history.
In response to this dilemma, this dissertation inquires into the here-making threshold
between the German language and its intimate linguistic Others in literary texts. Such
writers as Franz Kafka, Primo Levi, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, and Orhan Pamuk transposed
their own multilingual practices of everyday life into spatial figures that critique
territorial monolingualism—the binding association of land with one singular and
exclusive language. In one of the countless passages that Franz Kafka forbade his friend
Max Brod to publish, he wrote:
Writing fails me. Therefore, a plan of self-biographical investigations. Not
biography, but investigation and discovery of the smallest possible constitutive
parts. Out of these, I will build myself, like one whose house is unsteady and wishes
to build a steadier one next to it, when possible out of the material of the old one.
But it is indeed a bad thing if one’s energy gives out during construction and, instead
of having an unsteady yet complete house, has a half-destroyed and a half-
constructed one, i.e. nothing.
Carstens et al. 2006. My emphasis. “Was können wir von Ausländern erwarten, die dauerhaft hier leben?
Wir können erwarten, dass sie mit uns hier leben wollen. Sie sollten Deutsch lernen und am
zivilgesellschaftlichen Leben in seiner Vielfalt teilnehmen. Sie sollten nicht so leben wollen, als wären
sie nicht hier.”
Franz Kafka. Gesammelte Werke VII. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1992. 388. “Das Schreiben versagt
sich mir. Daher Plan der selbstbiographischen Untersuchungen. Nicht Biographie, sondern
Untersuchungen und Auffindung möglichst kleiner Bestandteile. Daraus will ich mich dann aufbauen,
For decades, such lush and troubling illustrations have been interpreted as figures of
identity-(re)construction, writerly anxiety, ethnic marginalization, or aporias with
language as such.
Multilinguality seemed to present a dead-end or implausible detour for
literary close-reading; after all, the text does not appear to contain or perform anything
else but one language. Perhaps because of disciplinary constraints, the unproblematized
monolingualism of literary production, or the specter of intentional fallacy, scholarship
has not seen fit to allow such passages to resonate—indeed tremble—with the lived
experiences and practices of everyday multilinguality.
But what kind of a Haus was Kafka hesitating to rebuild, and how did the prospect of
having more than one linguistic domicile become so frightful? What—among his Czech,
Yiddish, Prague German, Hebrew, Italian, French, and English—was this “material”, this
“smallest constitutive part” out of which he considered rebuilding himself in those
moments when writing withheld itself from him? And out of what kind of disposition or
discipline did he, after all, chronicle this dubious reconstruction in High German alone?
Like many multilingual authors who find themselves in the hegemonic traction of
linguistic domination, Kafka deliberately chooses monolingualism as a kind of critical,
aesthetic medium—as oil painters might restrict themselves to pencil or charcoal to
render a particular kind of figure visible. Instead of understanding their choice to write in
one language only (or one at a time) as a cultural politics of affiliation with a given
speech community, audience, ethnic group, or political program, I suggest reading
monolingual writing by multilingual authors as a kind of critical, ascetic praxis—one that
so wie einer, dessen Haus unsicher ist, daneben ein sicheres aufbauen will, womöglich aus Material des
alten. Schlimm ist es allerdings, wenn mitten im Bau seine Kraft aufhört und er statt eines zwar
unsichern aber doch vollständigen Hauses, ein halb zerstörtes und ein halbfertiges hat, also nichts.”
Hans Reiss. “Kafka on the Writer’s Task.” The Modern Language Review 66.1 (1971): 113–124.
makes a unique and potent range of figural articulations possible. Fueled by the friction
between constraint and transgression, by the rigorous or playful observation of how
modernity segregates languages from one another into distinct social and functional
spaces, these writers rouse the kind of self-reflexive philosophical fictions that literary
code-switching would not be able to effect.
My main wager is that the literary texts I analyze in these five chapters share the
project of rehistoricizing, even provincializing, the monolingual ideology of which they
are a reproduction. These authors manipulate the dominant, narrative language of the text
into spatial and deictic figures—creating oddly menacing thresholds, alluring other
rooms, troubling ruptures between “here” and “there,” buildings with two doors, and
unreachable, distant surfaces upon which “other” language is sequestered. Often the texts
themselves stagger laterally at the level of the syntagm, sentence, or chapter, resulting in
“many low structures standing tightly together”—which was one way Kafka described
the recalcitrant narrative object of his last novel The Castle.
By refusing to overlook how
a single-language “law” binds their own literary composition, these texts become
preoccupied with signaling those dispersed, absent, or recalcitrant other sites of language
that they cannot “present” for the reader.
In doing so, they direct literary historical attention to a web of unpublished and
unwritten hypotexts—oral narratives trafficked and cited in multiple languages, whether
Turkish, Yiddish, Czech, Italian, English, or creoles thereof in between—that have
nourished the field of German Studies. Whether between Yiddish and German in Kafka,
Franz Kafka. The Castle: A New Translation, Based on the Restored Text. Trans. Mark Harman. New
York: Schocken Books, 1998. 8.
between concentration camp pidgin-creoles and national languages in Levi, or between
the German and Turkish of Özdamar and Pamuk, one senses the uncanny textures of a
tense boundary between a present, textual monolingualism and an absent, worldly
In grasping literary monolingualism not as a natural state of things, but as a kind of
“discourse with a side-long glance at someone else’s hostile word,”
these authors’ texts
turn upon themselves, straining against “the bias of the artifact” endemic to national
They endeavor to perform—not describe—the multilingual world, a matrix of
thought and feeling from which their writing is nonetheless formally alienated.
In selecting this set of philosophical fictions about monolingualism in the German
twentieth century, I hope to highlight new lines of kinship between their disparate
contexts, while allowing the texts to wander from the ethno-national designations that
still condition how they are interpreted. To cite the inspiring agnosticism that fuels Wai-
Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents, a constellation of philologically unrelated
echo one another from far off, force us to go back and periodize all over again. It is
an unfinished business, messing up any paradigm that assumes its data to be
complete. We don't know where any particular genre might spiral out, what
offshoots might spin off from it. We don't know how much time it will take, or how
much space it will string together.
Medvedev, Pavel N., Valentin N. Volosinov, Pam Morriss, and Michail M. Bachtin. The Bakhtin Reader.
London [u.a.]: Arnold, 1995. 108.
Gary Saul Morson. “Sideshadowing and Tempics.” New Literary History. 29.4 (1998): 599–624. 595.
Wai-Chee Dimock. Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 2006. 78.
Yet these works I consider are also united by the scholarly oddity that, among the
voluminous secondary literature dedicated to each of their literary worlds, multilingual
concerns have played only an ancillary and text-external role—whether in Kafka Studies,
Holocaust Studies, or Turkish German Studies, where “language” has tended to be writ
large and in the singular.
Each of the forthcoming chapters opens with an endeavor to
point out the monolingual leanings of the respective corpora of secondary literature.
Then, through stylistic and figural analysis, I attempt to “repatriate” these texts into the
multilingual context of their production. In Pieter Judson’s words, such interventions aim
to “eschew the aura of exceptionalism—and even exoticism—often attached to terms
such as ‘bilingualism’… and insist instead on the normalcy of the behaviors that [such]
Beyond a difficult intimacy with the German language, Pamuk, Özdamar, Levi, and
Kafka share an impulse to perform, and to lay bare, the effects of monolingualism, to
render it visible for critique. At the risk of terminological excess, their writing is
henolingual—as derived from Max Müller’s concept of henotheism as a “devotion to a
single God while accepting the existence of other gods.”
Imminent with signs born by
another language, they nonetheless refrain from introducing those signs explicitly. As the
constructivist painter Alexander Rodchenko put it, the medium of the monochrome “is
the reminder of the culture we have not been able to create.”
The authors and texts
Important exceptions in each case are discussed in the chapters that follow.
Pieter Judson. Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006. 6.
Max Müller. “On Henotheism, Polytheism, Monotheism, and Atheism.” The Contemporary Review 33
(1878): 707–734. 707.
David Batchelor. “In Bed with the Monochrome.” From an Aesthetic Point of View. Ed. Peter Osborne.
London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000. 153.
considered in what follows offer a similarly stirring reminder—of the still latent
possibility of writing a world that deals, thinks, and feels outside of monolingualism.
Now that the time presses urgently
And the tasks are finished
To all of you the modest wish
That the autumn be long and mild.
I am so grateful for the support and forbearance of those who have already read parts of
this dissertation, and for the interest of those who may do so in the future. I thank my
(scores of) foreign language teachers throughout the years—all the way back to my
brother Bob and my aunt Genevieve, who helped me to enjoy the sounds and syllables of
Spanish for the first time. While writing this dissertation, I have been buoyed up by the
patient curiosity and friendship of my grandmother Louise, my sister-in-law Lindy, my
nephew Fin and niece Cailin. Of course, my mom Kathy and my partner Russell have felt
all the crests and troughs along with me, and I am blessed to be able to call them my
For their warm encouragement, I am indebted to the professors and staff of the
Department of German at UC Berkeley. Claire Kramsch has inspired me, at every step, to
become a keener observer of language and language learning, and her mentorship
continues to be one of the great surprises of my life. Deniz Göktürk has introduced me to
so many bold and subtle ways to think in a cross-disciplinary way about the dilemmas of
studying national literatures in the twenty-first century, and I am honored to have her as
my colleague and committee chair. Anton Kaes has shared with me the joy of taking on
fresh and daunting research projects and the thrill of collaboration along the way. From
the start, these three teachers and friends nourished my excitement about life-long
I have also been greatly enlivened by other teachers who I have met at important
moments: Minoo Moallem, Nikolaus Euba, Ayla Algar, Roman Graf, Heike Fahrenberg,
Susan Roney-O’Brien, Bill Hanks, Sarah Louise Richardson, Sarah Schulman, Liz
Crockett, Elena Taylor-Garcia, Jennifer Santos, Chantelle Warner, Alicia Bessette, Julie
Koser, Mehtap Söyler, Justine Holmes, Graziano Paolicelli, Dorian Merina, Christopher
Moes, Corey Datz-Greenberg, Vassil Vassilev, Noah Miller, Yael Rivera, Ursel
Brückner, and all my friends and family on Clarke Street.
For their generous and thoughtful feedback on this project I want to thank Kristin
Dickinson, Robin Ellis, Emily Banwell, Kurt Beals, Christina Gerhardt, Jeroen Dewulf,
Emina Musanovic, W. Dan Wilson, Donald Backman, Elaine Tennant, Mike Huffmaster,
Priscilla Layne, Karen Feldman, David Divita, Niklaus Largier, the Berkeley Language
Center, and the participants of the graduate colloquium in Cultural Studies at the
Humboldt University in Berlin. And of course I am grateful to the writers and artists
discussed in this dissertation, who have unearthed vivid illustrations of how mono- and
multilingualism collide with one another in the making of literature. It is in the spirit of
their work—of partaking in particular discursive constraints while simultaneously
critiquing them—that this dissertation refrains from switching back and forth between
languages midstream. Original passages in German, Turkish, Italian, and French will
appear in footnotes.
I also continue to be enriched by the people I lost while this study was in preparation:
Bob Skinner, Ryan Curtis, Eva Cormier, Viki Scott, Claire Gramling, and my father, Paul
—Oakland, August 2008
Introduction: The New Cosmopolitan Monolingualism
Prelude in the Schoolyard: Berlin’s Herbert Hoover High School
No institution without a space of legitimation.
It was standing room only. The international press corps—from the Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung to Al Jazeera—turned to face the front of the room, where the
teenage spokespersons were taking their seats. An immigration activist in the crowd
called out to Student Body President Asad Suleman, pressing him to describe what it felt
like to be a victim. Amicably poised, the 16-year-old answered back: “I don’t understand
the question. Could you please be more precise?”
The room broke out in laughter.
Ninety percent of the students at this school grew up speaking multiple languages—
switching midsentence and midexperience from Urdu, Polish, or Turkish into German,
and back, as a matter of course. In early 2005, the school administration at Herbert
Hoover made a splashy debut in national immigration politics by implementing a
German-only language policy on its campus. The policy’s jurisdiction extended beyond
the classroom—into lunchtime, recess, class-trips, and all interactions on school grounds.
Over the next nine months, as monolingual policy and multilingual habitus collided
with one another, the school became a high-profile mirror-space of the twenty-first
century German nation.
Advocates of cultural integration and scholastic achievement for
“youth with migration backgrounds” quickly elevated Class President Suleman to an
René Lourau. L’analyseur Lip. Paris: Union générale d’éditions, 1974. 141.
Jörg Lau. “Selbstachtung und Selbstverbesserung: Der Patriotismus der Berliner Republik.” Merkur:
Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken 9 Sept. 2006. “Ich verstehe die Frage nicht. Können Sie
bitte präzisieren?” Unless otherwise specified, English translations are my own.
Ingrid Gogolin. Der monolinguale Habitus der multilingualen Schule. Münster: Waxmann, 1994.
almost oracular status as a maverick defender of the German-only [Deutsch-Pflicht]
policy. In a measured tone that nonplussed feuilletonists of all political persuasions, the
teenager enumerated the practical benefits of the monolingualist policy: “Our German
has improved in the last year, and aggressions are subsiding now that everyone has
started to try to understand each other in one language.”
But Suleman’s schoolyard realpolitik inflamed the Turkish daily newspaper Hürriyet
[Freedom], whose editors dubbed the school “an institute for forced Germanization.”
Seconding Hürriyet’s vivid condemnation was the prominent Berlin Green Party
legislator Özcan Mutlu, who rebuked the Hoover language compact as just one more in a
series of hegemonic impertinences sprouting up in a global city that, by now, should
know better. Mutlu took stock of the affair as follows:
Given the recent ‘conscience test’ targeting Muslims—as well as the general desire
to sharpen immigration regulations—it is no coincidence that there is now a
prohibition against speaking one’s mother tongue at school in the province of
Mutlu’s inductive gesture—of projecting the school’s strategic monolingualism upon
Berlin as a whole and, by easy extension, the Federal Republic itself—indicates the
Lau 2006a. “Unser Deutsch hat sich im letzten Jahr verbessert, und auch die Aggressionen gehen zurück,
seitdem sich alle in einer Sprache zu verständigen versuchen.”
Class President Suleman is of Pakistani descent, and some conjectured that his advocacy for German as
the school’s lingua franca arose out of experiences of social exclusion among the Turkish-speaking
plurality of the school. Lau 2006a.
Lau 2006a. “Es ist kein Zufall, dass es nach dem gegen Muslime gerichteten Gewissenstest und dem
Wunsch, das Zuwanderungsrecht zu verschärfen, jetzt im Bundesland Berlin ein Verbot gibt, in der
Schule die Muttersprache zu sprechen.”
Hoover debate’s underlying structure of feeling, a political mood in the Berlin Republic
that, for some, adds up to a “new German patriotism.”
One year after Germany had passed its first ever Immigration Law and declared itself
an immigration country, language(s) began to mean in a new and politically binding
Whichever of the scores of languages one spoke in Berlin’s Wedding district, they
were to be left at the threshold of the school or other public institution, where German
would serve as a pan-ethnic lingua franca. Herbert Hoover’s German-only plan thus
became a political test case, not for the wholesale suppression, but rather for the spatial
partitioning of lived languages in a self-professed cosmopolitan society. Though classes
and conversations went on as regularly scheduled, the school had become an emblematic
space for surveiling national immigration policy at work—a “crisis heterotopia” where
law, language choice, and nationhood would converge at lockers, bicycle racks, and
Sharing Space: Monolingualism and Multilingualism Superimposed
Having grown up negotiating with both a state-sanctioned, territorial language and one or
more “minor” heritage languages, the students at Herbert Hoover are the heirs to a
Lau 2006b. On structures of feeling, Raymond Williams wrote: “It is that we are concerned with
meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and […] characteristic elements of impulse,
restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling
against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in
a living and inter-relating continuity.” Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1977. 132.
Deniz Göktürk, David Gramling, and Anton Kaes. Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration 1955–
2005. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 173–193.
Michel Foucault. “Des Espace Autres.” Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. [Paris] Oct. 1984.
longstanding tradition of adverse multilingualism in German-speaking lands.
millions of multiple-language users far less renown than Franz Kafka, Primo Levi, Karl
Kraus, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Elias Canetti, Feridun Zaimoglu, and Orhan Pamuk,
speaking (or not speaking) German is an act for which the concepts “choice” or
“obligation” offer little insight. Unlike voluntary polyglots who have studied foreign
languages in educational settings, acute clashes with language hegemony are—for the
speaker of Turkish in post-War Berlin or Yiddish in Imperial Prague—everyday features
of social life.
But at Herbert Hoover, it seemed that the students were among the least concerned
about the arrival of performative monolingualism to campus.
Commissioner for Integration Maria Böhmer stopped by to interview the affected
students about the pledge they had been asked to take, the young people passed over the
piquant topicality of the international press battle, calling her attention instead to other
institutional needs: reducing class sizes to 25 students, increasing the minimum
application quota for foreign-born teachers, providing extra help and tutoring in German,
guaranteeing post-secondary traineeships for graduating students, and facilitating
students’ advancement to college-preparatory courses at Gymnasium.
None of these
concerns had played a decisive role in the press debate, because they did not squarely
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
Here, I have chosen the term “performative monolingualism” to highlight the formalistic political
spectacle of this language pledge, for which students and their parents were asked to sign “oaths.”
Aleksei Yurchak. Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2005. 19–21.
Ali Varlı. “Dil yasagı i¸lemiyor.” Hürriyet [Istanbul] 22 Jan. 2007.
condone or contest the idea that multilingual students should only speak German when at
Many concluded that the Hoover monolingual contract amounted to little more than
window-dressing. A group of Turkish-speaking students assured the Hürriyet newspaper:
“There has been this decision to prohibit other languages at school. But it is not enforced.
In the schoolyard and in other places we still speak Turkish among ourselves. In fact, we
often even speak Turkish in class. The prohibition doesn’t work.”
Consider also the
dauntless voluntarism with which Herbert Hoover Class Vice-President Halime Nurin
dismissed the charges of linguistic hegemony leveled against her school: “We weren’t
forced. We wanted to speak German anyway. And there is no punishment if we switch
over into our mother tongues once in a while.”
Here, Nurin champions the spirit of the
German-only pledge, on the basis that it does nothing more than coincide with her own
preferred linguistic routines. In the same breath, however, she asserts her and her friends’
ultimate autonomy from the policy.
Pledged to unitary language on paper but committed to violating it, Nurin stands in a
long line of code-switchers who traffic openly in the midst of monolingual power. In this
vein, it might make sense to think of monolingualism not as multilingualism’s opposing
principle—as the absence of plural, copresent codes—but as the institutional power to
misrecognize certain codes in its midst. Such may be the productive paradox of
monolingual ideology: that it arises in full knowledge that it will be breached over and
Varlı 2007. “Okulda böyle bir yasak kararı var. Fakat bu uygulanmıyor. Okulun bahçesinde ve diger
yerlerde biz kendi aramızda yine de Türkçe konu¸uyoruz. Hatta bazen sınıfta bile Türkçe
konu¸tugumuz oluyor. Yasak i¸lemiyor.” The students interviewed were Ay¸egül Albayrak, Cansu
Ba¸aran and Tugba Duman.
Lau 2006a. “ Wir wurden nicht gezwungen. Wir wollen selber gerne Deutsch sprechen. Es gibt auch
keine Strafen, wenn wir doch einmal in unsere Muttersprachen überwechseln.”
over again. With Sisyphean zeal, monolingualism is a structure that restricts the terms of
official exchange in a given space to recognizable meanings based “solely on the basis of
interlocutors’ mutual knowledge of established practices of interpretation.”
In a pathbreaking study, the intercultural pedagogy researcher Ingrid Gogolin has
called this condition “the monolingual habitus of the multilingual school,” highlighting
how this superimposition of single-language and plural-language modes of being is
inscribed spatially. In the conclusion of this introductory chapter, I will extend Gogolin’s
conception to understand a re-emerging political ideology about language use in public
institutions amidst globalization and European integration—a phenomenon I will call
But while these pedagogical and political dilemmas have served as the primary
impetus for this dissertation, its chief concern lies with literature, with the possibility of
bringing the effects and historicity of monolingualism to light through literary prose. In
the chapters that follow, I develop one account of the literary fictions that have arisen to
index such circumstances—of multiple-language intrusions in single-language
jurisdictions. In an age of 90% multilingual high schools and multidirectional mass
migration across the globe, one of the most steadfast and puzzling among monolingual
institutions is that of literary prose itself. The fact that multilingualism is regarded as
iconoclastic, if not eccentric, in literary fiction in an era when it has become omnipresent
in social life is the riddle to which this dissertation is devoted.
Sally McConnell-Giner. “The Sexual (Re)Production of Meaning: A Discourse-Based Theory.”
Manuscript, 387–88. Quoted in Charis Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler. A Feminist Dictionary.
Boston: Pandora Press, 1985. 264.
Leopards in the Temple: Figuring Monolingualism as Spatial Constraint
To cross the linguistic border implies that you
decenter your voice. The border crosser develops
two or more voices.
—Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, “Bilingualism, Biculturalism,
Monolingualism is a spatial strategy; since the 17
century its mode of operation has been
to claim and conserve territory—not through the wholesale exclusion of “other”
languages, but through strategies of selective recognition.
Amid accelerating conquest
and contact beyond the European continent and the waning mandate of Latin, state
monolingualisms arose out of an acute encounter with the centrifugal tendencies of
Far from being the purveyors of a naïve ethnic supremacy, the eighteenth
century’s strategic monolingualists like J. G. Herder knew full well the precarious
excesses and ecological plentitudes of a multilingual world.
Whether in Revolutionary France,
the United States under President Theodore
the Turkish Republic of the 1930s,
the Third Reich’s New Europe,
Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco. “Bilingualism, Biculturalism, and Borders.” English is Broken
Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. Ed. Coco Fusco. New York: The New Press, 1995.
A thoughtful discussion of linguistic recognition in multilingual contexts can be found in Alamin M.
Mazrui. The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1998. 110.
Georg Kremnitz. Mehrsprachigkeit in der Literatur: Wie Autoren ihre Sprachen wählen. Vienna:
Johann Gottfried Herder. Frühe Schriften, 1764–1772. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest Information and
Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia and Jacques Revel. Une politique de la langue: la Révolution
française et les patois. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.
Werner Sollors. Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American
Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Zafer Çelik. Language Engineering and the Formation of a Nation: Turkey between 1932–1938. Ankara:
Middle Eastern Technical University Press, 2003.
Eckard Michels. “Deutsch als Weltsprache? Franz Thierfelder, the Deutsche Akademie in Munich and
the Promotion of the German Language Abroad, 1923–1945.” German History 22.2 (2004): 206–228.
today’s robust rollcall of “immigration countries,” monolingualism has sought to secure
an aura of universal receptivity and complicity from its multiple-language publics, even if
this means sacrificing the dominant language to routine invasion and impurity, as Kafka
imagined in a parable:
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial
pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance,
and it becomes a part of the ceremony.
In Kafka’s spatial story, the ritual in the temple occurs symbiotically with that which, as a
matter of course, enters unauthorized and desecrates it. The creatures that break into the
ceremonial space in the off-hours leave traces of having been there, of what they have
taken with them. Their participation is regular and expected—and yet unratified and
Despite their remote origins, the works of Kafka, Levi, Özdamar, and Pamuk
contribute to a narrative stylistics in which the “other language” is made hauntingly
present through an evoked distance from the “here” of narration—either through spatial,
deictic, or syntactic displacements. The other language is the apophatic, the “elsewhere.”
For Kafka, it is the “other room,” distracting the narrative from completion.
This lateral tendency lends these texts—Kafka’s The Missing Person (1914) and The
Castle (1924), Levi’s If this is a Man (1946) and The Periodic Table (1975), and
Özdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai Has Two Doors I Came in One I Went out The Other
(1992)—their famously odd narrative form. In lieu of a temporal, longitudinal arc from
Franz Kafka. Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II. Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer, 1992. 117. “Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das
wiederholt sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der
introduction to denouement, the literary multilingualism of these texts takes the form of a
spatial arpeggio of false-starts and detours, up and down what Roman Jakobson called
the paradigmatic axis of speech.
Like a speaker beginning a story in one language, then
beginning again in another, and another—these texts move not forward but sideways,
never satisfied with denotative foreclosure and narrative authority in any single language.
I propose to describe this figural relation between languages and space as a lingua-
spatial analectic—a dispersal of heres and theres by which multiple-language social
phenomena can become figurally modeled in monolingual text. Though this concept
derives from the debate among David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja about a
Marxian socio-spatial dialectic,
I chose the term “analectic” to assert that a collection of
multilingual utterances cannot be recuperated into a totality of meaning as expressed in
one language alone, that they defy the reconciliation and transparency that translation
seems to proffer.
This Thomist-informed conception of an “originary affirmation of the
other” values not ultimate synthesis but rather a robust plurality of local meanings. Where
the ideology of monolingualism prizes the unity of consecutive, progressive, and
transcendent speech (Nacheinandersein), multilingual phenomena upset this fiction with
Roman Jakobson. “On Poetic Language.” Adam Jaworski; Nikolas Coupland. Eds. The Discourse
Reader. London: Routledge, 1999.
Edward Soja. “The Socio-Spatial Dialectic.”Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70.2
(1980): 207–225. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. New
York: Pantheon Books 1971. 180.
Mauricio Beuchot. “The Limits of Cultural Relativism: Metaphysics in Latin America.” Cultural
Relativism and Philosophy: North and Latin American Perspectives. Ed. Marcelo Dascal. Leiden: Brill,
1991. 159–176. Immanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne
University Press, 1969. 72. Karl-Otto Apel. Towards a Transcendental Semiotics. Atlantic Highlands:
Humanities Press, 1994. 112.
signals of simultaneity, dispersal, and resistance to dialectical integration
Gary Saul Morson proposed that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky developed ways to resist
the compulsory, forward progression of their own works—to overcome “Lessing’s
curse”—through narrative techniques he calls sideshadowing.”
While Morson seeks to
discover the lateral, spatial fissures of open-endedness in a text, my analysis will focus on
how this simultaneity and possibility manifest in spatial figures that indicate a
multilingual world beyond the pale of the single language on the page, “gazing back” at
the reader. Straining against their monolingual contract with the implied (monolingual)
reader, these texts point to other spaces—beyond the pledge-territory of Deutsch-
Pflicht—where multiple, living codes mix and countenance one another without meta-
formal constraint. The thresholds to which these texts point—like the kitchen door in
Kafka’s parable “Returning Home”—are ominous, tempting lines that create a split in the
space of the narrative: The cramped “here” of the manifest text has, at its margins, the
“elsewhere” of its multilingual hypotext.
It is perhaps for this reason that these texts—Kafka’s The Missing Person and The
Castle, Levi’s The Truce, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai, and Pamuk’s
Snow—were either left unfinished or were declared unfinishable by their own
protagonists. The precondition for “finishing” the book apparently lay beyond the text, in
a language, or mix of languages, to which the text cannot grant admission. In lieu of a
Wilhelm Traugott Krug. System der theoretischen Philosophie, Teil II. Königsberg: August Wilhelm
Unzer, 1830. 53.
Morson 1998, 595.
Gérard Genette. Palimpsests: Reading the Second Degree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude
Doubinsky. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
forward progression, their narratives move laterally, making only incidental headway
towards completing the representational task that they began—whether entering the
Castle or joining the Oklahoma Theater in Kafka, witnessing Birkenau for Levi, or telling
a political story about contemporary Turkish German entanglements for Özdamar and
Pamuk. As a structural principle, this lateral stylistics indexes a refusal to foreclose on
representation in any one language. Marek Nekula, one of the few and foremost
proponents of a multilingual reading of Kafka’s works, describes this stylistic principle of
lateral simultaneity as follows:
He understands his writing as a construction of the Tower of Babel. He didn’t, of
course, conceive his texts as integrally constructed novels, which we know from the
19th century. His texts are horizontally scattered fragments, as is typical for modern
texts (Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge). We also find such fragments
in the Tower of Babel’s sprawling foundation, which is formed by the partially built
Great Wall as mentioned in Kafka’s text The Great Wall of China. Nor does the
castle in Kafka’s text The Castle appear in the unified form of a castle (with a
tower); rather it is scattered throughout buildings in the village.
For Meir Sternberg, this stylistic recourse to language-sideshadowing can even take on an
asyndetonic form at the level of the syntagm, in texts that highlight the
lexical or referential deficiency of the target rather than the source language, as when
the half-Russian heroine of [Rebecca West’s 1966 novel] The Birds Fall Down
mentions the many loving names conferred on oil by the Orthodox Church: “the
holy oil, the oil of gladness, the oil of sanctification, a royal robe, a seal of safety, the
delight of the heart, an eternal joy, the oil of salvation.”
Marek Nekula. “The Divided City: Prague’s Public Space and Franz Kafka’s Readings of Prague.” Eds.
M. Nekula, I. Fleischmann, A. Greule. Franz Kafka im sprachnationalen Kontext seiner Zeit. Sprache
und nationale Identität in öffentlichen Institutionen der böhmischen Länder. Weimar, Köln: Böhlau,
2007, 85-106. 97.
Meir Sternberg. “Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis.” Poetics Today. 2.4 (1981):
Indeed, Stanley Corngold’s keen exploration of rhetorical excess in Kafka’s In the Penal
Colony—a writerly tendency that he calls allotria (other people’s things) and excreta
(waste)—seems ripe for such a multilingual rethinking as well.
Toward a Multilingual Stylistics of Single-Language Textuality
Already in 1981, Meir Sternberg described monolingualism’s uncomfortable kinship with
literature in the following terms:
[The] framing and juxtaposition of differently-encoded speech are […] particularly
common within the fictive worlds created in literature, with their variegated
referential contexts, frequent shifts from milieu to milieu, abundance of dialogue
scenes, and keen interest in the language of reality and the reality of language.
Literary art thus finds itself confronted by a formidable mimetic challenge: how to
represent the reality of polylingual discourse through a communicative medium
which is normally unilingual.
Yet as the monk-narrator Clemens intimated in Thomas Mann’s 1951 novel The Holy
Sinner, it may be contrary to a literary text’s very disposition to recognize its own
linguistic particularity. Literature’s semi-autonomous agnosticism about national
languages, Clemens assures us, better befits the “spirit of narration”:
It is quite uncertain in what language I write, whether Latin, French, German or
Anglo-Saxon, and indeed it is all the same; for say I write Thiudisch, such as the
Germans speak who live in Helvetia, then tomorrow British stands on the paper and
it is a Breton book I have written. By no means do I assert that I possess all the
tongues; but they run all together in my writing and become one-in other words,
language. For the thing is so, that the spirit of narration is free to the point of
abstraction, whose medium is language in and for itself, language itself, which sets
itself as absolute and does not greatly care about idioms and national linguistic gods.
Sternberg 1981, 222.
That indeed would be polytheistic and pagan. God is spirit, and above languages is
Though it is nearly impossible not to cheer on the hubris of this man of the cloth as he
dresses down the gods of linguistic nationalism, it is precisely his stance toward
literariness that still leaves contemporary literary theory at a loss for concepts when
multilingualism is at hand. Put in a baldly paradoxical way, under what conditions and
with what effects is the text’s own national language to be considered a text-internal
To attempt an answer, I propose the following non-literary scene: Consider a group of
teenagers code-switching a bit too loudly between German and Turkish on a local bus in
Upper Franconia—an intimate yet public space where a healthy measure of intralingual,
dialectal heteroglossia is already at play among speakers of Berlinish, Oberfränkish,
Swiss German, Bavarian, and High German. What conceptual vocabulary is available for
describing what the German Turkish code-switchers effect in this symbolic setting? For
whom does their speech (regardless of its content or bearing) represent an initiation, a
threshold, or a repudiation? Just a first-order “bus” before—universal, holistic, and
translatable—it now becomes a double-space, an Autobus-otobüs, cathected by the
political histories that this language contact signals. In such settings, multilinguals render
Thomas Mann. The Holy Sinner. Trans. Helen T. Lowe-Porter. Berkeley: University of California Press,
1992. 10. Cited in Sternberg 1981, 3. “Es ist ganz ungewiss, in welcher Sprache ich schreibe, ob
lateinisch, franzäsisch, deutsch oder angelsächsisch, und es ist auch das gleiche, denn schreibe ich etwa
auf thiudisch, wie die Helvetien bewohnenden Alamannen reden, so steht morgen Britisch auf dem
Papier, und es ist ein britunsches Buch, das ich geschrieben habe. Keineswegs behaupte ich, dass ich
die Sprachen alle beherrsche, aber sie rinnen mir ineinander in meinem Schreiben und werden eins,
nämlich Sprache. Denn so verhält es sich, dass der Geist der Erzählung ein bis zur Abstraktheit
ungebundener Geist ist, dessen Mittel die Sprache an sich und als solche, die Sprache selbst ist, welche
sich als absolut setzt und nicht viel nach Idiomen und sprachlichen Landesgöttern fragt. Das ware ja
auch polytheistisch und heidnisch. Gott ist Geist, und über den Sprachen ist die Sprache.”
audible a prism of “condensed historicities”
—of the means by which languages have
been nationalized, standardized, territorialized, and excluded over time. Mann’s monk
Clemens would be surprised, from his 12
century point of view, to observe how
intricately language juxtapositions matter in a world often called “post-national.”
Of course, we have already touched on the fact that literature—perhaps by its very
disposition—cannot relate to everyday multilingualism in a mimetic way. The texts
considered in this dissertation converge on the relationship between the multilingualism
of the world and the language of literature will be one of complex and circuitous
emulation—a mode that is more cubist than impressionist, and certainly more
impressionist than realist. Nonetheless, these authors develop figural models of what it is
“like” to be interpellated in a language one does not understand, or does not understand
well. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of such moments as
disinterpellations—in which a given speaker or sign, by the nature of the semiotic code it
uses, excludes or refuses to hail another present listener. Intruding on the conventions and
ceremonies of the single-language social contract, foreign speech tends to exclude,
threaten, please, bypass, silence, enfranchise, confound, embarrass, initiate, and/or
exhilarate the various addressees or bystanders in its midst, redistributing social roles and
conduits of exchange. Suspending the fiction of “linguistic communism”
abstract and universally accessible langue—multilingual situations can conjure out of the
simplest daily events a prism of multiple, simultaneous, and often irreconcilable sub-
Judith Butler. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. 3.
Jürgen Habermas. Die postnationale Konstellation: politische Essays. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,
Pierre Bourdieu. Language and Symbolic Power. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. 43.
events, private exchanges, backchannels, and barriers. This phenomenological domain
nourishes the literary prose to which this dissertation turns.
The texts of Kafka, Pamuk, Özdamar, and Levi register how any given utterance may
be a simultaneous act of initiation and dis-initation along the multilingual fulcrum. Each
speech act can reorganize participation in a way that is autonomatic and irrevocable—
sometimes comical, sometimes terrifying. Hollywood vividly brought this spectrum of
multilingual effects to the screen with the feature films Babel (Dir. Alejandro González
Iñárritu) and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of
Kazakhstan (Dir. Larry Charles) in 2006. Released almost simultaneously, these two
films could not have offered a more polarized view on the pleasures and adversities of
multilingual positionality; where Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen impersonated a strident and
voluble appropriator of “other people’s languages” with dexterous disregard for
intercultural competence, Babel’s cast of characters encountered only the bleak apoplexy
of being unable to make oneself understood in an urgent situation. In that multilingual
speech tends to affect differently invested participants against their will, it is no surprise
that Quintilian described the use of foreign words in his Manual of Rhetoric [De
institutione oratoria] as barbarolexis—the barbaric word.
Yet where language contact and language mixing had, for millennia, been an occasion
for tribal, ethnic, and local strife, modern statecraft upgraded this strife—to cite Kafka’s
illustration above—to the status of ceremony. Such may be the volatile political promise
of multilinguality, as territorialized languages struggle to maintain their hold in an era of
K. Alfons Knauth. “Literary Multilingualism I: General Outlines and Western World.” Encyclopedia of
Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Oxford: UNESCO Eolss Publishers, 2007.
global traffic in meaning.
Since the uneven implantation of a “one-language, one-
nation” principle over the course of Western Europe’s nineteenth century, the presence of
an “other language” in monolingual space has acquired the jarring capacity to upset the
rules of legitimate social participation.
That forms of Renaissance genre play and
macaronic verse persist through the early modern
period dramatizes the sense of the joy, the lively
pride in translative skill, and the sheer abundance
of expressive modes available to the upright
person in a still multilingual world… How did the
West move so quickly, it now seems, from the
dominant model of expressive abundance to the
modern model of the national language as sole
true source of being and expression?
—Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Munson, The Bilingual Text
Like secularism, monolingualism is a young invention—in the guise of a state of nature.
Elite medieval and early modern reading publics had been reasonably expected to
navigate among a common set of erudite textual languages. In a pre-modern Europe
where orthography and grammatology were scholastic practices only and not yet
strategies of nationalization, it was not possible to talk of native speakers in
contradistinction to non-native speakers.
The post-Enlightenment norm of writing in
one supra-local language to the exclusion of others was an outgrowth of mass literacy
Mary Louise Pratt. ”The Traffic in Meaning: Translation, Contagion, Infiltration.” Profession 2002.2
Even in Europe’s traditionally multilingual states like Switzerland and Spain, a principle of territorial
accommodation for each discrete language is maintained. Helder De Schutter. “The Linguistic
Territoriality Principle—A Critique.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25.2 (2008): 105–120.
Jan Walsh Hokenson and Marcella Munson. The Bilingual Text: History and Theory of Literary Self-
Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome Press, 2007. 137.
By “grammatology” I mean the science of analyzing writing, theorized in Ignace Gelb. A Study of
Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952.
initiatives, as standard national vernaculars eclipsed Latin. Prior to the 18
episteme of monolingual mastery, continental textual culture (both oral and written) had
generally been made and trafficked among jacks-of-all-languages—whether monks,
scholars, royals, or scribes.
It is thus a great deal more than theoreticist revisionism to claim that monolingualism
was one of the pivotal inventions of the late 18
century. As in Foucault’s account of the
rise of sexuality as an episteme, a late 18
century incitement to scientific discourse about
“languages” arose between 1710 and 1810, in the wake of widely circulated travelogues,
ethnographies, trade narratives, pilgrimage testimonies, and accelerated cultural
commerce with New Worlds to the East, South, and West.
This discourse about the
allolingual, the linguistic Other, provided groundwork for fostering standard vernaculars
According to this rough historical pattern, statutory monolingualism became a
founding feature of state-space in Western Europe.
Through language, the state-space
was increasingly made to act, in Gadamer’s terms, as a “virtuality” of hereness
semblance of spatial isomorphism across what had heretofore been a non-unifiable
territory. The monolingualized state territory “appear[ed] homogenous, the same
throughout, organized according to a rationality of the identical and the repetitive that
Michel Foucault. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
The exceptional case of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will be discussed in Chapter One.
Hans-Georg Gadamer. “Phänomenologie, Hermeneutik, Metaphysik.” Gesammelte Werke 10. Tübingen:
Mohr, 1995. 105.
allows the state to introduce its presence, control, and surveillance in the most isolated
Modernity’s Implied Monolingual
In making the claim that monolingualism is a post-Enlightenment order of discourse, care
must be taken to not misconceive medieval Europe as a panlingual utopia, unfettered by
durable and violent language hierarchies. Though it is true that the standardization of
domestic languages (amid the pluralization of linguistic foreignness in the domestic
geographic imagination) was an unprecedented shift in the 18
violence and persecution based on language use is documented over the course of the 14
centuries throughout West, South, and Central Europe. It is also certain that
monolinguality—understood as single-language use (in contradistinction to
monolingualism as the effect of exclusive single-language ideology)—indeed roughly
characterized the livelihoods of a plurality of Europe’s non-nomadic peasantry. Yet for
any of Europe’s readers and writers—for whom traffic with the non-local was a
necessary routine—monolinguality was hardly possible.
Amid the ascendancy of standard national vernaculars it became possible—and then
orthodox—for literary texts to assume a monolingual compact with an implied reader
within the national vernacular. To invoke Anthony Giddens, the implied reader was de-
skilled from a polyliterate into a monoliterate, as national literacy campaigns found great
success among new actual readers.
The impact of this text-internal transformation of the
Henri Lefebvre. La pensée marxiste et la ville. Tournai: Casterman, 1978. 259–324.
Anthony Giddens. The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Wolfgang Iser. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to
Beckett. Trans. David Henry Wilson. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
implied reader comes into clearer focus when we consider how Rabelais’ fifteenth-
century heroes had once addressed their demoiselles in 13 languages. As Bakhtin notes,
“The Renaissance is the only period in the history of European literature that marked the
end of a dual language [vernacular and ecclesiastical system] and a linguistic
transformation. Much of what was possible at that exceptional time later became
Before the mid-19
century, critics from Molière to Genthe had relegated “language
mixing” to the realm of comedic affectation. On the post-Renaissance national stage,
multiple-language-use became the ideal literary vehicle for indexing folly. Tragedy, in
particular, would avoid Quintilian’s device of barbarolexia, the mixing of languages, at
all costs. Meanwhile, multilinguality-as-comedy found theoretical explanation in
F. W. Genthe’s 1836 The Mixing of Languages and the Ridiculousness of the Same,
which collapsed the Quintilianic barbarolexis with the renaissance genres of comic
By the time Goethe was in pursuit of a “world literature” in 1830, the question of
mixed and mixing languages was all but swept off the philological table. Supernational
literary exchange by way of “world literature” would proceed through a cosmopolitan
commerce in ideas and figures, mediated by translation from one national
monolingualism to another, often by way of the hypercentral language of international
Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1994. 465.
Knauth 2007. Hokenson 2007, 17–78. J. W. Genthe. “Vermischung der Sprachen und das Lächerliche
derselben.” Geschichte der macaronischen Poesie. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970. 7.
Abram de Swaan. Words of the World: The Global Language System. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001.
Modernism versus Monolingualism in Literature
Notwithstanding the panlingual experimentalism of Joyce, Schnitzler, and Pound,
twentieth-century European literature remains an awkward bottleneck for the historical
cohabitation between single-language text and multiple-language world-space. Since
most national philologies were conditioned upon a monolingual “language pledge” over
the course of the 19
century, their canonical texts have been hard pressed to index
linguistic “contact zones.”
Even (and sometimes especially) the literary texts of
multilingual migrants become unwilling conscripts in single-language dominance.
as migration and cyber-traffic continue to render languages mobile and plural in a broad
repertoire of transnational permutations, literature’s contract with monolingualism cannot
but fray at its edges.
This is, therefore, a dissertation for a literary audience, for whom monolingualism
plays a delicate historical and epistemological role. Using an overarching framework of
spatial relations, I claim that multilingualism is not the mere plurality of languages within
one realm, situation, or institution, but rather that modern multilingualism is in an acute
and manifest struggle with monolingualism at the site of the individual speaker, a
struggle that expresses itself literarily in critical de-centerings of the self, figurations of
distance, absence, and ominous, tempting thresholds. This focus on the strife between
mono- and multilingualism in literary writing does not seek to distract from neighboring
James Joyce. Finnegans Wake. New York: Viking Press, 1939. Arthur Schnitzler. Fräulein Else. Berlin:
Zsolnay, 1924. Ezra Pound. The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1970. On
modernist literary panlingualism, see also Knauth 2007.
Mary Louise Pratt. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 1991.91 (1991): 33-40.
Tom Cheesman. Novels of Turkish German Settlement: Cosmopolite Fictions. Rochester: Camden
interpretations, such as Doris Sommer’s ludic readings of Chicana/o lyricism in Bilingual
Aesthetics or Steven Kellman’s praise for polyglot writers in The Translingual
My readings in the following chapters seek to interweave with those
approaches, while calling attention to the discursive power of monolingualism.
Space-Deixis and Multilingual Narrative
We will remember how Halime Nurin, the class vice-president at the Herbert Hoover
school, narrated her own experience of the German-only language compact: “We weren’t
forced. We wanted to speak German anyway. And there is no punishment if we switch
over into our mother languages once in a while.”
With the word überwechseln [switch
over] she cites from the metaphorical lexicon that makes translingual practices thinkable,
that lends them their social scaffolding. Non-literary accounts of this kind partake in the
rudiments of a multilingual literary stylistics.
But how can the effects of this mixing and mutual estrangement, of being
(dis)interpellated in a language one does not understand, be indexed or reenacted in a
single-language literary text?
Perhaps more difficult still is the possibility of
representing partial and uneven proficiencies: one person’s capacity to understand but not
to speak another’s language, or vice versa. Is the literariness of literary language capable
of implanting these global dilemmas into the “ceremonial” space of monolingual text?
Steven G. Kellman. The Translingual Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Doris
Sommer. Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Lau 2006a. “Wir wurden nicht gezwungen. Wir wollen selber gerne Deutsch sprechen. Es gibt auch
keine Strafen, wenn wir doch einmal in unsere Muttersprachen überwechseln.”
Louis Althusser. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly
Review Press, 1971.
Klaus Mann’s account of the act of self-translation in Today and Tomorrow (1969) offers
a vivid counterpoint to Nurin’s bootstrapping sovereignty:
I was often at the point of hating my “alter ego,” my Americanized “I” with
my entire soul. Why did that guy use so many expressions and constructions
for which there was simply no corresponding usage in “my” language—in
German, that is? Even the simplest English words made me rack my brain. I
knew what my doppelgänger over there in New York had wanted to express
when he wrote down words like “challenge,” “relaxation,” or “frustrated.”
But it was precisely this all-too-exact knowledge that made it difficult for me
to decide on a more or less corresponding German word. For “a challenge”
is not quite the same as a “Herausforderung,” the German “Entspannung”
doesn’t quite correspond to the Anglo-Saxon “relaxation.” And more than a
few torturous quarter-hours can be spent ruminating about whether “a
disappointed Person” is an “enttäuschte” or an “unbefriedigte” person. Is a
job an “Aufgabe,” a “Pflicht”, a “Stellung”? Whatever the case, translating
“job” was certainly also “a challenge,” and one could certainly not speak of
Where Nurin holds firm with a unified speaking “I” in her (oral) account, Mann stylizes
his narrative spatially and with a split first-person. There is a proximal I and a distal
I. The origo of narrative is partitioned between the translator and the translated, between
Klaus Mann, Heute und Morgen. Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1969. 291. “Oft war ich
nahe daran, mein “alter ego”, mein amerikanisiertes Ich aus ganzer Seele zu hassen. Warum benutzte
der Bursche so viele Ausdrücke und Konstruktionen, für die es in “meiner” Sprache—im Deutschen
nämlich—die entsprechende Wendung nun einmal nicht gibt? Selbst die einfachsten englischen
Vokabeln verursachten mir Kopfzerbrechen. Freilich, ich wusste wohl, was mein Doppelgänger dort
drüben in New York hatte ausdrücken wollen, wenn er Worte wie “a challenge,” ” relaxation,”
“frustrated” niederschrieb; aber gerade dieses allzu genaue Wissen machte es mir schwer, mich für ein
mehr oder minder korrespondierendes deutsches Wort zu entscheiden. “A challenge” ist eben
keineswegs ganz dasselbe wie eine “Herausforderung”, die deutsche “Entspannung” entspricht nicht
unbedingt der angelsächsischen “relaxation”, und nun mag manch quälende Viertelstunde lang darübr
nachsinnen, ob “a frustrated person” eine”enttäuschte “ Person ist oder eine “unbefriedigte”. Ist ein
“job” eine “Aufgabe”, eine “Pflicht”, eine “Stellung”? Nun, der Uebersetzung “job,” mit dem ich es zu
tun hatte, war jedenfalls auch “a challenge.”
the now and then, between the here and there.
“That guy,” Mann’s wayward, other-
languaged doppelgänger in New York, competes for the reins of the utterance; his distal
position “there” flouts the syntactic progression of the text “here” at the moment of its
(re)constitution. The other language performs a menacing admonishment to his
counterpart’s “fluent” progression from word to sentence to paragraph.
Hannah Arendt offers another spatial account of writing cross-lingually:
I write in English, but I have never lost the distance. There is a monstrous
difference between a mother language and another language. In my case, I
can express it in terribly simple terms. In German, I know a pretty significant
portion of German poems by heart. They are always in motion in the back of
my mind. That is certainly something that I could never achieve again. In
German, I allow myself things that I would never allow myself in English.
Arendt describes a relationship of synchronicity and distance—what she calls an
“enormous difference” [ungeheurer Unterschied]—between her multiple codes, which
pre-conditions the use of either one of them. (Though speaking in German, she uses the
English phrase “in the back of my mind” to designate where she envisions the German
poetry of her youth residing.) Despite highly advanced proficiency in the two languages,
her bond to a corpus of poetry in German through the mnemonics of adolescence—a
Karl Bühler. Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Stuttgart: Fischer, 1965.
Verena Jung. ”Writing Germany in Exile: The Bilingual Author as Cultural Mediator: Klaus Mann,
Stefan Heym, Rudolf Arnheim and Hannah Arendt.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural
Development 25.5–6 (2004): 529–46. My emphasis. “Ich schreibe in Englisch, aber ich habe die
Distanz nie verloren. Es ist ein ungeheurer Unterschied zwischen Muttersprache und einer anderen
Sprache. Bei mir kann ich das furchtbar einfach sagen: Im Deutschen kenne ich einen ziemlich großen
Teil deutscher Gedichte auswendig. Die bewegen sich da immer irgendwie im Hinterkopf / in the back
of my mind /; das ist natürlich nie wieder zu erreichen. Im Deutschen erlaube ich mir Dinge, die ich mir
im Englischen nicht erlauben würde.”
practical feat unrepeatable in English—sustains this “distance” between the self and its
resident other within her own linguistic subjectivity.
Like Mann, Arendt’s remarks indicate the altercations that can arise when operating
multilingually, and when giving a multilingual account of oneself. The social convention
of univocality is suspended, and the variously decentered figures of one’s agency in
language split off into re-imagined, affective locations.
Multilingualism or Heteroglossia?
Though French translators of M. M. Bakhtin often render pasnopenne [raznorechie,
heteroglossia] as plurilinguisme,
the difference between Bakhtin’s “many-speeched-
ness” and multilingualism is more than a matter of degree. Though his writings inspired
generations of literary scholars to analyze the multiple-voiced discourse of the novel—its
wild tangle of enunciations and citations from the language of others, its animated
struggles against unitary speech—Bakhtin did not come to specific terms with “language
barriers” and cross-lingual noncomprehension. Though multilingualism and heteroglossia
are necessarily confluent in social life, the concept of heteroglossia does not offer an
account of the uneven and drastic effects of cross-lingual interaction and address.
In Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin proposed that “It is quite possible to
imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that
cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to
speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among
Jacques Bres, Patrick Pierre Haillet, Sylvie Mellet, Henning Nolke, Laurence Rosier. Dialogisme et
Polyphonie: Approches Linguistiques. Brussels: De Boeck-Duculot, 2005.
Thus the potential for a syncretic point of contact and mutual
comprehension among the various consciousnesses underlies even the most richly
heteroglossic novel. Even if they are unable to reproduce the words of others and may
miss important meanings, participants in a heteroglossic situation can continue to uphold
conversational conventions as if such a “point of contact” between consciousnesses were
ultimately achievable. It is thus fitting that where heteroglossia had been for Bakhtin the
defining innovation of the novel, the novel was the defining literary innovation of the
modern national community for Benedict Anderson.
In the end, the kinetic diversity of
(national) voice was always recuperable and imaginable as a syncretic whole.
In contrast to the heteroglossic, multilingual situations have no equivalent unitary
“point of contact” to center them; they are settings in which properly linguistic
comprehension among various participants may be radically diminished. The “event
potential,” of which Bakhtin writes, is split among several overlapping subgroups of
speakers who may not be able to brook the divides between them, even when good faith
presides. Affective and political at once, the social contours of multilingual situations
open new possibilities for literary representation—of embodiment, space, folly, fright,
and pleasure. The allolingual—the speaker/utterance of an other language—holds this
potential to denaturalize a monolingual setting, to perform and highlight a semiotic
partitioning and doubling before one’s very eyes.
Mikhail Bakhtin. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984. 81.
Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
London: Verso, 1991.
I therefore refer to monolingualism as a “meta-formal” constraint, in order to
highlight 1) language choice as a text-internal feature subject to critique, and 2)
adherence to single-language use as a discursive convention or aesthetic choice rather
than a mere natural eventuality or a politics of cultural assimilation. Given the vast
spectrum of figural estrangement, innovation, and rhetorical excess that we regard as the
proper domain of literary writing, it may give us (productive and critical) pause—amid
our epoch’s interest in transnationalism and cultural hybridity—to note the inveterate
orthodoxy of single-language narrative in the literary field. As a meta-formal constraint,
this orthodoxy constitutively excludes what I understand as a “multilingual hypotext”—
the manifest co-presence of multiple, interacting, situated, and yet disparate codes of
language, which routinely fails the muster of publishability. It is this threshold between
monolingual text and multilingual hypotext that these works seek to discover.
Monolingualism in Literature and Linguistics
In the domain of applied linguistics, research interest into phenomena of multiple-
language use in education and society have fueled forums of exchange like The
International Journal of Bilingualism and the series Multilingual Matters. The work of
Aneta Pavlenko and Claire Kramsch in Second Language Acquisition
; John Gumperz
and Ben Rampton in sociolinguistics
; Ingrid Gogolin and Adelheid Hu in intercultural
Claire Kramsch. “The Multilingual Experience: Insights from Language Memoirs.” Transit 1.1 (2005).
“The Multilingual Subject.” Plurilingualität und Identität. Eds. Inez de Florio-Hansen and Adelheid
Hu. Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 2003. 107–124. Aneta Pavlenko. Emotions and Multilingualism.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ben Rampton. Crossing: Language and Ethnicity Among Adolescents. London: Longman, 1995. John
Gumperz, “The Speech Community.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. New York:
Macmillan, 1968. 381–386.
; Kees de Bot in psycholinguistics
; and Alastair Pennycook, Suresh
Canagarajah, Probal Dasgupta, Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan in English as a Second
have laid abundant conceptual groundwork for future exchange between the
humanities and social sciences in the domain of multilingualism.
Given the strong historical and institutional links between multilingualism research
and educational policy, it is not surprising that there has been less sustained attention to
multilingualism in the humanities, and in literary studies in particular, where the biases of
national philology remain at the helm. Enduring contributors to a still nascent discourse
on literary multilingualism have been Gloria Anzaldúa in feminist and Chicana studies
Steven G. Kellman and Doris Sommer in Comparative Literature
; Werner Sollors in
U.S. American literature
; Mary Louise Pratt in literary linguistics
; Leslie A. Adelson
and Tom Cheesman in Turkish German literature
; Deniz Göktürk and Chris Wahl in
; Georg Kremnitz in German literary historiography
; and Emily Apter in
Gogolin 1994. Inez De Florio-Hansen and Adelheid Hu. Plurilingualität und Identität: Zur Selbst- und
Fremdwahrnehmung mehrsprachiger Menschen. Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 2003.
Kees de Bot. “The Multilingual Lexicon: Modeling Selection and Control.” International Journal of
Multilingualism 1.1 (2004):17-32.
Alestair Pennycook. “English as a Language always in Translation.” European Journal of English
Studies 12.2 (2008): 33-47. Suresh Canagarajah. Resisting Linguistic Imperialism in English Teaching.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Probal Dasgupta. “Trafﬁcking in Words: Languages,
Missionaries and Translators.” Translation: Reﬂections, Refractions, Transformations. Eds. Paul St-
Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2005. 42–56. Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan.
“Notes on Translatability in an Uneven World.” Translation Today 2.2 (2005): 12–24.
Gloria Anzaldúa. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1987.
Kellman 2000. Sommer 2004.
Werner Sollors. Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and the Languages of American
Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Pratt 2002. Pratt and Elizabeth Closs Traugott. Linguistics for Students of Literature. New York:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
Leslie A. Adelson. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical
Grammar of Migration. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Cheesman 2007.
Deniz Göktürk. “Turkish Delight–German Fright: Migrant Identities in Transnational Cinema.” Mediated
Identities. Eds. Deniz Derman, Karen Ross and Nevena Dakovic. Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2001.
The work of these researchers signals that inquiry into the
irrevocable multilingualism of “world literature” is slowly gaining traction in literary
scholarship—even if that traction gives rise to such clairvoyant modesty as this, from
What does it mean, studying world literature? How do we do it? I work on West
European narrative between 1790 and 1930, and already feel like a charlatan outside
of Britain or France. World literature? Many people have read more and better than
I have, of course, but still, we are talking of hundreds of languages and literatures
Each of these disciplinary corpora—the literary and the linguistic—appears to take for
granted something that the other cannot. By definition, literary scholarship is engaged
with textual artifacts that are always already restrained in their multilinguality by
contemporary editorial and format criteria, even when the polysemy of the text is at its
most acute. On the other hand, linguistic methods that rely on empirical data-collection,
transcriptions, and oral interviews often transpose their research protocols onto literary
language. In some cases, this leads social science researchers to extract from a literary
text prima facie data about an experience or phenomenon, without coming to terms with
the deliberate stylistic, lyrical, and genre-based literariness that were essential to its
composition. Still, the vast majority of analytical discovery and innovation about
131–149. Chris Wahl. Das Sprechen des Spielfilms: über die Auswirkungen von hörbaren Dialogen auf
Produktion und Rezeption, Ästhetik und Internationalität der siebten Kunst. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher
Verlag Trier, 2005.
Emily Apter. “On Translation in a Global Market.” Public Culture 13.1 (2001): 1–12.
Franco Moretti. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1.1 (2000): 54-68. 55. Pascal
Casanova. La République mondiale des lettres. Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1999.
multilingualism has taken place within an applied linguistics framework that honors the
social primacy of “language contact.”
I hope to draw these two analytical trajectories closer together: 1) an awareness of the
literariness of text (its genres, styles, narrative innovations, and antimimetic language)
and 2) a sustained critique of language-choice dilemmas and language-contact
phenomena, as they contribute to the making of literary texts. This procedure will rely
less on “strategically essentializing“ multilingual authorship, than on recusing the
unstated norm of monolingual authorship.
A Note on Terminology
Since inquiry into multilingualism is taking place in so many scholarly fields and cannot
be properly at home in any one, no standard vocabulary has emerged to cover the
conceptual waterfront. Though researchers from fields ranging from comparative
literature to computer-aided translation offer sound arguments for the use of
“polylingual” over “multilingual,” or “glottopolitics” over “language planning,”
seem to recognize from our various vantage points that the phenomena themselves
require a patient and asymptotic language of critical description. To borrow a distinction
from plant taxonomy, my approach to multiple-language use will be that of a “lumper”
rather than a “splitter,” compromising the incipient technical distinctions in an effort to
highlight a broad problematic for literary research.
In her monograph on emotions and multilingualism, Aneta Pavlenko aises a
terminological question that is worth repeating here:
Respectively, Sternberg 1981, and L. Guespin and J-B. Marcellesi. “Pour la glottopolitique.” Langages
83 (1986): 5–34.
Who is considered a bilingual these days for research purposes? A layperson
definition posits that bilinguals are people who have similar levels of
proficiency in two or more languages, typically learned from birth. In
contrast, scholars in the field of bilingualism favor a use-based definition of
bi- and multilinguals as speakers who use two or more languages or dialects in
their everyday lives—be it simultaneously (in language contact situations) or
consecutively (in the context of immigration). Research shows that these
speakers rarely exhibit equal fluency in all language skills, due to the
complementary principle—that is, the fact that their multiple languages are usually
acquired and used in different contexts, with different people, and for
In acknowledgement of emerging research on third-language acquisition,
upholds a working distinction between bilingualism and multilingualism in her work. I
take a slightly different bearing. Since being multilingual is the experience of being at
social odds with the unmarked norms of monolingual exchange, I use the term
multilingual to designate any (inter- or intrasubjective) practice of negotiation or
exchange across the boundaries of two or more mutually incomprehensible languages.
Socially, such practices can suspend or reorganize standard power-differentials between
participants, like ethnic and socio-economic dominance.
In analyzing literary representations of multilingualism and monolingualism, I
therefore deliberately overlook assessment criteria of “proficiency,” “command,” and
“mastery,” though these terms will be among the battery of tropes and figures that stow
Pavlenko 2005, 6. On the complementary principle, see François Grosjean. “Studying Bilinguals:
Methodological and Conceptual Issues.” Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 1.2 (1998): 131-149.
Nicole Marx and Britta Hufeisen. “A Critical Overview of Research on Third Language Acquisition and
Multilingualism Published in the German Language,” International Journal of Multilingualism 1.1
away in the literary texts I discuss. In contrast to the work of Steven Kellman in The
Translingual Imagination, I abstain from valorizing the link between linguistic
achievement and literary craft for three reasons: 1) My focus is on how multilingual
circumstances and transactions, regardless of their felicity, are entextualized in literature.
2) Philological discourses of non-native proficiency run the risk of underwriting a
national-paternalist stance, as we will see in Chapter One on Franz Kafka and Chapter
Three on Emine Sevgi Özdamar. 3) Conceptual expertise in evaluating foreign language
use is best rendered unto the field of SLAT (Second Language Acquisition and
Indeed, figures of partial or failed cross-lingual exchange will prove more instructive
for my analysis than those of perfection and near-native command. None of the three
multilinguals cited above, for instance—Mann, Arendt, and the 16-year-old Halime
Nurin—describe multiple-language use as an unambiguously advantageous experience,
as an additive facility that opens doors of opportunity. In opposition to such polyglot
ideals, Arendt and Mann attest to a more precarious operation—a differential, interstitial
procedure of meaning-fusions and meaning-fissions—not between languages as such, but
In drawing this distinction, I would like to suggest an analogue to Gayle Rubin’s now
classic account in “The Traffic in Women,” to suggest that language is to
monolingualism as sex is to gender. In Rubin’s heuristic of the sex/gender system, sex is
the natural “raw material” that is transformed into a “domesticated product” of gender.
Were the terminology more forgiving, one could speak of a “language/monolanguage
system” in which monolingualism is the result of a technologization of language in all its
ecological contingencies. As a systematized and strategically generated “field of cultural
reproduction” in the age of modern nation-building, state monolingualism produces and
conserves a universe of belief that is structurally geared to exclude other such universes.
The basic subject of a monolingualism is the individual native speaker.
On Polyglot Experimentation in Literature
One might rightfully suggest that the place to look for a literary stylistics of multiple-
language use would be in experimental prose-ventures like Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein
Else, Christine Brook-Rose’s In Between, or Ingeborg Bachmann’s Simultan, where
code-switching is an omnipresent literary device. Such texts, dynamic domains for
conceptualizing a multilingual stylistics of literature, push beyond the occasional use of a
foreign word or phrase for effect.
Many literary researchers interested in code-switching do prefer to work with texts
that devote rich poetic resources to text-internal multilinguality. Manfred Schmeling, for
instance, holds that “Multilinguality does not refer to authors who speak multiple
languages and yet still shape their concrete texts monolingually.”
His rigorous criteria
Rubin’s sex/gender system has since undergone decades of revision and critique, but may nonetheless
serve here as a valuable heuristic. Gayle Rubin. “The Traffic in Women.” Feminist Anthropology: A
Reader. Ed. Ellen Levin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Claire Kramsch. “The Privilege of the Non-Native Speaker.” PMLA 112.3 (1997): 359-369.
Manfred Schmeling. “Multilingualität und Interkulturalität im Gegenwartsroman.” Literatur und
Vielsprachigkeit. Ed. Monika Schmitz-Emans. Heidelberg: Synchron, 2004, 221–235.
“Mehrsprachigkeit soll sich hier nicht auf Autoren beziehen, die zwar mehrere Sprachen sprechen, aber
den konkreten Text monolingual gestalten.”
notwithstanding, Schmeling’s approach overlooks the meta-formal constraints of
monolingualism, which tends to restrict the differentiation of languages within a given
text to a certain concentric sphere of unitary language. I think of this exclusive preference
for manifest code-switching within the literary text—as the ultimate index for
multilinguality—the presentist approach. In order for the text to be appropriate for
analysis, the text must make its linguistic Other manifest among the signs on the page.
A second mode of multilingual critique—one that focuses on submerged
multilingualism—pursues traces of one language behind or beneath another. In his study
of “Yinglish” literature in the US, Murray Baumgarten suggests that “If these works are
written in English, it is a language with Yiddish lurking behind every Anglo-Saxon
character […] Yiddish, as language and culture, works to make its presence felt in the
character, situation, and narrative voice of the story, as it does in the vocabulary, syntax,
and morphology of the Western language in which it is written.”
expands on this characterization, asserting “not only the literal presence of two
languages, but also the echoes of another language and culture detected in the prose of
the one language of which the text is composed. “
Yoram Ben-David made a similar
overture in describing Kafka’s work as a primer in “how to write Hebrew in German
Murray Baumgarten. City Scriptures. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. 10.
Hana Wirth-Nesher. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call it Sleep.” Prooftexts: A
Journal of Jewish Literary History 10 (1990): 297-312. 298.
David B. Suchoff. “Kafka's Languages: Hebrew and Yiddish in The Trial and Amerika.” Ed. Doris
Sommer. Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations. New York: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2003, 251-
Such are a few of the interpretive modes through which multilinguality is being
brought to the fore in literary studies today. The momentum arising from such analyses—
of code-switching and other manifestly multi-code features—offers a testing ground for
the epistemology of translingual practice. The downside to these approaches is that they
have a very small collection of exceptional text experiments at their disposal—
experiments which reached a public readership either because their author had already
been prolific in monolingual publishing (Bachmann, Schnitzler), or because the prospect
of a multilingual text aroused enough conceptual receptivity to overcome structural
marketing barriers (Brook-Rose).
From Dada to the Spatialists and Anthropophagists, a range of twentieth century
panlingual activists sought to foreground Babelic juxtapositions as a means to critique
social inequities and national chauvinisms. Yet these polyglot experiments lie at the
outskirts, both of literary publishing and of public awareness. To select such polyglot
texts for a literary genealogy of multilingualism would result in a minoritizing
engagement with multilinguality-as-experiment. Furthermore, and paradoxically, texts
composed in multiple languages at once often lack the potency to figurally reenact for the
reader the kind of multilingual social spaces and phenomena discussed above.
Prelude in the Parliament
My mate here can’t speak German anymore, now
that he has a German passport.
—July 2007, kebap stand, Schlesisches Tor, Berlin
Becoming German has never been so acutely a matter of language as it is in the first
decade of the twenty-first century. Watershed citizenship reforms at the end of the 1990s
seemed to indicate Germany’s peripatetic departure from an ethno-national “right of
blood” [ius sanguinis] toward a French-inspired “right of territory” [ius soli].
Yet in the
seven years of the policy’s implementation, a paradigm quite different from territorial
citizenship appears to be taking hold: a ius linguarum, or “right of languages.”
The public use of multiple languages among Germany’s immigrants and post-
immigrants has been a cause for parliamentary brow-furling since the 1970s, but national
immigration politics did not undergo a coherent “linguistic turn” until century’s end.
The sixteen-year Kohl government (1983–1999), with its program of stimulating labor
migrants’ “readiness-to-return” [Rückkehrbereitschaft] to their countries of ancestry, had
funded heritage language-learning programs on the basis that “Everyone has a right to
live in his own homeland.”
When legislative power shifted to the center-left in 1999, a
series of multi-party commissions convened to decide what it would mean for Germany
Personal conversation. “Der Kollege kann kein Deutsch mehr, da er jetzt den deutschen Paß hat.”
Göktürk et al. 2007, 1–20.
See for example Bambi Schieffelin and Rachelle C. Doucet. “’The Real’ Hatian Creole: Ideology,
Metalinguistics and Orthographic Choice.” Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. Eds. B.
Schieffelin, K. Woodard, and P. Kroskrity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 285–316.
Göktürk et al. 2007, 46. My emphasis. Here the focus was on second and third generation children of
guestworkers, who were not eligible for German citizenship at birth.
to “come out” internationally as an immigration country.
Five years later, the multi-
partisan Independent Commission on Migration delivered their findings:
The tendency to seek naturalization is not great among migrants who came
to Germany before the 1973 recruitment ban. Apparently the requirements
for naturalization were unattainable to them. In recognition of the far-
reaching integration efforts of these people, the commission feels a more
generous position on multiple citizenship is appropriate for this group of
people. These immigrants, as well as German society, have neglected the acquisition of the
German language, because they were expected to have a limited period of residency. During
naturalization procedures, the blame for this situation should not be ascribed to these law-
abiding immigrants who have worked hard since their arrival in Germany and who have
raised their children here.
Despite the Commission’s push for magnanimity in the realm of German language
proficiency, a broad legislative alliance arose to reconceptualize German as a pan-ethnic
lingua franca, a syncretic “guiding language” whose ameliorative power might render the
classic multicultural metrics—of parallel societies and cultural relativities—obsolete.
confluence with this shift from “guiding culture” [Leitkultur] to what might be called a
“guiding language” [Leitsprache], the country’s first-ever Immigration Law
[Zuwanderungsgesetz] in 2005 stipulated German language competency as a
probationary condition of legal residence in Germany:
Integration efforts on the part of foreigners will be supported by an offering
of integration courses. Integration courses include instruction in the
language, the legal order, the culture, and the history of Germany.
Göktürk et al. 2007. 1–20.
Göktürk et al. 2007, 184. My emphasis.
During the 1998–2001 “guiding culture” debate [Leitkulturdebatte], the proposal that “German culture”
should be foremost in a multicultural society set off alarm on the political Center-Left. Göktürk et al.
Consequently, foreigners should become accustomed to the living conditions
in federal territory to the extent that they will possess the necessary self-
sufficiency to handle all aspects of everyday life without assistance from a
Quite suddenly, social assistance and visa renewals were made directly dependent on an
immigrant’s enrollment in German language courses. Meanwhile, political defendants of
the immigrant integration curriculum were refashioning German-language proficiency
from a coercive requirement into a civil right. The 235-million-Euro language package
for non-EU nationals was framed as a social welfare provision, meant to redress a
heretofore unjust and ethnicized system of immigrant enfranchisement, according to
which heritage-German resettlers from the Soviet Union had been granted no-cost
integration courses, while Turks and Arabs had none. Through this rhetoric of redress,
speaking German “without the assistance of a third party” was resignified as a social-
justice imperative. Relieved of its dubious countenance as a state directive, it was recast
as a hard-won and costly legislative coup. Fifty years after foreign nationals had been
invited to work in West and East Germany, their descendants were now being invited into
the capital-rich German language. Considering how, for decades, migrant labor
mobilization in West Germany had relied, if passively, on the compromised linguistic
positions of non-German workers in German workplaces, the advent of a federal ius
linguarum in the 2000’s indeed indicated a civic–political sea-change. The old rumblings
of ethnic nationhood—juridically untenable in this New Europe—were being translated
into an orthotics of language.
Göktürk et al. 2007, 191.
When asked to clarify how the various generations of immigrants already living in
Germany, as well as their family members abroad, might best ready themselves for the
federal government’s language initiatives, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble
I’m just beginning to think about that. But we’re seeing that it doesn’t make
sense for children to go into elementary school without knowledge of
German. So they have to learn German before that. Concretely, I have asked
myself: so are you suggesting that we hold language courses in Anatolia?
Indeed, there are such audio-visual possibilities and one can do the test by
telephone. We’re trying that out here at the Interior Ministry as we speak.
In this upbeat, impromptu gloss—redolent of more than a few bureaucratic salvos from
Kafka’s The Castle—Interior Minister Schäuble mixed a procedural experimentalism
with conceptual intransigence vis-à-vis the linguistic turn that his ministry was charged
with overseeing. Though the means toward full civic proficiency in German may require
unprecedented innovation, the goal remained as steady as it was non-specific.
German consulates around the world were instructed to advise visa petitioners that
spouses and children of legal residents could not join their next-of-kin in Germany
without achieving the following level of language competence:
Basic knowledge of the German language is in evidence only when the German
language and its major features are commanded in written and spoken form to the
extent that familiar, quotidian expressions and very simple sentences geared to the
Peter Carstens and Markus Wehner. “Schäuble: ‘Der Islam ist keine Bedrohung für uns’
Bundesinnenminister Wolfgang Schäuble im Interview.” Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung 12
Mar. 2006. “Ich bin noch am Anfang, darüber nachzudenken. Aber wir sehen, dass es keinen Sinn hat,
dass die Kinder ohne Deutschkenntnisse in die Grundschule kommen. Also müssen sie vorher Deutsch
lernen. Und in dem konkreten Fall habe ich gleich gefragt: Wie wollt ihr denn Sprachkurse in Anatolien
machen? Aber da gibt es audiovisuelle Möglichkeiten, den Test kann man sogar telefonisch machen.
Wir prüfen das jetzt hier im Innenministerium.
satisfaction of concrete needs, are understood and used. The prospective person
must also be in a position to introduce himself/herself and others. For example,
they must be able to answer questions about where they live, which people they
know, what things they possess. They must be able to make themselves understood
in a simple way when interlocutors speak to them slowly and clearly and are ready to
assist them. Furthermore, they must be in the position to seek information in the
context of daily life or to communicate such a message to another person (for
example, on forms, personal letters, or short notes).
While thousands of consular officials beyond Germany’s borders were suiting up for
these new and complex language-assessment responsibilities for which they were
generally undertrained, the political imperative at home remained uncannily simple: learn
German if you want to stay here. Interior Minister Schäuble formulated his expectations
in a March 2006 interview:
What can we expect from foreigners who are living with us permanently? We can
expect that they want to live here with us. They should learn German and take part in
the diversity of civic-societal life. They should not want to live as if they weren’t here.
Speaking German thus became the singular pathway away from of cultural unilateralism
and “not being here” toward civic diversity and “being here.” Such jurisgenerative
sentiments indicate how German has acquired a panacean political valence in the current
Bundesverwaltungsamt. “Wichtige Information für Spätaussiedlerbewerber.” Berlin: n.p., 2005.
“‘Grundkenntnisse’ der deutschen Sprache liegen nur dann vor, wenn die deutsche Sprache in ihren
Grundzügen in Wort und Schrift so beherrscht wird, dass vertraute, alltägliche Ausdrücke und ganz
einfache Sätze, die auf die Befriedigung konkreter Bedürfnisse zielen, verstanden und verwendet
werden. Die einzubeziehende Person muss auch in der Lage sein, sich und andere vorzustellen sowie
anderen Leuten Fragen zu ihrer Person zu stellen, beispielsweise wo sie wohnen, welche Leute sie
kennen oder welche Dinge sie besitzen, und muss Fragen dieser Art beantworten können. Sie muss sich
auf einfache Art verständigen können, wenn die Gesprächspartner langsam und deutlich sprechen und
bereit sind zu helfen. Sie muss ferner in der Lage sein, in kurzen Mitteilungen Informationen aus dem
alltäglichen Leben zu erfragen oder weiterzugeben (beispielsweise in Formularen, kurzen persönlichen
Briefen oder einfachen Notizen).”
Carstens et al. 2006. My emphasis. “Was können wir von Ausländern erwarten, die dauerhaft hier leben?
Wir können erwarten, dass sie mit uns hier leben wollen. Sie sollten Deutsch lernen und am
zivilgesellschaftlichen Leben in seiner Vielfalt teilnehmen. Sie sollten nicht so leben wollen, als wären
sie nicht hier.”
decade. Yet beneath the modest clarity of this proposal—learn German—lies a gauntlet
of epistemological ambiguities about additive versus exclusive culture, about state
monolingualism and linguistic capital, about how German-language proficiency (as a
cultural politics) must be performed—about where (and how) this “here” begins.
The New Cosmopolitan Monolingualism
The more blurred and relative borders between
cultures are, the stronger the longing becomes for
a clear structure of affiliation, for some house
rules that name and allocate the spaces in one’s
own house. No one wants to be thought of as a
bad host, nor to be known as inhospitable, but
one does want to know who is going in and out of
—Zafer !enocak, Tongue Removal
The Hoover school’s German-only policy resonated profoundly in public discourse,
galvanizing a perception that migrants’ and post-migrants’ proficiency in German is a
bellwether of “the will to integrate” [Integrationswille]. The crowning indication of this
broad national investiture in language proficiency came six months after Asad Suleman’s
press conference, when the embattled Herbert Hoover school community was honored
with the annual 75,000 Euro Prize of the German National Foundation [Deutsche
Nationalstiftung]. On its Website, the prize selection committee commended the Hoover
project for engendering
a common school life that excludes no student […] Parents and teachers agreed on
the German language after intensive dialogue and without governmental
Zafer Senocak. Zungenentfernung. Bericht aus der Quarantänestation. Munich: Babel, 2001. 47. “Je
verwischter und relativer die Grenzen zwischen den Kulturen sind, umso starker wird die Sehnsucht
nach einer klaren Beziehungsstruktur, nach einer Hausordnung, die die Räume im eigenen Haus genau
benennt und zuweist. Niemand will als schlechter Gastgeber gelten, oder gar in den Ruf kommen,
ungastlich zu sein, aber man möchte schon wissen, wer bei einem ein und ausgeht.”
intervention. This self-driven initiative underscores the important of language as a
precondition for a type of integration that need not disturb the cultural roots of the
participants. This emergence reaches far beyond Berlin’s borders as an example of
how one group came to acknowledge its own best interests within the framework of
an active civic society.
Officiating the prize-conferral ceremony, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert praised
the school’s students and faculty—along with Germany’s 2006 National Soccer Team—
as standard-bearers of successful integration.
He assured the audience that
You will find no one who expresses an opposition to dialogue. And you will find
absolutely no one against tolerance. The question under which circumstances these
come into being is however seldom posed and even less frequently answered [...]
Every society [needs] a minimum inventory of common convictions and
orientations. No political system can maintain its inner legitimacy without a cultural
fundament of commonly held convictions.
For Lammert, the Hoover school’s commitment to multicultural monolingualism
exemplified a kind of integration avant-garde, leading the republic back toward its “inner
German was the “given language” through which this could take place.
Deutsche Nationalstiftung. “Nationalpreis 2006.“ Accessed 14 Aug. 2008.
http://www.nationalstiftung.de/nationalpreis2006.php. “Zur Verbesserung eines gemeinsamen, niemand
ausschließenden Schullebens…haben sich Schüler, Eltern und Lehrer nach intensiver Diskussion und
ohne behördliches Zutun auf die Schulsprache Deutsch geeinigt. Diese Eigeninitiative der Schule
unterstreicht die Bedeutung der Sprache als Integrationsvoraussetzung, ohne die kulturellen Wurzeln
der beteiligten Menschen anzutasten. Das Vorgehen ist weit über Berlins Grenzen hinaus zu einem
Beispiel eigener Interessenwahrnehmung im Rahmen einer aktiven Zivilgesellschaft geworden.”
Deutsche Nationalstiftung. “Laudatio des Bundestagspräsidenten Dr. Norbert Lammert anlässlich der
Preisverleihung des Nationalpreises an die Herbert-Hoover-Realschule in Berlin am 27. Juni 2006.”
Accessed 14 Aug. 2008. http://www.nationalstiftung.de/nationalpreis2006.php.
Lammert 2008. “Sie werden keinen finden, der sich gegen Dialoge ausspricht, und schon gar niemanden,
der gegen Toleranz wäre. Die Frage, unter welchen Voraussetzungen beides zustande kommt, wird
schon sehr viel seltener gestellt und noch seltener beantwortet. [...] Jede Gesellschaft [braucht] einen
Mindestbestand an gemeinsamen Überzeugungen und Orientierungen... Kein politisches System kann
ohne ein kulturelles Fundament gemeinsam getragener Überzeugungen seine innere Legitimation
This sentiment is not unlike that of some leading voices in the linguistic justice debate, for example Will
Kymlicka, who claims that democratic politics is a “politics in the vernacular,” requiring that ‘the only
Speaking German-only in the schoolyard was the threshold to a minimum inventory of
national values and core commitments, including civic diversity, gender equity, and
religious tolerance. But in his 2500 word congratulatory speech, Lammert (the nation’s
chief legislative officer) mentioned language—proficiency, plurality, use—no more than
three times. Joining the cacophony of diagnoses about the Hoover School, he
foregrounded “shared convictions and orientations” as the ultimate signified behind
language choice. Strategic monolingualism was to do the symbolic labor of civic
unification that a multicultural politics of recognition had thus far been unable to broker.
In his speech, Lammert echoed Habermas’ reluctant defense of unitary language as
the key to a pragmatics of cosmo-nationalism:
If the manifold forms of communication are not to spread out centrifugally and be
lost in global villages, but rather foster a focused process of shaping will and
opinion, a public sphere must be created. Participants must be able simultaneously
to exchange contributions on the same subjects of the same relevance. It was
through this kind of communication—at that time conducted by literary means—
that the nation-state knitted together a new network of solidarity, which enabled it
to some extent to head off modernism’s drive to abstraction and to re-embed a
population torn out of traditional life-relationships in the contexts of expanded and
form in which genuine democracy occurs is within national boundaries.” Will Kymlicka. Politics in the
Vernacular. Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Pheng Cheah. “Given Culture: Rethinking Cosmopolitical Freedom in Transnationalism.” Boundary 2
24.2 (1997): 157–197.
Jürgen Habermas. A Berlin Republic. Trans. Steven Rendall. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
The philosophical tradition Lammert calls on in order to account for Deutsch-Pflicht was
not Habermas’ communicative reason,
but rather Hans-Georg Gadamer’s maxim that
“Only through language does the world dawn.” This world-dawning (German) language
was, for Lammert, no longer a cultural bequest [Kulturbesitz] worth promoting through
philological channels, but rather a de facto “common language“ of the multiethnic
student body, singularly capable among the other languages of de-escalating conflict and
aggression. This philosophical refraction of statutory monolingualism mirrored the 2005
Immigration Law, in which proficiency in the German language is conceived as a sine
qua non of civic subjectivity. Speaking German meant that one is finally poised to cross
over from subcultural “parallel societies” [Parallelgesellschaften] into both “the world”
and “the national community.” Said Schäuble in defense of this new cosmopolitan
monolingualism, “Everything depends on language: education, work, participation.”
Lammert’s honorific to Gadamer merits further attention, because the axiom of a
world-dawning language was taken out of its context: one of Gadamer’s extended
commentaries on Heidegger. As a whole, the passage prizes in language not civic unity,
pragmatism, efficiency and mutual transparency, but rather Language’s sublime and
endless differentiation. Here, Gadamer thinks through Heideggerian being-in-language in
a way that would turn Lammert’s communitarian functionalism on its head:
In 1920, Heidegger had dared to say from his pulpit as a young professor: “It
worlds.” [Es weltet.] With this, he meant that “being here” [Dasein] dawns (like the
sun in the morning). In his mature years, the thinker could perhaps have said “It
words.” [Es wortet.] For the world dawns first with language, it dawns for us, in the
unlimited differentiability and differentiation of its self-disclosure. The virtuality of
Jürgen Habermas. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
the word is the “here” of “being here.” Linguality [Sprachlichkeit] is the element in
which we live, and thus it is less of an artifact or object—of whatever natural or
scientific kind—than the manifestation of the “here” of our “being here.”
In framing the German-only debate with the decontextualized axiom “The world dawns
first with language,” Lammert passes over what Gadamer intends to point out: the world
gives us language in complex forms that defy instrumentalization. Indeed Lammert’s
citation of Gadamer’s axiom seems to countervail this claim, in that he imagines German
as a national language with the power to initiate immigrants into “the world” of
entitlements, jobs, scholastic achievement, governance, and civic responsibility. Only
(and this is the crux of Lammert’s cosmopolitan monolingualism) when a person
demonstrably comes out of the shadows of his heritage language, can she exemplify the
cultural diversity for which German society is said to stand.
Despite twenty years of popular discourse on cultural difference, globalization, and
migration, monolingualism as a threshold of civic initiation is a political technology on
the rebound. As research initiatives and advocacy organizations pursue language rights in
the context of multicultural monolingualism, the UNESCO Universal Declaration of
Language Rights maintains that
Language communities are currently threatened by a lack of self-government, a
limited population or one that is partially or wholly dispersed, a fragile economy, an
Gadamer 1995, 105. My emphasis. “1920 hatte er als junger Dozent vom Katheder aus zu sagen gewagt:
“Es weltet.” Er meinte damit: “Sein” geht auf (wie die Sonne am Morgen). Als der Denker seiner Reife
hätte er ähnlich sagen können: “Es wortet.” Denn erst mit der Sprache geht Welt auf, geht uns die Welt
auf, in der unbegrenzten Differenziertheit und Differenzierung ihres Sichzeigens. Die Virtualtät des
Wortes ist zugleich das “Da” des Seins. Sprachlichkeit ist das Element, in dem wir leben, und daher ist
Sprache nicht so sehr Gegenstand—von welcher natürlichen oder wissenschaftlichen Bewandtnis
immer—als vielmehr der Vollzug unseres Da, des “Da” das wir sind.”
uncodified language, or a cultural model opposed to the dominant one, which make
it impossible for many languages to survive and develop.
The chapters that follow are an attempt to highlight and describe a multilingual stylistics,
a genre of figurative language that seeks to bring language contact and mixed-language
experience to critical light for German Studies. Marked by a kinship of sensibility more
than a tradition of influence, the texts analyzed here conjure odd creatures and hermetic
other-rooms: signals of a human universe that will always—barbarically—speak more
than one language at a time.
Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, (Barcelona, 9 June 1996) http://www.linguistic-
In the Other Room: Multilingual Hypotexts
Literature—to express it in reproachful terms—is
such a drastic curtailment of language. […] The
noise-trumpets of nothingness.
—Franz Kafka, diary, August 1917
The first-person narrator of Kafka’s twenty-sentence parable “Returning Home”
[Heimkehr] paces up and down his father’s courtyard. Old, unusable appliances and a
puddle in the middle of the path block his way to the stairwell. Smelling the coffee
coming from behind the kitchen door, the narrator poses to himself the question: “Do you
feel at home?”
The voice that answers, his own, begins to falter. “It is my fathers house, but each
piece stands cold beside the next, as if it were otherwise occupied with its own concerns,
some of which I have forgotten, some which I never knew. What can I do with them,
what am I to them, even if I am my father’s son?” After this faltering deliberation, the
narrator demurs from knocking on the kitchen door, listening only from afar. “What is
happening in the kitchen is the secret of those sitting there […] The longer one stands
before the door, the more foreign one becomes.” The eventuality that the narrator fears
the most is that someone might come through the door, without his having knocked, and
ask him something.
This dissertation is about what is being said by the muffled voices in the kitchen—
where the coffee is brewing and the hearth is lit. Neither the text nor its narrator ever
Franz Kafka. Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Tagebücher. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990. 818. “Literatur,
als Vorwurf ausgesprochen, ist eine so starke Sprachverkürzung. […] Die Lärmtrompeten des Nichts.”
enters or represents this other room directly; the “here” of the narrative remains outside,
becoming increasingly foreign, among the multitude of entropic, juxtaposed items it has
forgotten how to use.
To develop a conception of how space and language interact figurally in Kafka and
Levi, the following two chapters account for the various “elsewheres” that haunt and
deter their narratives. I will use the term “multilingual hypotext” to designate what is
happening [was geschieht] in that other space.
By hypotext, Gérard Genette sought to describe an implicit, pre-existing text upon
which a new version or a new configuration is written, usually one that broadens
contemporary access to the source text, while obscuring a great deal of its linguistic and
referential specificity. As examples, Genette cites the hypotextual relations underlying
Virgil’s Latin adaptations of Homer, or Mateo Alemán Guzmán’s contemporary
rendering of the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes.
While replacing and refiguring a
remote, predecessor text, these new texts nonetheless find ways of signaling their relation
to that which they overwrite. Hypertexts include parodies, travesties, even Andy
Warhol’s Mona Lisa's, called “Thirty is Better than One,” where the masterpiece is
reproduced over and over in miniature next to itself.
Hypotextuality is a useful concept for understanding multilinguality’s relationship to
literature. While a digraphic medium like film (with subtitles and visual cues) can
represent milieus where multiple languages are used simultaneously, literary texts are
hard-pressed to give voice to such spaces. I therefore adopt Genette’s concept to account
Genette 1997, 52
Genette 1997, 7.
for the fractious relation between monolingual literary texts and multilingual life
worlds—a relation in which a single-language text signals and refers, often urgently, to a
patently cross-lingual set of signifieds, oral histories, or collective experiences. Though
the term hypotext suggests one text “below” another, Kafka’s “Returning Home” rumbles
a lively und unrepresentable language event happening “in the other room.” Next door to
the manifest text is the space of Other, unpublishable language—of the unruly admixture
of dialectal usages, Yiddish, Czech, and Prague German that, like the silent appliances in
the yard, Kafka could not “make use of” in his literary fiction. I have chosen to call this
relationship hypotextual, rather than para- or intertextual, in order to highlight how the
other room’s language remains “below” the threshold of publishability, given the meta-
formal constraint of monolingual text to which its author subscribes.
This relationship is a highly consequent feature in all of the narratives discussed in
the following chapters—from Kafka’s The Missing Person, to Levi’s The Truce,
Özdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai, and Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Part One is an exploration
of this hypotextual relation between multilingual language events and their
unrepresentability in monolingual text, and about the spatial relations through which this
unrepresentability is passionately figured in the writings of Franz Kafka and Primo Levi.
Part Two explores Turkish German writing as the heir to Levi and Kafka’s precarious
positions with regard to German. Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Orhan Pamuk each engage
in a similar mode of spatial figuration to indicate the haunting presence of a submerged,
Kafka: The Fourth Unity
Do you know other languages beyond your
mother language? Which ones? How far does your
knowledge reach? Can you merely understand
these languages or also speak them, or can you
also make use of them through written
translations and compositions?
—Personnel questionnaire, Assicurazioni Generali, 1907
So prompted, the 24-year-old law school graduate Franz Kafka wrote back to his
prospective employer in longhand: “Bohemian, and beyond that French and English, but
I’m out of practice in the latter two languages.”
Less than a year later, Dr. Frantisek Kafka responded to a similar prompt with
provident stoicism: “The applicant has mastery over the German and Bohemian language
in oral and written form, and further commands the French, and partially the English
Leaving out the first-person “I” of the preceding response, Kafka now casts
himself in the guise of a petitioner, or Petent, who commands multiple languages as a
regent might administer his revier. This emboldened applicant no longer betrays any
hesitation about the extent of his multilingual talents. Though he claims mastery over
German and Bohemian, Kafka characterizes his relationship to French and English
Josef Cermak. “Franz Kafkas Sorgen mit der tschechischen Sprache.” Kafka and Prag. Eds. Kurt Krolop
and H. D. Zimmerman. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1994. 59. “Kennen Sie außer Ihrer Muttersprache noch
andere Sprachen? Welche? Wie weit reichen Ihre Kenntnisse darin? Können Sie diese Sprachen bloß
verstehen oder auch sprechen, oder sich ihrer auch schriftlich bei Übersetzungen und Aufsätzen
Cermak 1994, 59. “Böhmisch, außerdem französisch und englisch, doch bin ich in den beiden letzten
Sprachen außer Übung.”
Letter to the Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungs-Anstalt on June 30, 1908. Marek Nekula: Franz Kafkas
Sprachen: “...in einem Stockwerk des innern babylonischen Turmes...”. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer
Verlag, 2003. 2. “Der Petent ist der deutschen und böhmischen Sprache in Wort und Schrift mächtig,
beherrscht ferner die französische, teilweise die englische Sprache.”
through a rhetoric of distance, rather than, say, of practice and proficiency. The tentative,
intimate tone from the previous year has dissolved beneath a spatial metaphor of
linguistic power, partial sovereignty, and proximity, in which some languages are
“closer,” some “farther” from the writer’s command. The Assicurazioni Generali
questionnaire prompt itself—“How far does your knowledge [of other languages]
reach?”—seems all but ready-made for the young author’s figural repertoire.
Such was Kafka’s narrative language when giving an account of his own
multilinguality in early professional life: the arid tropes of interoffice communiqué,
where affect remained ossified in spatial metaphor. Indeed, he was generating this kind of
“paper German” at the same time as he was composing his first philosophical fictions
about cross-linguistic interactions. From The Missing Person (1911–1914) and “In the
Penal Colony” (1914) to “An Old Manuscript” (1919) and “The Animal in Our
Synagogue” (1922), Kafka’s texts deform the monolingual bias of which they are a
product. They erect linguistic spaces where proximity to the origo of narration signifies
linguistic mastery, while cross-language dilemmas are figured through distance. Though
the analysis that follows will interweave Kafka’s properly fictional texts with his
otherwise figural writings (letters, diaries, etc.). It is not the primary goal of this chapter
to survey Kafka’s thoughts about multilinguality as a topic, nor to put forth a
biographical sketch of his experiences of language acquisition and attrition over the four
decades of his life. Scholars such as Josef Cermak, Anthony Northy, and Marek Nekula
have even-handedly addressed these long-standing lacunae in the secondary literature.
Josef Cermak 1994. Anthony Northy. “Die Kafkas: Juden? Christen, Tschechen? Deutsche?” Kafka and
Prag. Eds. Kurt Krolop and H. D. Zimmerman. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1994, 11-32. Marek Nekula, Ingrid
Though my analysis relies on this emerging and scrupulous body of research on Kafka’s
linguistic livelihood, its ultimate stakes lie elsewhere—in an arena of inquiry that is less
biographical than, perhaps, linguagraphical. In what guise do languages, other languages,
break into Kafka’s famously monolingual German compositions? And what is their
Such an inquiry joins up with a growing contingent of researchers who embraid
Kafka’s fictional works within other semiotic fields—including Mark Anderson on
fashion and accessories, John Zilcosky on colonial travel, Hans Zischler on movie-going,
and Peter Rehberg on laughter.
The current chapter points to monolingualism as another
such discursive field in which Kafka’s texts are embedded—or more specifically, to the
strife between monolingual mandates and multilingual phenomena in his fictional worlds.
It represents a late but inevitable addition to the seachange in Kafka research since
Deleuze and Guattari’s potent 1975 “small literature” intervention, a corrective post-Cold
War movement that David Damrosch reports under the heading “Kafka Comes Home.”
Kafka: Mono- or Multi
It is surprisingly difficult to establish an analytical foundation for Kafka’s
multilingualism within a German Studies framework, given the bearing of Kafka studies
Fleischmann, Albrecht Greule. Eds. Franz Kafka im sprachnationalen Kontext seiner Zeit: Sprache und
nationale Identitat in öffentlichen Institutionen der böhmischen Länder. Cologne: Böhlau, 2007.
Mark Anderson. Kafka’s Clothes: Ornament and Aestheticism in the Hapsburg Fin de Siecle. New York:
Clarendon, 1992. John Zilcosky. Kafka’s Travels: Exoticism, Colonialism, and the Traffic of Writing.
New York: Palgrave, 2003. Hanns Zischler. Kafka Goes to the Movies. Trans. Susan H. Gillespie.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Peter Rehberg. Lachen lesen: zur Komik der Moderne bei
Kafka. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2007.
Deleuze and Guattari 1986. David Damrosch. What is World Literature? Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2003. 187. Pascale Casanova. The World Republic of Letters. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 270–273.
Günther Anders. Kafka: Pro & Contra. Munich: Beck, 1951.
from 1924 to the end of the Cold War. After the Third Reich fell in 1945, the Kafka of
Germanistik accrued such exemplary status on both sides of the Atlantic that his writings
became a kind of international test palette for the modern German language.
it has been routine in critical reception to nod approvingly to Kafka’s many “other”
languages as a well-kept menagerie of intellectual talents. Klaus Wagenbach’s
biographical sketches are primarily to thank, for example, for Kafka’s fame as a flawless
German-Czech bilingual. Consider Wagenbach’s windy story from the 1964 biography:
He was the only one [among Prague’s German authors] to speak and write almost
impeccable Czech, he was the only one to grow up right in the middle of the old
town, on the edge of the ghetto district, which was then still an architectonic unity.
Kafka never lost his intimate bond to the Czech people; he never forgot this milieu
of his youth.
This polyglot portraiture has two drawbacks: one biographical and one social. First, in
treating Czech-German bilingualism as a mark of literary genius, Wagenbach’s zeal for
superlativity abets an arbitrary class distinction between Prague’s intellectual polyglots
and its “functionally” multilingual workers and merchants. Second, Wagenbach’s tribute
glosses over Kafka’s changing relationship to the languages he knew and continued to
learn over the course of his life—his ambitions, doubts, failures, and dissimulations in
regards to them. This image of an additive polyglot Franz Kafka laid the trap for a gamut
of critical equivocations in midcentury German Studies.
Stephen Dowden. Kafka’s Castle and the Critical Imagination. Columbia: Camden House, 1995.
Klaus Wagenbach. Franz Kafka. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991. 17. “Als einziger [der Prager
Deutscher Schriftsteller] sprach und schrieb er fast fehlerlos Tschechisch, als einziger wuchs er mitten
in der Altstadt auf, an der Grenze zum damals noch als architektonische Einheit bestehenden
Gettobezirk. Niemals hat Kafka die enge Bindung zum tschechischen Volk verloren, niemals diese
Atmosphäre seiner Jugend vergessen.”
As a consequence of his canonization as a defensible German modernist in the post-
War period, the languages Kafka “further commanded” were set aside as extra-textual,
biographical matter. His persistent devotion to Czech, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Italian
and French garnered acknowledgement from critics only to the extent that they indicated
an anti-totalitarian ethics or the necessary accoutrements of a genial mind. Its moral
timbre notwithstanding, Wagenbach’s remembrance gives us a sense for how personal, as
opposed to situated, multilinguality tends to play into literary hagiography in general.
As the other language, Czech functioned here as an authentication device and a species of
ethical capital. Until recently in Kafka studies, the author’s multilinguality continued to
serve this chiastic function: his other languages remained central to the composite
biographical sketch, yet still remained irrelevant to critical readings of his texts.
The two ends of the language-critical project in Kafka reception were carried by 1)
those philosophically concerned with Language as constitutive of the human condition
and 2) observers of style, for whom language was the stuff of poetic exemplarity. Even
Kafka’s texts that highlight the use of many languages, like The Missing Person and In
the Penal Colony met with critical interpretations that relied on a unitary conception of
The latter, stylistic orientation to Kafka’s language coalesced into a critical tradition
no later than the author’s death in 1924. Language as Style quickly became a first port-of-
call for devotees, feuilletonists, and disseminators of the recently deceased author’s
published and unpublished works. An aura of exemplarity got its footing in Max Brod’s
Stanley Corngold. “Allotria and Excreta in ‘In the Penal Colony’.” Modernism / Modernity 8.1 (2001):
obituary for Kafka in the Prager Tageblatt on June 4, 1924, where Brod staked out an
almost oracular legacy for the prose stylist, whose texts he was himself in the midst of
redacting. In the second paragraph of the obituary, Brod hastened to foreground Kafka’s
language as a hallmark of stylistic restraint and of a rigorous relationship to truth:
Here is truth and nothing but. Take for instance his language! Those cheap devices
(spinning new words and word combinations, shell-games with sentence syntax,
etc)—he disdains them. “Disdain“ is not even the right word. They are inaccessible
to him, just as rhymes cannot gain access to that which is impure; they are
forbidden, taboo. His language is crystal clear, and on its surface one notices no
other pursuit than to be appropriate, clear, and right in regards to its object. And yet
dreams, visions of unfathomable depth move beneath this pure brook of language.
Here Brod seems to harvest the trope of inaccessibility from Kafka’s own texts, recasting
it, of all things, as a gatekeeper between the author and bad style. Brod suggests here that
Kafka was by nature incapable of gaining access to the decadent devices of modernism’s
ludic language, tending by constitution toward inconspicuous clarity instead. To uphold
this virtue, Kafka carefully surpassed those decadent wordy devices that estrange texts
from their immediate objects.
Thus eulogized, Kafka could not do otherwise than use (German) language purely.
Brod’s metaphor of access—that of the rhyme-ready word immune to the advances of
unruly, wayward words—is all the more striking when placed alongside Kafka’s short
text “Before the Law,” which first appeared in the Jewish weekly Selbstwehr in 1915.
Jürgen Born, ed. Franz Kafka: Kritik und Rezeption 1924–1938. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1983. 16.
“Hier ist Wahrheit und nichts als sie. Nehmt beispielsweise seine Sprache! Die billigen Mittel (neue
Worte zu drehen, Zusammensetzungen, Rochade der Satzteile usw.), diese Mittel verschmäht er.
‘Verschmäht’ ist nicht einmal das richtige Wort. Sie sind ihm unzugänglich, wie eben dem Reinen
Unreines unzugänglich, verboten, tabu ist. Seine Sprache ist kristallklar, und an der Oberfläche merkt
man gleichsam kein anderes Bestreben als richtig, deutlich, dem Gegenstand angemessen zu sein. Und
doch ziehen Träume, Vision von unermesslicher Tiefe unter dem heiteren Spiegel dieses reinen Sprach-
This juxtaposition, of which Brod was necessarily aware, suggests a surreptitious critique
of how cultural politics of multilingualism posed a threat to Kafka’s imminent legacy.
Taking Brod’s lead for the moment, one might imagine that the Tartar gatekeeper in the
parable is standing not between a country-bumpkin and state power, social status, or
divinity, but between Kafka and a certain kind of language. The man from the country is
excluded, a priori, from odd linguistic behavior. He, “the man from the country,” remains
an unpolluted, crystal-clear brook of language [Sprach-Bach]—a pastoral figure
unfettered by the spoils of cosmopolitan life that the doorkeeper protects.
Other eulogists followed suit. In the Prager Presse two weeks after Brod’s piece,
Otto Pick heralded Kafka’s linguistic regularity as follows:
Clarity was always crystal in his written and spoken words; his comportment was
unconditional—and yet between him and us there stood a wall of mist—unearthly
clear, ostensibly transparent, but ultimately opaque.
Oskar Baum took the assessment a step further in the Berliner Tagesblatt, where he
stressed Kafka’s distinctiveness among his modernist contemporaries:
Characteristic of all modern pursuits of poetic language is to strive for an overt
originality at all costs. Kafka’s phantasmagorias, with their entirely new worlds of a
ghostly demonic character, [were] written in a clear, simple language that was almost
pedantically beholden to regularity, a language that downright fearfully evades all
ostentatious usage and all cheap overt effect.
Sander Gilman. Kafka: The Jewish Patient. New York: Routledge, 1995. 24.
Born 1983, 32. “Immer war Klarheit kristallen in seinen geschriebenen und gesprochenen Worte, immer
Unbedingtheit in seinem Tun und Lassen—und doch war eine, wenn auch durchsichtig scheinende,
undurchschaubare, unirdisch klare Nebelwand zwischen ihm und uns errichtet.”
Born 1983, 22. “Das Charakteristische an allen modernen Bestrebungen der Dichtersprache ist das
Streben nach einer auffallenden Originalität um jeden Preis. Kafkas Fantasmagorien mit ihren völlig
neuen Welten einer gespenstischen Dämonie und in einer klaren, einfachen, fast pedantisch auf das
Gesetzmäßige bedachten Sprache geschrieben, die jeder auffälligen Wendung, jedem billigen
äußerlichen Effekt in geradezu ängstlicher Keuschheit ausweicht.”
Where Brod contended that Kafka lacked access to impure language, Baum foregrounds
the author’s chaste adherence to the law of inconspicuousness. It was on this basis that
Willa and Edwin Muir painstakingly assembled a culture-transcending author for Anglo-
American audiences during a period when fascism precluded all but a handful of German
speakers from encountering his texts.
As translators like Mark Harmon begin to walk
back the Muirs’ anti-localist stylistics of clarity, the results are quite striking:
The tempo of the prose reflects K.'s inner state. When K. is agitated, it is choppy.
When K. loses himself in the labyrinth of his paranoid logic, it is tortuous and
wordy. At times, Kafka's language parodies the convoluted jargon of the Austro-
Hungarian bureaucracy, which he encountered daily through his job as an insurance
official. A key chapter depicts a fateful encounter between K. and the official
Bürgel: just as K. is offered a momentous opportunity, he dozes off, understandably
enough, since Bürgel is droning on in almost impenetrable pseudo-officialese, which
I have tried to make as murky in English as it is in German. Elsewhere, however,
the narrative presses forward relentlessly. At such moments, Kafka's stark prose
becomes a miracle of precision. As the novel progresses, the lightly punctuated
writing becomes increasingly fluid, culminating in a barmaid's breathless speech.
Broad attributions about Kafka’s superlative linguistic clarity thrive to the present day. A
recent collection of essays, Kontinent Kafka, for example, crowns his collected works the
“drawing table of the modern Western world par excellence.”
Given that Kafka’s
fictional works were written in German only, this claim depluralizes the range of
languages and sign systems that oversaw Kafka’s world, not to mention the “modern
Western world” in the early twentieth century.
Damrosch 2003, 189.
Mark Harman. “Digging in the Pit of Babel.” New Literary History 27.2 (1996): 291–311. 294.
Klaus Scherpe, ed. Kontinent Kafka. Berlin: Vorwerk, 2006. 10. “Die Zeichenfläche der modernen
westlichen Welt schlechthin.”
Amid a Double Monolingualism
Barriers to analyzing how Kafka’s day-to-day multilingualism shaped his writing still
linger in the secondary literature, where “language” tends to be writ large, and singular.
Though there are good literary-historical justifications for an anthropological anxiety
about language around the turn of the last century, the social history of linguistic
borderlands like Prague indicate an overriding set of societal concerns.
High modernism and its crises of articulation had understood language as a species-
defining, yet folly-ridden aspect of the human condition. This binding, deficient finitude
of words found its emblem in Hugo von Hofmanthal’s 1902 Chandos letter, where
Abstract words, of which the tongue must naturally partake in order to bring forth
any judgment, fell apart in my mouth like mildewy mushrooms.
While the dramatic decay of abstract Language came to define the literary epoch in which
Kafka was active, dilemmas arising between speakers of different languages were not
seen as epistemically consequential for literature. As Hokenson and Munson suggest,
“Bilinguality seems to be the one category of language-user that high modernist thought
did not, indeed perhaps even refused to, consider.”
But the monolingual literary-
historical pedestal upon which Kafka’s multilinguality was stored throughout the Cold
War did not do justice to the cultural terrain of Prague around 1900, where language had
been the trump card in most local political disputes in the late 19
century. As Nekula
Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Gesammelte Werke in Einzelausgaben. Prosa II. Ed. Herbert Steiner. Frankfurt
am Main: Fischer, 1976. 7–20. “Die abstrakten Worte, deren sich doch die Zunge naturgemäß bedienen
muss, um irgendwelches Urtheil an den Tag zu geben, zerfielen mir im Munde wie modrige Pilze.”
Hokenson 2007, 148.
For the Czech and German middle classes, language-based nationalism dominated
all other values; it determined the political program of most Czech and German
political parties, as well as more private choices, such as where parents sent their
children to schools. Czech middle-class nationalists demanded that the Czech
language and Czech people be given equal standing with the Germans, while
German middle-class nationalists wanted to maintain the status quo. Both groups
were becoming more and more interested in creating linguistically distinct spaces.
Public semiotics in the city flourished amid what could be called a double
monolingualism, by which each of two dominant monolingual ideologies tactically
misrecognized the existence of the other.
Marek Nekula describes how the naming of
Prague monuments, bridges, and districts in the 19
century rested almost exclusively on
the battle between Czech and German nationalism. When a Czech national majority took
control of the city council in 1860, funds were appropriated for the Czech National
Theater, the Palacky Bridge, a Jan Hus monument, and other public Hussite icons that
would promote Czech national narratives for future generations. Nekula describes how,
though Kafka’s fictional texts do not reference Prague explicitly, their figurations of
public space are sites of intransigent struggle over naming, typical of contested Czech-
German urban landmarks. While editing The Castle, for example, Kafka gradually
removed local landmarks and attributes—like the simple vertical tombstones of the Old
Jewish Cemetery—that might have invited Prague-specific readings of the novel.
even in the absence of localizing details, Kafka’s textual cityscapes shimmer with
Prague’s highly charged double monolingualism.
The highly contentious language politics of late 19
century Prague were not the
natural consequence of adverse language contact alone, but rather of the concerted efforts
of urban nationalists to establish and maintain linguistically pure spaces. “In multilingual
villages, towns, or regions, early political movements attempted to mobilize popular
support by demanding linguistic equality for their side. As political conflicts developed
around language issues, representatives of each “side” scoured the region for every
potential voter, attempting to mobilize nationally indifferent people into nationalist
As Judson describes, the 19
century Bohemian crownlands of
Kafka’s forebears were more a battleground between urban, political monolingualism and
rural, apolitical multilingualism than between Czech speakers and German speakers. The
manifest multilingualism that urban partisan electioneers encountered in the countryside
of Bohemia and Moravia was fundamentally resistant to nationalization. Judson
Phenomena such as bilingualism, apparent indifference to national identity, and
nationally opportunist behaviors expressed the fundamental logic of local cultures in
multilingual regions, a logic that neither nationalist activism nor so-called
modernization processes were capable of destroying.
The Chauvinist Has Lost His Way
Czech was the commercial language of Hermann Kafka’s store, and Franz expressed a
constant desire to communicate in his father’s Czech in a variety of situations. He longed
to dialogue and correspond in Czech with his fiancée Milena, to whom he wrote the
following in 1920: “I’ve often wanted to ask you why you don’t write in Czech. Certainly
Judson 2006, 9.
Judson 2006, 3.
not because you haven’t mastered German […] I always wanted to read Czech from you,
because you belong to it, because only there [dort] is the entire Milena to be found. […]
So Czech, please…” The letter continues wistfully about how the name Milena sounds
like the offspring of a “a Greek or Roman who lost his way, ended up in Bohemia, and
raped the Czech language.”
On those occasions when Milena did write to Kafka in Czech, he could retell the
contents of the letters to her with ease, and he offered astutely differentiated corrections
to her Czech translation of the first chapter of his first novel The Missing Person, adding
in the margins complex insights about connotation and style that Czech native speakers
might not notice.
Scattered throughout Kafka’s diaries, especially between 1911–1913, is a notion that
linguistic plurality has the power to rob nation-states of their illusive univocality and
coherence as “imagined communities.”
Being unable to understand an interlocutor
indicated, in this schema, that the nation had failed in its “chauvinistic” task of
purification. Jotting down the gist of one letter from Max Brod, Kafka noted “Confusion
of languages as the solution to national difficulties” in which “the chauvinist can no
Cermak 1994, 60. “Schon einigermale wollte ich Sie fragen, warum Sie nicht einmal tschechisch
schreiben. Nicht etwa deshalb, weil Sie das Deutsche nicht beherrschten […] Aber tschechisch wollte
ich von Ihnen lesen, weil Sie ihm doch angehören, weil doch nur dort die ganze Milena ist […] Also
Tschechisch, bitte...” / “Grieche oder Römer [der] nach Böhmen verirrt [und] tschechisch vergewaltigt
Cermak 1994, 243.
longer find his way.”
Brod’s letter described the preponderant multilingual in the Swiss
canton of Uri as follows:
In the men’s room. Too crowded. Signs in extraordinarily many languages.—
Solution of the language question in Switzerland. Everything has been confused, so
that even the chauvinists cannot find their way. Soon comes the German language
on the left, then right, soon again together with French or Italian or with both or
even English, and then it is absent. In Flüelen, the tracks forbade in German-Italian.
Autos drive slow in German-French. Switzlerland in its entirety: school for
Yet multilingualism as political panacea had its downsides in the private realm. Often,
while on sick-leave, Kafka needed to write to his supervisor in Czech to ask for an
extension of his rest-cure. He turned to his sister Ottla and her husband David Joseph for
translation assistance, explaining in one particular case that: “I am forgetting Czech here.
The issue is that this is classical Czech; the words aren’t the problem […] but rather their
This admission seems to include two separate claims: 1) He had
forgotten Czech as a whole, as in a process of generalized language loss, or 2) He had
never mastered the classical register of Czech corresponding to the letter Kafka needed to
compose. In those cases that he received translation assistance from David Joseph, Kafka
Franz Kafka. Reisetagebücher in der Fassung der Handschrift. Ed. H. G. Koch. Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer, 1994. “Verwirrung der Sprachen als Lösung nationaler Schwierigkeiten” / “Der Chauvinist
kennt sich nicht mehr aus.”
Franz Kafka. Reisetagebücher in der Fassung der Handschrift. Ed. H. G. Koch. Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer, 1994. 123. “Im Männerbad. Sehr überfüllt. Aufschriften in unregelmäßig vielen Sprachen.—
Lösung der Sprachenfrage in der Schweiz. Man verwirrt alles, so dass sich die Chauvinisten selbst nicht
auskennen. Bald ist das Deutsche links, bald rechts, bald mit Französisch oder Italienisch verbunden
oder mit beiden oder selbst englisch, bald fehlt es. In Fluelen war das Verbieten der Geleise: Deutsch-
italienisch. Das Langsamfahren der Autos: Deutsch-französisch.—Überhaupt die Schweiz als Schule
Franz Kafka. Briefe an Ottla und die Familie. Eds. H. Binder and K. Wagenbach. Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer, 1974. 101. “ Ich vergesse hier Tschechisch. Es kommt vor allem darauf an, dass es klassisches
Tschechisch ist, also gar nicht auf Wörtlichkeit…nur auf Klassizität.”
often smuggled a few authenticating errors into the proofread copy afterwards, in order to
avoid arousing suspicion from his business associates.
In another diary entry, Kafka recalled an encounter at the home of one of his father’s
Czech-speaking clients, an episode that countervails the transcendent or theological
notion of the “unsayable” in Kafka’s fiction. Remembering the cross-lingual situation in
the narrative present tense, he writes:
The less success I have with my Czech suasions [….] the more cat-like his face
becomes. Finally, I play a bit with a very satisfied feeling, I look around the room
speechlessly with a long face and narrowed eyes, as if following something only
hinted at into the unsayable […] My argumentation too abstract and formal. A
mistake not to beckon the wife into the room.
Of particular interest in this diary entry is Kafka’s feigned gesture, of following
“something only hinted at into the unsayable.” From Benjamin to Zizek,
formulation routinely inspires mystical or metalinguistic readings, in which meaning
transcends particular languages. This context calls however for greater attention to the
concrete, cross-linguistic situation in which the author found himself—at a loss, not for
meaning or words as such, but for Czech words. Faced with the client’s overt disapproval
at his own communicative competence in Czech, the surrogate salesman couches his
linguistic difficulties in an earnest search for genial expression. This face-saving gesture
Kafka 1992, 84. “Je weniger ich mit meinem tschechischen Zureden Erfolg habe […] desto
katzenmäßiger wird sein Gesicht. Ich spiele gegen Schluss ein wenig mit sehr behaglichem Gefühl, so
schaue ich mit etwas langgezogenem Gesicht und verkleinerten Augen stumm im Zimmer herum als
verfolgte ich etwas Angedeutetes ins Unsagbare. […] Meine Argumentation stellenweise zu abstrakt
und formell. Fehler die Frau nicht ins Zimmer gerufen zu haben.”
Slavoj Zizek. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Boston: MIT
Press, 1991. 150.
allows the speaker to demonstrate, in plain view of the situation’s other participants, that
his speechlessness is justified.
This glimpse into Kafka’s own dissimulative tactics in spoken Czech confirms
Nekula’s and Cermak’s extensive analyses, which illustrate a language proficiency to
which the terms native and non-native do not seem to apply. Kafka’s Czech was, in these
accounts, an idiosyncratic yet fluent mix of heterogeneous speech genres, including
bureaucratic Czech and oral-based slang usages, as well as some prepositional
constructions modeled after German.
As such, Czech was a liminal threshold for Kafka,
a code into which he was born but one into which he was never fully initiated. In a letter
to Ottla shortly before his death in 1924, Kafka reflected ruefully: “What should I, poor
boy, do now, now that I have brought the lie of my magnificent Czech into the world, a
lie that probably no one believes?”
Lingua non Grata: The Specter of Yiddish
If Czech was a language that Kafka commanded, desired, and expressed solidarity with,
Yiddish presented an even more quizzical dilemma. Like Czech, Yiddish was a liminal
language for Kafka, representing a lived threshold between two adverse social worlds.
Complicating this state of affairs was its contested claim to existence in the first place. In
the Hapsburg imperial census of December 31, 1900, Yiddish was not counted as a
national or vernacular language among the eight officially recognized languages of the
Empire. The demographic data on Jews disseminated in the first decade of the century
Cermak 1994, 64.
“Was soll ich aber armer Junge […] jetzt tun, nachdem ich nun schon einmal die Lüge meines
prachtvollen Tschechisch, eine Lüge, die wahrscheinlich niemand glaubt, in die Welt gesetzt habe.”
Cermak 1994, 63.
therefore counted Yiddish-speakers as German-speakers, leading to a portrayal of Jews in
the crownlands as the vanguard of the German language, far outnumbering the
corresponding numbers of German-speaking Christians. A plurality of those Jews
counted as such were not German speakers at all, yet the census apparatus had no way to
distinguish between Yiddish and German. The article “The Vernacular of the Jews in
Austria” [Die Umgangssprache der Juden in Osterreich] which appeared in the 1905
Journal for Demography and Statistics among Jews [Zeitschrift für Demographie und
Statisttik der Juden] characterized Jewish language practices as follows:
If one takes the Crownlands alone, there is a preference for German among the
Jews. 17.1% of Jews in Galicia spoke German, only 1.1% of Christians, in Bukowina
95.5% of Jewish but only 10.6% of Christians, in Bohemia 43.7% of Jews and
36.9% of Christians.
The demographer was Heinrich Rauchberg, chair of Popular Law and Statistics at the
German University of Prague. Franz Kafka attended Rauchberg’s lectures, including one
on “General and Austrian Statistics” during the 1905 summer semester. Because of their
legal designation as monolingual German speakers, Jews were considered the
spokespeople for the German language abroad [im Ausland]. In the Quarterly for the
Association for Germanness Abroad [Vierteljahrsheft des Vereins für das Deutschtum im
Ausland] Zionist social scientists, such as Davis Trietsch, wrote about Jews and Germans
beyond German territory as a “community of interest.” A crucial aspect of Trietsch’s self-
Nekula 2007, 61. “Nimmt man die Kronländer einzeln, so ergibt sich in ihnen sämtlich eine Bevorzugung
des Deutschen bei den Juden. So sprechen […] Deutsch als Umgangssprache in Galizien 17,1% aller
Juden, nur 1,1% aller Christen, in der Bukowina 95,5% aller Juden, aber nur 10,6% aller Christen, in
Böhmen 43,7% aller Juden und 36,9% aller Christen…”
described “Zionist Maximalism” is this claim of universal command of German among
Such misrecognitions of Yiddish were, of course, no clerical or empirical error.
Already in 1871, Kaiser Josef II had decreed
that Jews should be prohibited from using that language of theirs which is cobbled
together from Hebrew and German with a few Chaldean words, such that Jews shall
partake of no languages in their official and unofficial business and in all
connections that concern them other than German and Bohemian.
Barely acknowledged as a language, Yiddish was an official target of annihilation, a
legally proscribed hypotext for Kafka’s textual compositions. A political impulse about
Yiddish seizes Kafka’s imagination in the years before World War I. In a notation from
October 1911, he recounts one of his many return visits to Löwy’s Yiddish theater
performance during that year:
The desire to see a great Yiddish theater, as this performance seems to have failed
due to the small cast and imprecise production. Also the desire to know Yiddish
literature, to which has clearly been ascribed a posture of tireless national struggle
that informs every work. A stance that no literature, even that of the most repressed
people, demonstrates in this continuous way. Perhaps in times of war it happens a
national literature of struggle emerges among other peoples, and other more remote
works take on a national countenance thanks to the enthusiasm of the listeners—as
in the case of The Bartered Bride. Here, though, only work of the former kind seems
to exist, and permanently so.
Davis Trietsch. “Von den Sprachverhältnissen der Juden.” Zeitschrift für Demographie und Statistik der
Juden (1915): 75–80.
Willibald Müller. Urkundliche Beiträge zur Geschichte der mährischen Judenschaft. Olmütz: Kullil,
1903. 179. “dass den Juden der Gebrauch ihrer aus dem Hebräischen und Deutsch zusammengesetzten,
mit chaldäischen Worten vermischtne Sprache dergestalt untersagt werde, dass die Juden in allen
Verbindungen nach sich ziehenden, sowohl gerichtlichen, als außergerichtlichen Handlungen usw. sich
keiner anderen Sprache als der deutschen oder böhmischen bedienen sollen.”
Kafka 1992, 68. “Wunsch, ein großes jiddisches Teater zu sehen, da die Aufführung doch vielleicht an
dem kleinen Personal und ungenauer Einstudierung leidet. Auch der Wunsch, die jiddische Literatur zu
From 1911–1913, Kafka’s diaries show a longing to experience the Yiddish theater as an
entirety, as a linguistic expression of national struggle.
That Yiddish did not exist as an official category affected how Kafka would depict it
among his friends and colleagues. His 1913 introductory lecture for a visiting Eastern
Jewish theater troupe begins by suggesting how Yiddish is both threatening and familiar
to the Germans that overhear it. The following passage from his speech may be
understood as a backhanded gauntlet-throw toward the intellectual Jewish-German
audience, for whom Yiddish tended to signal the provincialism of past generations.
Standing before the assembled members of the Bar Kochba to introduce Löwy’s dramatic
readings of Yiddish lyric, Kafka forewarned them that any attention they might lend to
the differences between Yiddish and German will only bring them unnecessary hardship
We are living in a downright pleasant harmony; we understand one another when it
is necessary, we get along without each other when it suits us and understand each
other even then. Who, amid such a state of affairs, could ever understand the
confused jargon, or who would even feel like doing so?
Kafka’s devil’s advocate stance toward his audience’s zeal for the exotic yet familiar
sounds of Yiddish sets up a potential rite of initiation, a threshold between languages that
the audience ought to think twice about before crossing. For Kafka, listening attentively
kennen, der offenbar einer ununterbrochene nationale Kampfstellung zugewiesen ist, die jedes Werk
bestimmt. Eine Stellung also, die keine Literatur auch die des unterdrücktesten Volkes in dieser
durchgängigen Weise hat. Vielleicht geschieht es bei andern Völkern in Kampfzeiten, daß die nationale
kämpferische Literatur hochkommt und andere fernstehende Werke durch die Begeisterung der Zuhörer
einen in diesem Sinne nationalen Schein bekommen wie z.B. die verkaufte Braut, hier scheinen aber
nur die Werke der ersten Art und zwar dauernd zu bestehen.”
Kafka 1992, 118. “Wir leben in einer geradezu fröhlichen Eintracht; verstehen einander, wenn es
notwendig ist, kommen ohne einander aus, wenn es uns passt und verstehen einander selbst dann; wer
könnte aus einer solchen Ordnung der Dinge heraus den verwirrten Jargon verstehen oder wer hätte
auch die Lust dazu?”
for the differences embedded in, and symbolic distances conjured by, spoken Yiddish
offers questionable returns. Why should they want to know the difference? Why should
the difficult plurality of meanings beneath translingual homonyms be preferable to a
syncretic reconciliation between cognates? Yiddish speech holds the potential to upset
the monolingualist’s sense of “happy harmony”; it rescinds his entitlement to overlook
misunderstandings and gaps between the two languages. In the spirit of many of his
fictional works, Kafka here enacts a dramaturgical space of initiation between languages,
a space in which the monolingualist is confronted, at a short distance, with a foreign
language that threatens to disrupt his authority over “his own” meanings.
A Monolingualism Artist
Why would a multiple-language speaker like Kafka become modernism’s monolingualist
schlechthin? Responding to Sander Gilman’s rather severe take on this question, David
Suchoff remarks with only slightly less opprobrium: “If Kafka, like Josef K., does bear
any fault, it is for having checked his Jewish languages at the door of his canonical
German, which, as Sander Gilman put it, tempted him with the lure of literary fame.”
But in sizing up Kafka’s vested interest in his own linguistic capital, Suchoff and Gilman
seem to suggest that being “bilingual in everything but his writing” was a matter of sheer
opportunism. If, on the other hand, one were to view monolingualism as a meta-formal
constraint of modern national literatures that Kafka both recognized and accepted, his
endeavor to project his multilingualism—through the “door” of paper German looks
more like a critical intervention than a sin of omission.
Suchoff 2003, 255.
Living in a multilingual provincial capital of a multinational empire, Kafka bound
himself and his readers to a monolingual contract—purified of calques, code-switching,
and other ostentatious other-language traces. Cognizant himself of this field of tensions,
Kafka developed a mode of hyperbolic monolinguality. While the poets of the George
Circle were honing a panlingual lyric style, Kafka’s texts abstain from all other-language
signs, preferring to figure the ascetics of monolingualism through spatial parables like
“Returning Home,” “Before the Law”, and “Er.”
The impeccable, even devout, compositional clarity that amazed Brod, Baum, and
Pick is best attributed not to Kafka’s relationship to Language as such, but to his effort to
foreground pure German monolinguality as a phantasmagoria, a series of illusory,
artificial signs. In his study of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, Gary Saul Morson writes
that “It might almost be said that rumor is the main character.”
[Dostoyevsky] typically reports a range of rumors, doubts his own best sources, and
obsessively offers alternative possibilities. “Some say,” “others affirm,” “it is absurd
to suppose,” “now everyone at the club believed with the utmost certainty,” “it is
maintained in all seriousness”—these and countless similar expressions give each of
his accounts an aura of endless alternatives and an air of unresolvable enigmas.
While rumor had been, for Morson, the hidden hand in the event landscapes of War and
Peace and Crime and Punishment, monolingualism may be understood figurally in Kafka
as a spatial constraint, a metric of internality and externality within the narrated space, a
temple where uninvited animals, nomads, and pilferers routinely seek to settle.
Morson 1998, 606.
The Missing Person (1911–1914)
We have room for but one language here, and that
is the English language, for we intend to see that
the crucible turns our people out as Americans,
and American nationality, not as dwellers in a
polyglot boarding house.
—President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt, 1914
The first American poem that Karl was able to
recite to his uncle one evening, a depiction of a
conflagration, made the latter deeply serious with
—Franz Kafka, The Missing Person, 1914
To a great extent, Kafka’s first novel presents a telling anomaly in his figural engagement
with multilingualism. If “Returning Home” and other short texts sketch out cramped
spaces on the “here” side of the monolingual threshold, Kafka’s first unfinished novel—
variously translated as The Stow-Away, The Missing Person, America, or The Man Who
Disappeared—is textual attempt to inhabit the multilingual world “over there,” beyond
the multilingual threshold. It will be, I claim, Kafka’s one and only sustained literary
fiction that delights in camping on the “far side” of the monolingual/multilingual divide.
Nonetheless, we will remember that Karl Rossmann, the novel’s ambitious young hero,
languishes in the endless narrow corridors of the oceanliner that brought him to
America—unwilling to disembark into the English-speaking space that awaited him.
As its title suggests, the subject of the narrative has “disappeared” from an implicit
home-space in Prague. Thus the German title Der Verschollene, chosen by Kafka
himself, encapsulates a more extreme spatial metaphor than any of the four English
translations. Unlike a “vermisste Person” [“a missing person”] who might be redeemed
Franz Kafka. Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Der Verschollene. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1983. 62. “Das
erste amerikanische Gedicht, die Darstellung einer Feuersbrunst, das Karl seinem Onkel an einem
Abend rezitieren konnte, machte diesen tiefernst vor Zufriedenheit.”
through concerted rescue efforts, a verschollene Person is like a sailor drowned, or lost,
at sea. For Karl, there is no return—he is lost to an other-language space.
At once the most progressive and Bildungsroman-like among Kafka’s narratives, this
bootstrapping immigrant adventure tale evinces few of the stumbles and apoplexies that
plague (or constitute) the heroes of Kafka’s later novels. Karl appears young, kinetic, and
impatient—ready to devour Amerika in one serving. The unfinished text nonetheless
consists of a series of lateral exasperations disguised as accomplishments, as Karl
Rossman pawns his way around a disfigured America in search of the social entitlement
he was raised to expect back in Prague. Recent scholarship has variously conceived Karl
Rossman’s ambitious wanderlust as a tactic to stave off the onset of adult masculinity,
as the first sustained spatial-topographical turn in Kafka’s fiction,
and an exploration of
In a more language-oriented vein, David Suchoff suggests that “Karl’s
comic failure to fit into high society is far from tragic; it is the pleasurable drama of the
schlemiel who mocks official culture, breaking its spell and gesturing instead toward the
silenced pleasures of immigrant speech.”
And indeed this speech is silenced amid Kafka’s assiduously canonical German, and
Karl’s confrontation with the English language remains a lingering dilemma of
Elizabeth Boa. “Karl Rossman, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up: The Flight from Manhood in
Kafka’s Der Verschollene.” Eds. Mary Orr and Lesley Sharpe. From Goethe to Gide: Feminism,
Aesthetics and the Literary Canon in France and Germany, 1770–1936. Exeter: University of Exeter
Press, 2005. 168–83.
Christine Ivanovic. “Amerika, Kafkas verstoßener Sohn: Deterritorialisierung und ‘topographic turn’ in
The Missing Person.” Eds. Jochen Vogt and Alexander Stephan. Das Amerika der Autoren: Von Kafka
bis 09/11. Munich: Fink, 2006. 45–65.
Joseph Metz. “Zion in the West: Cultural Zionism, Diasporic Doubles, and the ‘Direction’ of Jewish
Literary Identity in Kafka’s Der Verschollene.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft
und Geistesgeschichte 78.4 (2004): 646–71.
Suchoff 2003, 263.
representation for the text. Who speaks English and when, with what accents and fluency,
and how can this be indexed in a monolingual German-language text? How fast can Karl,
freshly disembarked in New York harbor with only rudimentary schooling in foreign
languages, speak an American English that doesn’t require the novel’s readers to suspend
disbelief? How much delay will this problem cause Kafka in composing his first novel—
a text predicated on the premise of a cross-language journey?
Karl tells his own language biography in the following terms: he doesn’t regret
dropping out of school, because “everything that I could have known would have been
too little for the Americans.” He had missed the advent of modern language teaching in
his school, and though his father wanted him to be taught English, his other subjects
crowded it out. “I couldn’t anticipate back then the misfortune that would come over me
and how much I would need English.” His adverse position vis-à-vis English causes him
to be dependent on his expatriate bilingual uncle, a narrative device in the text that allows
Karl’s code-switching between English and German to remain unspecified in the early
sections of the text.
To a certain extent—and in contrast to later texts like The Castle and The Trial—this
early novel betrays a carefree love affair with language acquisition that seems all but
Kafkaesque. The unproblematic triumphalism that characterizes Karl’s initial approach to
English is clear from the outset:
Of course, learning English was Karl’s first and most important task. A young
professor at a business college appeared every morning at seven in Karl’s room and
found him already at his writing table with his notebooks, or memorizing as he
paced back and forth across the room. Karl apparently understood: as far as the
acquisition of English was concerned, no haste was too great, and making rapid
advancement was the best way to make his uncle extraordinarily happy.
Almost a reassuring footnote to the reader, such topical digressions about language
suggest that his deficiencies in English will be nothing more than a quickly overcome
social hurdle for Karl and a logical glitch for the narrative to resolve: how will Karl do
the kind of talking with his American comrades that can be represented in Kafka’s highly
regular prose? It is not inconsequential that Karl’s language learning is relegated to the
liminal early hours of the day, before the brass tacks of life as a “fresh-baked American”
[frischgebackener Amerikaner] get underway.
And indeed, he succeeded. Whereas at first, in conversation with his uncle, English
was restricted to salutations and farewells, increasing portions of the conversations
played over into English, upon which more intimate topics began to arise.
Problem solved? The text disposes of its own cross-lingual dilemma with the certainty of
a pamphlet advertising for a summer intensive-immersion program. Yet a pattern of
textual irritations in the novel undermines Karl’s (and the narrator’s) confidence about
the prospect of mastering English without adverse social consequences. At first, Karl’s
burgeoning English proficiency means a growing, yet assisted, social mobility in New
Kafka 1983, 61. “Natürlich war das Lernen des Englischen Karls erste und wichtigste Aufgabe. Ein
junger Professor einer Handelshochschule erschien morgens um sieben Uhr in Karls Zimmer und fand
ihn schon an seinem Schreibtisch und bei den Heften sitzen oder memorierend im Zimmer auf und ab
gehen. Karl sah wohl ein, daß zur Aneignung des Englischen keine Eile groß genug sei und daß er hier
außerdem die beste Gelegenheit habe, seinem Onkel eine außerordentliche Freude durch rasche
Fortschritte zu machen.”
Kafka 1983, 61. “Und tatsächlich gelang es bald, während zuerst das Englische in den Gesprächen mit
dem Onkel sich auf Gruß und Abschiedsworte beschränkt hatte, immer größere Teile der Gespräche ins
Englische hinüberzuspielen, wodurch gleichzeitig vertraulichere Themen sich einzustellen begannen. “
The better Karl’s English became, the more pleasure his uncle showed in bringing
him together with his acquaintances, and only requested that, for the time being, the
professor should stay close to Karl at such gatherings.
The English professor is kept, prophylactically, at his side to complete Karl’s utterances,
as they gradually move from the rudimentary to the semi-proficient. Soon, Karl
undergoes the rite of consecration as an English speaker, for which he did not yet
consider himself worthy. At one of his uncle’s get-togethers:
Amid the dead silence, Karl answered the group at length with a few sidelong
glances at his uncle and tried to make himself agreeable with a somewhat New
York–colored turn of phrase. Upon one particular expression, all three men laughed
chaotically, and Karl feared that he had made a crude mistake; But no, he had, as
Mr. Pollunder explained, said something quite felicitous.
This Mr. Pollunder is Karl’s first monolingual intimate, and Karl’s difficulty with his
English speech is expressed in spatial terms. From the perspective of the German-
speaking Karl, Pollunder’s house is figured as a treacherous space of deception and
obscurantism: “He speaks, thought Karl, as if he knew nothing of the huge house, the
endless hallways, the cupola, the empty rooms, the darkness everywhere.”
estrangement and confusion in this labyrinthine English-speaking house present a stark
contrast to his German-speaking uncle’s house, which “appeared to him as something
rigorously cohesive, that lay plain and empty before him, as if it were prepared just for
Kafka 1983, 62. “Je besser Karls Englisch wurde, desto größere Lust zeigte der Onkel, ihn mit seinen
Bekannten zusammenzuführen, und ordnete nur für jeden Fall an, daß bei solchen Zusammenkünften
vorläufig der Englischprofessor sich immer in Karls Nähe zu halten habe.”
Kafka 1983, 69. “Karl antwortete unter einer Sterbensstille ringsherum mit einigen Seitenblicken auf den
Onkel ziemlich ausführlich und suchte sich zum Dank durch eine etwas New Yorkisch gefärbte
Redeweise angenehm zu machen. Bei einem Ausdruck lachten sogar alle drei Herren durcheinander,
und Karl fürchtete schon, einen groben Fehler gemacht zu haben; jedoch nein, er hatte, wie Herr
Pollunder erklärte, sogar etwas sehr Gelungenes gesagt.”
Kafka 1983, 105. “’Er spricht,’ dachte Karl, ‘als wüßte er nicht von dem großen Haus, den endlosen
Gängen, der Kapelle, den leeren Zimmern, dem Dunkel überall.’”
him and called out to him in a loud voice.”
The two spaces—one obscure, endless, and
unknowable, the other unified, servile, and plaintive—correspond to the respective
spoken languages of their inhabitants.
English is further characterized as a circuitous, labyrinthine endeavor, as Karl opts to
hold his tutoring sessions while driving to riding practice: “Karl took the professor with
him in the automobile. During their English lesson, they drove mostly on detours,
because too much time would have been lost had they driven directly through the traffic
of the main street, which led right from the uncle’s house to the riding school,”
Karl would meet up with his first English-speaking friend Mack. Again, the dilemmas
that speaking English posed to Karl are displaced into spatial figurations: detours,
indirect routes, and unexpected lateral excursions.
Such is also the case when Karl needs to order some food in a hotel lobby. After some
moments of elaborate strategic deliberation, Karl decides to seek help from the most
approachable looking woman on the hotel staff, in the hopes of a successful cross-
Karl hadn’t even spoken to her, just stalked her a bit with his eyes, when she looked
over at Karl, just as one tends to glance sideways in the middle of a conversation.
Interrupting her chat, she asked him—in an English as clear as grammar—if he was
looking for something.
“Yes, indeed!” said Karl, “I can’t get anything here at all.”
Kafka 1983, 108. “Es erschien ihm als etwas streng Zusammengehöriges, das leer, glatt und für ihn
vorbereitet dalag und mit einer starken Stimme nach ihm verlangte.”
Kafka 1983, 65. “Karl nahm dann den Professor mit ins Automobil, und sie fuhren zu ihrer
Englischstunde meist auf Umwegen, denn bei der Fahrt durch das Gedränge der großen Straße, die
eigentlich direkt von dem Hause des Onkels zur Reitschule führte, wäre zuviel Zeit verlorengegangen.”
Kafka 1983, 156. “Karl hatte sie noch gar nicht angeredet, sondern nur ein wenig belauert, als sie, wie
man eben manchmal mitten im Gespräch beiseiteschaut, zu Karl hinsah und ihn, ihre Rede
In this interaction, the kind staffperson of this hotel seems to enact for Karl the English
language itself as a sublime whole, “clear as grammar.” Her address surprises the young
man, who had been mustering up the courage to speak to her in an American English
register appropriate for the setting. His response does not answer her question—whether
he was looking for something—but describes a broader state of affairs subtending their
exchange: The “here” where he “can’t get anything” is equivalent to the sublimely toned
English with which she addressed him and which he cannot reproduce. Barred from
simulating anything but the most nativist speech patterns, the text indexes the linguistic
impasse in spatial-deictic terms instead.
The hotel clerk’s response adopts Karl’s spatial idiom; she needs no further
clarification of his intended meaning, steering him through an uncannily circuitous route
out of the public space of the hotel into a storage repository [Vorratskammer] hidden
away in the bowels of the building:
“Then come with me, dear,” she said, bid farewell to her acquaintance who tipped
his hat, which appeared here to be an unbelievable stroke of politeness, took Karl by
the hand, went to the buffet, shoved a guest to the side, opened a hatch in the
console, traversed the hallway behind the console, where one had to be careful
among the tirelessly running waiters, opened a second hatch, and there they found
themselves in the great, cool storage repository. “One only needs to know the
mechanism,” said Karl to himself.
unterbrechend, freundlich und in einem Englisch, klar wie die Grammatik, fragte, ob er etwas suche.
“Allerdings” sagte Karl, “Ich kann hier gar nichts bekommen.”
Kafka 1983, 156. “’Dann kommen Sie mit mir, Kleiner,’ sagte sie, verabschiedete sich von ihrem
Bekannten, der seinen Hut abnahm, was hier wie unglaubliche Höflichkeit erschien, faßte Karl bei der
Hand, ging zum Büfett, schob einen Gast beiseite, öffnete eine Klapptüre im Pult, durchquerte den
Gang hinter dem Pult, wo man sich vor den unermüdlich laufenden Kellnern in acht nehmen mußte,
öffnete eine zweite Tapetentüre, und schon befanden sie sich in großen, kühlen Vorratskammern. ‘Man
muß eben den Mechanismus kennen,’ sagte sich Karl.”
What might have been, under another writer’s pen, a descriptive elaboration of cross-
language negotiation, misunderstanding, and metadiscursive reflection on the
communicative exchange itself, appears in Kafka as a frenzied and kinetic crossing of
unknown thresholds—from public to semi-public, from apoplexy to intimate knowledge
of the “mechanism,” from appropriate comportment in the hotel lobby to “shoving”
guests aside at the buffet table in order to get, urgently, from here to there.
The Missing Person is one of the few Kafka texts that figuratively stage such
successful cross-linguistic leaps and stunts, where the hero can justifiably pat himself on
the back for healthy intercultural dialogue. The failure to cross, or be dragged across,
such thresholds is far more prevalent. Even The Missing Person, a textual experiment in
such representational leaps, was ultimately left unfinished, as Karl comes to rest among
the infinite chorus of trumpeting angels at the Oklahoma theater, “the greatest theater in
the world.” Ultimately, speaking English—making the noise of the Engeln—is refigured
as a kind of sacred labor, the kind of linguistic patriotism that President Theodore
Roosevelt called for in the advent of World War I. “How fitting, that we will be together
again,” cheers Fanny as Karl decides to join the monolingual chorus. But she warns,
“Don’t disturb the chorus, or they will fire me.”
Karl is swept up into the mesmerizing unison of the noise, in which he begins to
discover precious subtleties. The (German) text trails off soon after his initiation into
English monolingualism is figured as follows:
Kafka 1992, 393. “Aber verdirb den Chor nicht, sonst entläßt man mich.”
Karl began to blow; before he had thought it was only a roughly hewn trumpet, only
made for making noise, but now it seemed to indeed be an instrument that could
perform every subtlety.
Now fully fledged in English, Karl indeed becomes the Verschollene, the “lost one” who
leaves behind the text’s own language of composition, High German. It is thus significant
that the novel leaves Karl, perpetually, in the midst of his new monolingual labor in the
angel-chorus, and remains unfinished.
Volatile Cognates and Forlorn Pronouns
Though it is his first novel, The Missing Person is the last of Kafka’s texts to narrate a
“happy” story of second-language use, where ambition and dedication propel a young
second-language adventurer toward his manifest linguistic destiny. From 1914 on, an
anxious aporia reigns. From “A Country Doctor” to The Castle, Kafka’s protagonists
vacillate between an impulse to misrecognize multilinguality, and a vague knowledge
that it can only be evaded temporarily.
Kafka’s multilingual critique often indicts words themselves as stealthy and
unmanageable mercenaries, which take leave of their respective langues at will. In such
instances he seeks to reveal a radical distance between presumed cognates. He remarks in
“Mutter” is for the Jew particularly German; unconsciously, it contains alongside its
Christian gleam a Christian coldness as well; when a Jewish woman is named
“Mutter,” it sounds comical but also foreign. Mama would be a better name, if one
did not imagine “Mutter” behind it. I think that only memories of the ghetto
Kafka 1992, 393. “Karl fing zu blasen an; er hatte gedacht, es sei eine grob gearbeitete Trompete, nur
zum Lärmmachen bestimmt, aber nun zeigte es sich, daß es ein Instrument war, das fast jede Feinheit
sustains the Jewish family, since even the word “Vater” is far from meaning the
The imagined, other space of the ghetto activates the irrevocable difference of meaning
between “father” in German and its double in Yiddish.
Kafka’s speech on the Jewish theater two years later echoes this concern for subtle
differentiation between translingual homonyms, for example between the German and
Yiddish renderings of “blood” and “death” respectively. Such deliberations on false
cognates serve as an indication of the cross-lingual strife operating behind each word in
Kafka’s “pure brook of language.” Consider for example this diary entry from 15 Dec.
Almost no word that I write fits with the others; I hear how the consonants rub
away from one another like tin and the vowels sing along like Negroes on
exhibition. My doubts stand around in a circle in every word.
The syntactic axis—how parts of speech are strung together to form a linear sentence—is
subjected here to a figural estrangement. The words are social personae; the sentence is a
space in which to act those personae out. The passive narrator, who stands around
listening to the unruly behavior of these individual words, experiences syntactic relations
as fraught with animosity and repulsion. His words are display “Negroes,” coerced into
performing and unable to assess their imminent fate.
Kafka 1990, 102. “‘Mutter’ ist für den Juden besonders Deutsch, es enthält unbewußt neben dem
christlichen Glanz auch christliche Kälte, die mit Mutter benannte jüdische Frau wird daher nicht nur
komisch sondern auch fremd. Mama wäre ein besserer Name, wenn man nur hinter ihm nicht “Mutter”
sich vorstellte. Ich glaube, daß nur noch Erinnerungen an das Ghetto die jüdische Familie erhalten, denn
auch das Wort Vater meint bei weitem den jüdischen Vater nicht.”
Kafka 1990, 130. “Kein Wort fast, das ich schreibe, passt zum anderen, ich höre, wie die Konsonante
blechern auseinanderreiben, und die Vokale singen dazu wie Ausstellungsneger. Meine Zweifel stehen
in jedem Wort im Kreis herum.”
Despite Kafka’s elaborate declarations of mistrust for words, he does not assent to the
modernist diagnosis of the fundamental ineptitude of language. On the contrary, his
mistrust was rather a reverence for the animism and volatility of words, as he wrote to
Felice on 18 February 1913:
I am not of the opinion that one may ever lack the power to completely express that
which one intends to say or write. References to the frailty of languages and
comparisons between the finitude of words and the infinity of feeling are way off
the mark. In words, boundless feeling remains equally as boundless as it had been in
the heart. It was clear within, and it will be irrevocably so in words as well. This is
why no one should have any worries about language—only worries about
themselves when words are gazing back at them.
We will notice the astonishing difference in tone from the previous passage. Where
Kafka had in the first instance elaborated the dystopic circumstances of writing—the
cramped and cranky behavior of the writer’s words next to one another—the second
account speaks, with a quiet consolation, of words’ boundlessness and infinity. How are
we to account for this cleft in tone and conviction? Herein may lie a key to Kafka’s sense
for the conflict between monolingualism and multilinguality: whereas the first
articulation concerns the (monolingual) scene of writing, the second concerns the
hypotextual world of words in use, unbounded by the meta-formal constraints of writing.
The potential of words from various languages to signify what is “in the heart” is
radically attenuated when composing exclusively in a single language. These troubling
Franz Kafka. Briefe an Felice und andere Korrespondenz aus der Verlobungszeit. Frankfurt am Main:
Fischer, 1967. 305–6. “Ich bin nicht der Meinung, daß einem jemals die Kraft fehlen kann, das was man
sagen oder schreiben will, auch vollkommen auszudrücken. Hinweise auf die Schwäche der Sprache
und Vergleiche zwischen der Begrenztheit der Worte und der Unendlichkeit des Gefühls sind ganz
verfehlt. Das unendliche Gefühl bleibt in den Worten genauso unendlich, wie es im Herzen war. Das
war im Innern klar, wird es unweigerlich auch in Worten. Deshalb muss man niemals um die Sprache
Sorge haben, aber in Anblick der Worte oft Sorge um sich selbst.”
words that are “gazing back” at the writer are, perhaps, the Yiddish “blood,” which Kafka
cannot reproduce in his German-language writing. They reside outside of his writerly
habitus, but radically inside the repertoire of meanings to which he is accountable.
Such stagings of words themselves as glowering menaces, forced laborers, or lazy
melancholics recur often in the fictions and parables, as in a sketch from 1920. Entitled
“He” [Er], this collection of aphorisms tells the story of the dysfunctional social life of a
pronoun, who is “never sufficiently prepared for any occasion.” An almost slapstick
straight-man figure, possibly modeled after Charlie Chaplin or other filmic clowns, “he”
fails to get anywhere in life (i.e., antecedent reference, discourse, text), because “His own
forehead bone gets in his way; he hits himself on the forehead until it is bloody.
obstructive forehead of which “he” speaks is the upper right-hand serif of the letter “r” in
the German pronoun “er,” which inevitably rubs up against the hard surface of the
subsequent word. The anxious pronoun thus fails to establish any “relationships” or
anaphoric nominal references—which is, after all, his job. Constantly caught off guard as
new words appear, the pronoun “he” can only generate a fraudulent reproduction of
Yet “he” refuses to accept culpability for his failures in referentiality (figured as
unsociability), because he does not feel he is at fault for the infelicitous circumstances.
On the contrary, “er” pleads indignantly to his employer, the reader: “If only one were
Kafka 1990, 851. “Sein eigener Stirnknochen verlegt ihm den Weg, an seiner eigenen Stirn schlägt er
sich die Stirn blutig.”
able to prepare before the assignment arrived. That is, can one even succeed in a natural
assignment, one that isn’t just artificially put together?
The burnt-out pronoun’s occupational malaise leads him to 1) dilettantism, 2) an
inability to become historical, and 3) a tendency toward voluntary entropy and isolation:
“The captive was actually free, he could take part in everything; he didn’t miss out on
anything outside. He could have left the cage on his own. The bars of the cage were
meters apart from one another, so he wasn’t even really imprisoned.
(The faulty cage of
which he speaks is, perhaps, the “E” in “Er.”) In considering rebellion, this troubled part-
of-speech seems to propose a “general strike” of words, in which the means of reference,
reproduction, and representation would come to a halt.
“He” is particularly troubled by his inability to refer to foreign words. Apparently
playing on Martin Luther’s translation of Prophets 2:11, his limited range of gendered
pronominal reference bars him from sunnier circumstances: “Some repudiate lamentation
with a reference to the sun; he repudiates the sun with reference to lamentation.”
two gendered nouns “sun” and “lament”—the feminine Sonne and the masculine
Jammer—become objects of cross-lingual play. The German third-person masculine
pronoun “he” can only refer to masculine lamentation and not the feminine noun sun.
Kafka 1990, 848. “Könnte man sich denn vorbereiten, ehe man die Aufgabe kennt, das heißt, kann man
überhaupt eine natürliche, eine nicht nur künstlich zusammengestellte Aufgabe bestehen?”
Kafka 1992, 849. “Der Gefangene war eigentlich frei, er konnte an allem teilnehmen, nichts entging ihm
draußen, selbst verlassen hätte er den Käfig können, die Gitterstangen standen ja meterweit auseinander,
nicht einmal gefangen war er.”
Kafka 1992, 851. “Manche leugnen den Jammer durch Hinweis auf die Sonne, er leugnet die Sonne
durch Hinweis auf den Jammer.”
Die Bibel nach der Übersetzung Martin Luthers mit Apokryphen. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft,
1984. “Da ich aber ansah alle meine Werke, die meine Hand getan hatte, und Mühe, die ich gehabt
hatte, siehe, da war es alles eitel und Jammer und nichts mehr unter der Sonne.”
Cramped and malcontent, the German workhorse pronoun longs for broader
responsibilities than his langue allows.
The word’s infinite predicament, its inability to relate or refer across certain
thresholds, recalls Jacques Derrida’s reading of the parable “Before the Law”:
What is delayed is not this or that experience, the access to some enjoyment or to
some supreme good, the possession or penetration of something or somebody.
What is deferred forever till death is entry into the law itself, which is nothing other
than that which dictates the delay. The law prohibits by interfering and deferring the
"ference" [férance], the reference, the rapport, the relation.
Here reference is that which is delayed—but what kind of reference? In the context of the
current analysis, the “man from the country” is discouraged, as Brod intimated above,
from referencing in certain ways, from crossing over into the other sphere of
signification, which—he learns too late—was meant for him. Like the pronoun “Er” who
resides in an open cage that he can leave at any moment, the man standing before the law
can see the space, the light on the other side of the open door. On this side is the
jurisdiction of unitary language, on the other side is the mix of languages. As David
Suchoff notes about the priest who tells Josef the gatekeeper parable, “The funny thing
about the priest of High German Culture is that Kafka has made his punishing protector
of the purity of the Law a bilingual figure. […] Josef K. enters the “Cathedral” to hear the
parable of the Law from a “priest”: but his language echoes the Hebrew and Aramaic
aggadot, or legends, which Kafka loved, transmitted in Hebrew as well as Yiddish,
sources that he knew.”
Jacques Derrida. Acts of Literature. Trans. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992. 205.
Suchoff 2003, 253.
Tampering with Language
Despite these henolingual anxieties in Kafka’s narratives—the sense of another, absent
language nearby—they also tend to express an almost condemnatory apprehension about
dabbling in foreign languages. Far from a good-faith effort to access meanings
unavailable in one’s own code, language acquisition was language burglary:
The silent or spoken or self-torturous appropriation of foreign property, which one
had not acquired, but had stolen with a (relatively) fleeting grab, and which remains
foreign property, even if not one mistake can be proven, since everything here can
be proven by that quiet call of the conscience in a rueful hour.
As a form of fraudulence and theft, speaking in another tongue without being initiated
into its speech community enjoys none of the salutary political power to disorient
national chauvinism that Kafka had noted in the pre-War period. Though the narrator
above is stricken with regret upon using a language not his own, such contrition does not
befit the Jewish Mauschler, who is entitled, even destined, to rifle through the waxy
monolingualism of middle-class German at will. Kafka comes to the defense of
Mauscheln, the unruly Jewish dialect of High German that plagued the public image of
such writers as Karl Kraus, in the following terms:
Mauscheln in itself is even beautiful, it is an organic link between paper German and
gestural language [...] and a result of a tender sense for language, which has realized
that, in German, only the dialects and the extremely personal High German are truly
alive, while the rest, the linguistic middle class, is nothing but ashes that can only be
Malcolm Pasley, ed. Max Brod and Franz Kafka. Eine Freundschaft, Briefwechsel. Band II. Frankfurt am
Main: Fischer, 1989. 359. “Die laute oder stillschweigende oder auch selbstquälerische Anmaßung
eines fremden Besitzes, den man nicht erworben sondern durch einen (verhältnismäßig) flüchtigen Griff
gestohlen hat und der fremder Besitz bleibt, auch wenn nicht der einzige Sprachfehler nachgewiesen
werden könnte, denn hier kann ja alles nachgewiesen werden durch den leisesten Anruf des Gewissens
in einer reuigen Stunde.”
brought artificially to life by Jewish hands rifling through them. That is a fact—
comical or terrifying as you wish—but why does it attract the Jews so irresistibly?
Here, excitable hands enliven a language which is not “their own.” Though still “foreign
property,” the flat, eviscerated petit-bourgeois German language attracts the Jewish
speaker, who tampers with it and supplements it with gestural agitation.
Naumann has noted how Kafka’s literary career coincided with the rise of an
ethnological discourse about the gestural semiotics of ritual.
Ritual had captured the
attention of a tradition of anthropologists, culminating in Bronislaw Malinowski and his
1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. This gestural turn in ethnology provided an
escape valve from the modernist crisis of language, opening up an ostensibly stable
refuge for “meaning” via paralinguistic behavior.
Naumann notes an overlap between Kafka’s writing and ethnology’s departure from
properly linguistic and philological argumentation in the early 20
analysis does not ask why Kafka’s recourse to gesture arises most prominently in cross-
linguistic situations, such as during his visit to his father’s Czech-speaking client cited
above. We might speculate that, just as the linguistically-handicapped ethnologist seeks a
semiotic harbor in the gestural rituals of his subjects, Kafka’s protagonists turn to gesture
when their knowledge of the spoken language encounters an impasse that they must
surmount by paralinguistic means.
Max Brod and Franz Kafka. Eine Freundschaft. Briefwechsel II. Ed. Malcolm Pasley. Frankfurt am
Main: Fischer, 1989. 359. “Mauscheln an sich ist sogar schön, es ist eine organische Verbindung von
Papierdeutsch und Gebärdensprache…und ein Ergebnis zarten Sprachgefühls, welches erkannt hat, daß
im Deutschen nur die Dialekte und außer ihnen nur das allerpersönlichste Hochdeutsch wirklich lebt,
während das übrige, der sprachliche Mittelstand, nichts als Asche ist, die zu einem Scheinleben nur
dadurch gebracht werden kann, daß überlebendige Judenhände sie durchwühlen. Das ist eine Tatsache,
lustig oder schrecklich, wie man will, aber warum lockt es die Juden so unwiderstehlich dorthin?”
Scherpe 2006, 43.
A 1911 diary entry illustrates a fascination for how gesture complements and
disambiguates a language that is not Kafka’s own:
This morning at Löwy and Winterberg’s. How the boss sits in his recliner with his
back sideways, in order to provide room and support for his Eastern Jewish hand
movements. The interplay and mutual reinforcement of handplay and facial
expressions. Sometimes he conjoins the two, by looking at his hands or holding
them close to his face for the comfort of the listener. Temple melodies in the tone
of his speech, particularly when enumerating many points: he draws the melody
from finger to finger as if over so many pipe registers.
We see in these descriptions an appreciation for how speakers illicitly tamper with a
dominant language—how they expropriate it through timbre, gesture, and tenderness.
Figuring the other language
Deleuze and Guattari famously suggested that “minor literatures” revoke common-sense
metrics of distance and proximity, of insideness and outsideness in a given fictional
space—be it “America,” “the castle square,” or “the revier of Count Westwest.” The
minor text achieves this “deterritorialization” by generating an intensive language that
defies immediate recourse to sense and image. Instead of mapping out a retraceable
landscape of objects, signals of proximity to or distance from the narrator’s position in
Kafka call forth various language types. “[V]ernacular language is here, vehicular
language is everywhere, referential language is over there, mythic language is beyond.”
Kafka 1990, 90–91. “Heute früh bei Löwy u. Winterberg. Wie sich der Chef mit dem Rücken seitlich in
seinem Lehnstuhl stemmt, um Raum und Stütze für seine ostjüdischen Handbewegungen zu
bekommen. Das Zusammenspiel und gegenseitige Sichverstärken des Hände- und Mienenspiels.
Manchmal verbindet er beides, indem er entweder seine Hände ansieht oder sie zur Bequemlichkeit des
Zuhörers nahe beim Gesicht hält. Tempelmelodien im Tonfall seiner Rede, besonders beim Aufzählen
mehrerer Punkte führt er die Melodie von Finger zu Finger wie über verschiedene Register.”
Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 23.
It would follow that the figures traversing these domains are somehow cross-lingual
agitators: the “Y”-shaped, marten-like animal living in the women’s section in “In Our
Synagogue,” the screaming jackdaws of “An Old Document,” the loquacious Rotpeter of
“Report to an Academy,” the singing mouse in “Josephine the Singer,” the man from the
country in “Before the Law,” and the lungless, vagrant Odradek in “The Sorrows of a
Family Man.” Deleuze and Guattari describe these “metastable” figures as barring any
readerly impulse to “interpret [Kafka’s] work by moving from the unknown back to the
These self-euphemizing creatures are agents from beyond the tinny, hunched
language of the text in which they are to perform; they come bearing an inscrutable,
In both stories, “In our Synagogue” and “The Sorrows of a Family Man,” the narrator
puzzles on the (in)describability of a recalcitrant animal being—its improbable leaps
within a single enclosed space, its utterly tangential relationship to the prescribed
functions of that space, which is nonetheless his irrevocable habitat. Like Odradek, the
animal in the synagogue—with its long neck and triangle-shaped face—maintains at least
two meters distance to any approaching human. Its coat is of an unidentifiable color,
mixed with the dust and grout of the interior of the synagogue, resulting in a bright blue-
green. The story ends with rumors about how the custodian’s grandfather had once
hunted down an animal in the empty synagogue with a slingshot, rope, and stick.
Were it not so often “flushed out” of its resting places, this animal would most likely
be a quiet, sedentary being. Though bound to the building in which it lives, its
Deleuze and Guattari 1986, x.
Franz Kafka. Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Nachgelassene Schriften und Fragmente II. Apparatband.
Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1992. 336.
unhappiness is attributable to the very fact that the building is a synagogue. It is alarmed
by the sound of prayer, and no one can communicate effectively enough with it to
provide consolation. The men of the synagogue largely ignore it, while the women would
be unhappy if it were to disappear. The creature’s Y–shaped face and its habit of
lingering in the women’s section of the synagogue, suggests that this creature is Yiddish
speech itself, its significations for which Hebrew and German are insufficient. The
narrator wonders uneasily, “Might this old animal know more than the three generations
that are assembled here in the synagogue?”
As with Odradek, from “The Troubles of the Patriarch,” the survival or demise of this
uninvited yet domesticated, marten-like animal “in our synagogue” is almost a matter of
indifference. The dispassionate campaign of the temple elders to eliminate this animal
recalls Kafka’s 1911 diary reflections on forgetting Yiddish. He ruminates on a theater
piece in which a rich Jew named Seidemann has poisoned his wife, because she had
refused to be baptized twenty years before. “Since then he tried to forget the jargon,
which sang along beneath his speech without his knowledge, and it expresses […] a
particular disgust for everything Jewish.
Yiddish asserts itself here, ineradicable and
submerged, against the intent and will of the speaker.
As in “In Our Synagogue,” a cross-linguistic gap arises between the spool-shaped,
star-like creature Odradek and the patriarch who half grudgingly, half affectionately
accommodates him in the space of his house. This narrator is poised to define the creature
and to halt its reproduction at the same time. “He is asked: ‘What’s your name then?’
Kafka 1992, 410. “Weiß dieses alte Tier vielleicht mehr als die drei Generationen, die jeweils in der
Synagoge versammelt sind?”
Kafka 1990, 61. “Seitdem hat er sich angestrengt, den Jargon zu vergessen, der freilich ohne Absicht in
seiner Rede unten mitklingt, und äußert […] einen großen Ekel vor allem Jüdischen.”
‘Odradek,’ he says. ‘And where do you live?’ ‘Residence unspecified,’ he says and
Laconic and lungless, the inscrutable heirloom Odradek is said to exist only as
an object of philological study. Though it is rumored to have originated in either German
or Slavic, Odradek responds to questions of ancestry with a formula that one might have
checked off on the 1900 census of the Hapsburg Crownlands, where Yiddish was not
tabulated as a language. As in Kaiser Joseph’s insistent interdiction against Yiddish,
Odradek is the menace that makes it impossible for the patriarch to delineate between the
“here” within the home territory and the “there” beyond. The patriarch laments: “He
resides variously in the attic, in the staircase, in the corridors. Sometimes he isn’t to be
seen for months; he’s probably settled in other people’s houses, but he will certainly
come back to ours sometime.”
Odradek’s mobility alone—if not its passive contempt
and negligible significance for the household—is enough to make the patriarch wish for it
A hostile indifference to the recalcitrant creatures’ survival resonates with the debates
among Zionists and Bundists about the legitimacy of Yiddish as a Jewish language. In his
1911 The Language of the Jews, [Die Sprachen der Juden], the German Zionist Heinrich
Loewe wrote, “Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, […] while the many latter
[…] Jewish languages are results of the Galut [exile, !"#$]". They are products of
Kafka 1994, 282–4. “Wie heißt du denn?’ fragt man ihn. ‘Odradek,’ sagt er. ‘Und wo wohnst du?’
‘Unbestimmter Wohnsitz,’ sagt er und lacht.”
Kafka 1994, 282–4. “Er hält sich abwechselnd auf dem Dachboden, im Treppenhaus, auf den Gängen, im
Flur auf. Manchmal ist er monatelang nicht zu sehen; da ist er wohl in andere Häuser übersiedelt; doch
kehrt er dann unweigerlich wieder in unser Haus zurück.”
unfreedom and assimilation. […] The critical illness of our suffering people is however
the Galut. And we will only regain health through Hebrew.”
Neither Odradek nor the synagogue pet is a properly metaphorical figure, precisely
because they are not objects that could remain stable enough to stand in for another stable
signifier. Both figures are metastable; they can exist long-term in volatile forms, relying
on “the movement[s] of translation” that maintain a constant feedback loop between
enunciation and statement, the act of speaking and the content of the utterance.
part, Odradek is marked by a struggle between oral and written language, between social
and literary uses of Yiddish. Odradek seems to be a hub of fragmentary, yet heavily cited
“threads” of text:
It looks at first like a flat, star-like spool of thread, and indeed it seems to have
thread spun upon it; but they must only be old, torn pieces of thread of the most
various kinds and colors, tied on to and snarled up within one another.
Fractured but resilient, the tactical speech of Yiddish has been strung together on this
star-shaped spool, a nomadic “body” of oral performance and emergent literature which
the paterfamilias reluctantly plans to banish from the house.
As the patriarch of Odradek’s adopted house says, “Of course no one would be
interested in such studies if there were not some being named Odradek.”
Heinrich Loewe. Die Sprachen der Juden. Cologne: Jüdischer Verlag. 1911. 145. “[Das Hebräische] ist
die Sprache des freien Judenvolkes […], während die vielen späteren […] Judensprachen Erzeugnisse
des Galut sind. Sie sind Produkte der Unfreiheit und der Assimilation. […] Die schwere Krankheit
unseres leidenden Volkes aber ist eben das Galut. Und nur durch das Hebräische werden wir gesunden.”
Deleuze and Guattari 1986, xii.
Kafka 1994, 282–4. “Es sieht zunächst aus wie eine flache sternartige Zwirnspule, und tatsächlich scheint
es auch mit Zwirn bezogen; allerdings dürften es nur abgerissene, alte, aneinander geknotete, aber auch
ineinander verfitzte Zwirnstücke von verschiedenster Art und Farbe sein.”
Kafka 1994, 282–4. “Natürlich würde sich niemand mit solchen Studien beschäftigen, wenn es nicht
wirklich ein Wesen gäbe, das Odradek heißt.”
alternately suggests that Odradek may come from the Czech verb odrad-it, meaning to
discourage or alienate, adding that “ek” does not indicate a diminutive, but rather a suffix
meaning the “results of various processes.”
This suffix “ek”, however, cannot apply to a
living being in Czech. Nekula sees the fact that Kafka developed this word as a proof of
his Czech knowledge, and as a reflection on his “discouraging, alienating” relationship to
Always That Cry of the Jackdaws
The Kafka family’s own linguistic alterity is figured almost as an anti-national menace in
the short story “An Old Document” (1917). In this text, a cobbler in the city square has
become resigned to the presence of northern nomads, who crowd the entrances to the
alleys around the imperial castle and pose an increasing danger to the fatherland:
One cannot speak with the nomads. They don’t know our language, they don’t even
seem to have one of their own. Among their own kind, they communicate with each
other like jackdaws. Over and over one hears that cry of the jackdaws.
At first, the narrator-cobbler uses jackdaw [Dohle] as an ethnic simile, indicating what
the nomads’ communication with one another sounds “like.” The next sentence seems,
however, to abandon the simile and its explanatory valence altogether. This plaintive,
confounded sentence, “Over and over one hears that cry of the jackdaws,” seems to mark
an exclamation independent of the sentence that precedes it. The parataxis of the pair of
sentences allows the scream of the jackdaws to hang in the air, with ambiguous
provenance. Is it only the nomads producing this paralinguistic sound after all? Or is a
Nekula 2003, 15.
Kafka 1994, 264. “Sprechen kann man mit den Nomaden nicht. Unsere Sprache kennen sie nicht, ja sie
haben kaum eine eigene. Untereinander verständigen sie sich ähnlich wie Dohlen. Immer wieder hört
man diesen Schrei der Dohlen.”
group of actual jackdaws intervening from elsewhere? The narrator does not, for
example, describe a perpetual recurrence of “the nomads and their jackdaw-like
screams,” but rather the screams of “the” jackdaws themselves. This apparent
disarticulation of the cry from the nomads to whom it was first attributed produces a
As Nekula notes, the Czech word for “Dohle” [jackdaw] is “Kafka,”
emblem over the door of Hermann Kafka’s store in Prague was a jackdaw, perched on a
German oak branch.
The cobbler sees these “Kafkas” then—nomads from beyond the
imperial city—as undermining the defense of the fatherland with their screams in the
town square. Barely in possession of a language that could be called their own, the
nomadic Kafkas are so incommensurable with the institutions and customs of the city that
“You can dislocate your jaw and pull your hands out of their joints, they still haven’t
understood you and never will.”
In this resigned observation, the cobbler describes the
futility of gesture—not that of a single instance of gesturing, but of the entire category of
paralingual communication itself. The dislocated jaw and the hands wrested out of their
joints epitomize a failure to gesture at all, a dismantling of communicative potential at its
embodied roots. “An Old Document,” perhaps a reference to the urban migration of his
grandparent’s generation, is one of the most radical figurations of linguistic otherness in
Kafka’s fictional works, where the encrypted language repertoire of the writer’s own
family screams from the horizon.
Nekula, 2003, 18.
Iris Bruce. Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
Kafka 1994, 265. “Du magst dir die Kiefer verrenken und die Hände aus den Gelenken winden, sie haben
dich doch nicht verstanden und werden dich nie verstehen.”
The Fourth Unity
In Monolingualism of the Other, Jacques Derrida stages a punitive fantasy about the
colonial language of his youth. The narrator seeks to divest “pure French” of its
universalist pretentions, to anthropomorphize and localize the language into the figure of
a sentient subject, one who can and must exhibit shame, hunger and authentic emotion:
The desire to make it arrive here, by making something happen to it, to this
language that has remained intact, always venerable and venerated, worshipped in
the prayer of its words and in the obligations that are contracted in it, by making
something happen to it, therefore, something so intimate that it would no longer
even be in the position to protest without having to protest, by the same token,
against its own emanation, so intimate that it cannot oppose it otherwise than
through hideous and shameful symptoms, something so intimate that it comes to
take pleasure in it as in itself, at the time it loses itself by finding itself, by converting
itself to itself, as the One who turns on itself […] at the time when an
incomprehensible guest, a new-comer without assignable origin, would make the
said language come to him, forcing the language then to speak itself by itself, in
another way, in his language.
Derrida’s narrator longs to force upon French a locus of embodiment, through which the
language might experience its own pleasures and frailties. Deleuze and Guattari see
Kafka’s texts as interventions designed to shore up the poverties of national
monolingualism. In a rhapsodic tone not unlike that of Brod’s eulogy fifty years earlier,
[Kafka] will tear out of Prague German all the qualities of underdevelopment that it
has tried to hide; he will make it cry with an extremely sober and rigorous cry. He
Jacques Derrida. Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Trans. Patrick Mensah.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. 51.
will pull from it the barking of the dog, the cough of the ape, the bustling of the
Like Brod, Deleuze and Guattari praise Kafka’s steadfast commitment not “to artificially
enrich this German, to swell it up through all the resources of symbolism, of onerism, of
esoteric sense, of a hidden signifier.”
Kafka’s linguistic operation is rather to go further
into deterritorialization, sobriety, and Prague German, toward an “arid” language that
“vibrates with a new intensity.”
Deleuze and Guattari’s vision of frontal attacks and violent ultimatums on national
languages—of demands for divestiture and accommodation—differ markedly from
Kafka’s parables of monolingualism. Kafka’s leopards do not thrash or ravage the altar
upon which the ritual is performed. Rather, because the ceremony at hand requires
sacrifices not for material but rather for ritual ends, the community of believers is willing
to tolerate the leopards’ intrusion. The leopards have become part of the ceremony—
absent, yet always awaited.
Collectively, Kafka’s parables of monolingualism pulse with signals of a linguistic
life outside the bureaucratic German of his professional life. The thresholds that threaten
with references from elsewhere—the closed kitchen door, the hatch in the console—are
fissures in what might be called a fourth dramatic unity. Though Enlightenment drama,
Romantic poetry, and the formal experiments of modernist literature have long since left
the Averroen-Aristotelian unities of place, action, and time, Kafka’s texts indicate that
the unity of national language, in its “crystal-clarity,” remains a hegemonic convention in
even the most avant-garde of literary fiction. It is arguably the constraint of this fourth
Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 26.
Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 19.
unity of monolingualism to which Kafka’s philosophical fictions and aesthetic
innovations are devoted.
The most potent link between Franz Kafka and Primo Levi is not their Jewishness,
nor the way that Kafka’s work seems to prefigure the inferno of Levi’s captivity. What
makes their writings resonate with one another is an omnipresent concern for the social
and semiotic tensions between monolingualism and multilinguality, between the clearly
rendered text and the world of inscrutable signs and utterances, a world that the text
nonetheless aims to perform and emulate. The “fourth unity” that cramps and unravels
Kafka’s texts—the unity of national literary language—is a principal concern in Levi’s
narrative as well: How will the Holocaust be tellable in a unitary language, when it was
carried out by way an unprecedented chaos of language mixing?
Levi: There Occasionally Came a Word
There is perhaps no more strident contradiction of Max Brod’s praise for Kafka’s “pure
brook of language” than that of one of his Italian translators. Primo Levi found kinship in
the gritty procedure of emulation and translation that brought Kafka’s literary language to
Now, I love and admire Kafka because he writes in a way that is totally unavailable
to me. In my writing, for good or evil, knowingly or not, I’ve always strived to pass
from the darkness into light, as […] a filtering pump might do, which sucks up
turbid water and expels it decanted: possibly sterile. Kafka forges his path in the
opposite direction: he endlessly unravels the hallucinations that he draws from
incredibly profound layers, and he never filters them. The reader feels them swarm
with germs and spores: they are gravid with burning significances, but he never
receives any help in tearing through the veil or circumventing it to go and see what
Though Levi defines his writing practice pejoratively as that of sterile filtration, and not
the pursuit and arranging of gravid, burning significations, what unites the two authors in
Levi’s mind is how they are both disposed, indeed compelled, to harvest meanings from a
concealed elsewhere and make them plain for others to read. As a translator of Kafka by
choice and a translator of Birkenau by necessity, Levi writes with an abiding concern for
the conative function of language, that is, the ability to arouse response and action from
Luciano Gaeta. “Così ho rivissuto Il processo di Kafka.” La Stampa [Torino] 9 Apr. 1983.
Yet his prose upholds and honors the degree to which concentration camp
experiences must remain untranslatable into any single language.
If Kafka’s language parables—“Before the Law” and “Returning Home” for
instance—ruminate on the inadmissible and animous multilingualism just beyond the
threshold of the text, Levi’s text teach about an analogous instance of unsayability: the
entropic, heteroglot language situation of the Nazi concentration camp, the vanishing
“native language” of extreme privation in the KZ [Konzentrationslager]. Irreproducible
in any other space, the practices of linguistic survival that Levi both undertook and
detested overwhelm the capacities of monolingual representation in literary prose. He
A hundred yards away is Block 23; written on it is “Schonungsblock.” Who knows
what it means? […] I have stopped trying to understand for a long time now. As far
as I am concerned, I am by now so tired of standing on my wounded foot, still
untended, so hungry and frozen, that nothing can interest me anymore.
For Levi, writing “from darkness into light” meant at least four things: 1) translating into
comprehensible, monolingual narrative an event or routine that took place in and amid an
unprecedented mix of national, pidgin, and specialized languages, 2) carrying a set of
meanings from one hidden, unwitnessed space into public view, 3) resisting the impulse
to retroactively decipher that which remained menacingly undecipherable in the narrated
space, e.g., the word Schonungsblock above, and 4) continuing to write when the
phenomenon about which one is writing is resignation, disengagement, automaticity. This
Among his six functions of language, Roman Jakobson describes the “conative function” as the endeavor
to effect response from one’s interlocutor. Roman Jakobson. “Closing Statements: Linguistics and
Poetics.” Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960. 350-377.
Primo Levi. If this is a Man and The Truce. Trans. Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987. 54.
passage emblematizes each of these four situations. The inscrutable signifier
Schonungsblock is far off from the narrator, both physically and affectively. He cannot
access it across the translingual threshold of the camp field; nor does it exist in the
semiotic repertoire of the world outside the camp.
Levi learned this turbid, unfiltered, and regimental camp language system as a means
for survival, despite knowing that it would be functionally useless if he were to survive.
In Julia Kristeva’s words, camp language remained within him “like a secret vault—or a
handicapped child—cherished and useless—that language of the past that withers without
ever leaving you.”
Not only was the camp a radically other linguistic space, incommensurable with and
unprecedented in Western Europe’s national territories, the language hegemony of the
Third Reich also radically altered the German language at home and abroad, as it
propagated the new German as a global language of intercultural and commercial
exchange. Between 1930 and 1946, German had itself become a foreign-sounding,
“barbaric” language, as lexical cleansing and accelerated recourse to neologism wrested
German from its own native speakers and promoted the new language of the Third Reich
throughout southern and southeastern Europe. This new German language was designed
to be comprehensible to native speakers and usable by all. Meanwhile, the unprecedented
concentration of mutually incomprehensible languages in the KZ-space was both the
result and design of occupation, forced deportation, and the geopolitical reorganization of
Europe throughout the 1930s. The paradox of Nazi rule in Europe was that it generated as
Julia Kristeva. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press,
many new forms of social hybridity—linguistic, national, cultural—as it aimed to
produce forms of social purity.
In the first section of this chapter, I sketch how the German language itself was
altered and proliferated over the fifteen-year rise and reign of the Third Reich in Europe.
I then turn to the KZ space as the site of a radical collision of monolingualism and
multilinguality and claim that this collision is a primary cause for what has come to be
known as the “incomprehensible” in Holocaust historiography. In the wake of emerging
research on the “language situation” in the concentration camp, I explore texts that signal
the multiple-language milieus of camp life, which—irreproducible for uninitiated
outsiders—was cleansed and transcribed during reconstruction to fit the monolingual
norms of post-War national reconstitution. I turn to Primo Levi’s writings in The Truce
for indices of this multiple-language hypotext, the irreproducible “other space” of
linguistic estrangement that the Third Reich and its concentration-camp system
Speaking the Language of the Third Reich
I only have one language; it is not mine.
—Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other
In his linguistic memoir LTI: Notebook of a Philologer, Viktor Klemperer insists that
even if he had published all of his diary entries from the years 1930–1945, including
those that did not explicitly thematize language, he would still have given the text the
same linguistically inflected title, Lingua Tertii Imperii:
Derrida 1998, 1.
Its strongest effects were not exercised through individual speeches, nor through
articles or flyers, posters or flags. It did not realize itself through anything that one
needed to internalize with conscious thought or conscious feeling. Rather, Nazism
glided into the flesh and blood of the masses through the individual words, turns of
phrase, and sentence structures that it foisted upon them through millionfold
repetition until they were mechanically and unconsciously taken on.
For Klemperer, the world of the Third Reich—its objects, habitus, institutions, and
imagery—seemed to be nothing so much as a rapidly changing semiotic code, always
suddenly accruing and discarding layers of meaning according to the needs of the
For Klemperer, this language of the Third Reich—the lingua tertii imperii—was
not a parole (kind of utterance) but a langue (linguistic system), an inescapable shared
code whose structural patterns and lexical tendencies transcended individual ideology,
interest, and resistance:
I heard the workers speaking while sweeping the streets or in the machine room: it
was always—in print or in speech, among the educated and the uneducated—the
same cliché and the same vocal timbre. And even among those who were the most
grievously persecuted victims and thus necessarily the mortal enemy of National
Socialism, even among Jews—in their conversations and letters, and even in their
books, as long as they were still allowed to publish them—what prevailed was the
Viktor Klemperer. LTI: Notizbuch eines Philologen. Leipzig: Reclam, 1978. 21. “Die stärkste Wirkung
wurde nicht durch Einzelreden ausgeübt, auch nicht durch Artikel oder Flugblätter, durch Plakate oder
Fahnen, sie wurde durch nichts erzielt, was man mit bewußtem Denken oder bewußtem Fühlen in sich
aufnehmen mußte. Sondern der Nazismus glitt in Fleisch und Blut der Menge über durch die
Einzelworte, die Redewendungen, die Satzformen, die er ihr in millionenfachen Wiederholungen
aufzwang und die mechanisch und unbewußt übernommen wurden…. Sprache dichtet und denkt nicht
nur für mich, sie lenkt auch mein Gefühl, sie steuert mein ganzes seelisches Wesen, je
selbstverständlicher, je unbewußter ich mich ihr überlasse.”
Klemperer 1978, 16. “Ich habe beim Straßenkehren und im Maschinensaal die Arbeiter sprechen hören: es
war immer, gedruckt und gesprochen, bei Gebildeten und Ungebildeten, dasselbe Klischee und dieselbe
Tonart. Und sogar bei denen, die die schlimmst verfolgten Opfer und mit Notwendigkeit die Todfeinde
des Nationalsozialismus waren, sogar bei den Juden herrschte überall, in ihren Gesprächen und Briefen,
auch in ihren Büchern, solange sie noch publizieren durften, ebenso almächtig wie armselig, und gerade
durch ihre Armut allmächtig, die LTI.”
LTI: just as all-powerful as it was impoverished, and all-powerful precisely because
of its impoverishment.
A multilingual scholar of Romance philologies, Klemperer was nonetheless taken
hostage by the hegemonic monolingualism of his time, a monolingualism that did not
belong to him, and one which changed shape week to week.
Klemperer cites the rise of the acronym—HJ, BDM, GL, NSDAP—as a linguistic
strategy within Nazi language, indicating that even native German speakers generally
needed to avail themselves of these “makeshift mnemonics” to stay abreast of the new
language. Through his ironic, invented signum, LTI, Klemperer transmogrifies the
mnemonic, inculcatory role of the acronym into a tactic of self-defense. By repeating
“LTI, LTI!” under his breath, he was able to affix a name and a modus operandi to the
ceaseless innovations of Nazi semiosis.
Klemperer’s critical neologism—one that would
have no transferable meaning outside of the Nazi regime—acted as a “balancing rod”
with which to protect his “inner freedom.”
In Klemperer’s account we hear traces of Kafka’s attempt to come to terms with a
dominant code that was “nothing but ashes,” yet which held an irrevocable mandate over
The irony is that Klemperer chooses to cut his concept LTI from a
foreign cloth—medieval Latin—submerging within it the grand Nazi neologism “Third
Empire” and its love for acronyms. He imagines his LTI as:
A well-inculcated signum, just like one of those well-toned foreign expressions that
the Third Reich loves from time to time: Garant sounds more meaningful than Bürge
Klemperer 1978, 26.
Klemperer 1978, 15–16.
Deleuze and Guattari 1986.
und diffamieren more imposing than schlechtmachen. (Perhaps not everyone understands
it, and it has a particularly strong effect on those who do not.
With LTI, Klemperer ironically calls forth an “endemic resource” from the Nazi
lexicon—that is, its helpless affection for “Roman grandeur” despite the recent
codification of Indo-Germanic purism.
Intercultural Communication in Hitler’s New Europe
The linguistic practices Klemperer describes as the lingua tertii imperii did not arise,
fully formed, in March 1933. They were built upon a decades-old initiative of
“intellectual imperialism” that would promote German language and culture throughout
the world. The 1910s had heralded a new era of strategic planning across national borders
that far surpassed the ad hoc diplomatic ventures with which 19
nobility had traditionally been entrusted. Many prominent industrial speculators in
Germany came to believe that the increasing traffic among once distant sectors of the
global economy would render conventional warfare superfluous. In an era when
geographic, communicative, and war-tactical distances were perceived as shrinking,
“foreign cultural politics” [Auswärtige Kulturpolitik] emerged as a profitable and
practical alternative to territorial and military “power politics” in the pursuit of global
Cultural theorists such as Karl Lamprecht, Kurt Riezler, and Max Weber all explored
the potential benefits of an “imperialism of the idea.” In his 1914 article “On Foreign
Cultural Politics” in the Frankfurter Zeitung, Lamprecht described this distinctive new
Klemperer 1978, 15. “Ein schön gelehrtes Signum, wie ja das Dritte Reich von Zeit zu Zeit den
volltönenden Fremdausdruck liebte: Garant klingt bedeutsamer als Bürge und diffamieren imposanter
als schlechtmachen. (Vielleicht versteht es auch nicht jeder, und auf den wirkt es erst recht.)”
endeavor as follows: “A foreign cultural politics that is to be accompanied by long-term
success may not approach foreign cultures, which are the object of its activities, with its
own requirements only. Many people have already made this discovery, and have thus
complemented economic expansion with a little system of cultural gifts [Gaben], for
example schools and hospitals. What they expected was that such gifts would
automatically reinforce economic influence, in that it would lead to a certain cognitive
dependence among the recipient nations upon their benefactors.” Lamprecht takes the
occasion of his essay to point out that this rationale has proven only partially successful.
Citing the Roman saying beneficia non obtruduntur [benefits do not lead to obligation],
he claims that foreign cultural politics must “go one step further.” In order to secure
“cognitive dependence” throughout the world, financial and infrastructural aid abroad
must be buttressed by educational, linguistic, and scientific systems, which will truly
“win the hearts” of foreign nations around the world.
After the 1918 defeat, Germans across the political spectrum became aware of the
persecution that ethnic Germans outside of the Reich’s borders had experienced during
war-time. The idea of “foreign cultural politics” after the Great War thus satisfied two
symbiotic cultural desiderata: to support ethnic German communities throughout
Europe’s eastern regions and beyond while developing potential trade and cultural
exchange partners in those areas.
This dual logic enhanced the appeal of an aggressive
foreign cultural politics across the political spectrum of the early Weimar Republic.
Cosmopolitan Social Democrats, academic pacifists, and monarchist Pan-Germans
Eckard Michels. Von der Deutschen Akademie zum Goethe-Institut: Sprach- und auswärtige
Kulturpolitik 1923–1960. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2005. 22.
[Alldeutsche] alike strategized to deliberately proliferate German culture and language
around the globe. In contrast to the territorial empires of France and Great Britain,
politicians and intellectuals in Germany tended to view this “peaceful imperialism” as the
de facto cultural logic of the new Europe, the “intellectual weapon” [geistige Waffe] that
would accomplish what conventional warfare had heretofore done, or failed to do, for
The most credible model for a culturally oriented foreign politics, however, was
Germany’s recent opponent, France. In 1923, the former Bavarian Ambassador to Paris,
Baron von Ritter, began to openly discuss his idea to establish a German Academy
[Deutsche Akademie] to mirror the French Academy [Academie Française]. This new
organization would promote German science and language around the world; it would be
comprised of a Research Department at home, and, abroad, a Practical Department,
charged with German language instruction globally. Representatives of the fledgling
Deutsche Akademie, or DA, stressed that their foreign cultural politics must not devolve
into a “mechanical, artificial propaganda.” Franz Thierfelder, its President during the
early 1930s, declared that “Our practical division must only undertake to make way for
scientific research, German literature, art, and music, to dismantle stereotypes, to make
advancements through promotion and provocation.”
The modes and media of
dissemination were to include lectures, books and press, schools, clubs, medical and
religious missions, music and theater, graphic arts and crafts, industry and technology,
and courses on German business. The goal, as the Director of the Main Branch of the DA
declared in 1929, was that “Germany must endeavor, just as France has done with such
Michels 2005, 22.
great success, to have in every country a class of learned people, who attest to what
Germany has given them to the end of their lives, and—convinced of the worth of this
possession— communicate it to others.”
The idea of a French-German symbiosis became commonplace early on in Weimar
intellectual spheres, as German writers longed for the lush aesthetics of French belles-
lettres. In his book The Mask and the Face of France [Die Maske und das Gesicht
Frankreichs] Otto Grautoff, a translator of Romain Roland, lauded the potential marriage
of “the will to shape, that constant demand for staticity in the Latin culture and the
always-flowing, always forward and deeper-pushing, the always becoming, the
dynamism of Germanness.”
Throughout the 1930s, the German Foreign Affairs Bureau
began to reach out to French youth movements and promoted “self-critical” French
writers such as Montherlant, Céline, Brasillach, and Drieu La Rochelle in order to
mobilize the French public against the static “gerarchy” of the ruling French government.
The first President of the DA’s newly formed Practical Division was Karl Haushofer, a
professor at the University of Munich and mentor of Hitler’s representative in the Nazi
Party, Rudolf Hess. In 1923, Haushofer began lecturing on his concept of “geopolitics”
[Geopolitik], which held that non-military and non-territorial means should be preferred
in maintaining control of political regions beyond German borders. His concept of living-
space [Lebensraum] was not precisely a territorial principle, but a cultural one, based on
Otto Grautoff. Die Maske und das Gesicht Frankreichs in Denken, Kunst und Dichtung. Stuttgart:
Perthes, 1923. 77. “Der Gestaltungswille, das dauernde Verlangen nach Statik in der lateinischen Kultur
und das ewig Fließende, immer vorwärts und tiefer Drängende, das dauernd Werdende, das
Dynamische des Germanentums.”
the notion of facilitating receptiveness toward Germanness abroad. By 1926, the more
nationalistic supporters of the DA, such as Karl Christian von Loesch, suggested that
journalists from southeastern Europe could be influenced most effectively if the DA were
to offer more language courses throughout the Balkans and southern Europe.
As this focus on German-language teaching increased, program directors and funders
at the DA strategized to saturate untapped landscapes in the European foreign language
market. This was fundamentally a struggle against the French influence in these regions.
Since France had long held a monopoly on second language learning in eastern and
southern European capitals, the Deutsche Akademie began to establish language schools
in the provincial cities and countryside. Until the late 1930s, the DA’s expansion plans
focused on cities where less French “linguistic competition” existed and where
inhabitants were demonstrably motivated—for economic, cultural, or political reasons—
to learn German.
This practice allowed the DA to champion the rural ethnic German
communities who had suffered persecution during and after World War I, while
simultaneously laying claim to the linguistic devotion of villagers and townspeople
throughout the European countryside.
Though DA administrators considered
Yugoslavia to be the key to cultural predominance throughout the Balkans, French
enjoyed a firm foothold as the obligatory first foreign language at Yugoslavian
universities. Bulgaria, on the other hand, remained relatively uncommitted in its second-
language policies, and therefore the DA planners opened more language schools
[Lektorate] in Sofia and other provincial Bulgarian cities.
Michels 2005, 90.
Michels 2005, 111.
Promoting the German language internationally grew in political urgency throughout
the 1930s. Between 1933 and 1940, the notion that German could become Europe’s
primary language of commerce and communication quickly transformed itself from a
chimerical improbability to an administrative necessity. By 1932, as the DA began to
accrue significant financial power, Franz Thierfelder advised his program coordinators
that they should “methodically, step by step, wrestle through the regions for intellectual
influence, in which the general developments of an openness for German cultural work
has been established.”
Spracharbeit im Ausland, or language work abroad, enjoyed a peculiar independence
from the National Socialist government during this period. In exchange, the National
Socialist government enjoyed the benefits of an international German language-teaching
apparatus that was not perceived as a deputy institution of the new Hitler regime, which
had consolidated most other social and cultural organizations in 1933. The Nazi
government resisted the temptation to streamline the DA and DAAD into its other
domestic cultural conglomerates. In spring of 1935, the Foreign Bureau [Auswärtiges
Amt] rejected a plan to consolidate all of the foreign relations and language teaching
organizations into one umbrella apparatus called “German Cultural Exchange.”
noteworthy is the fact that the Deutsche Akademie teaching staff underwent no major
personnel changes between 1933 and 1938.
In contrast to other cultural spheres—visual
art, domestic higher education, elementary education, youth groups—language teachers
abroad were allowed remarkably free reign in their curricular choices. In a letter to Karl
Michels 2005, 101.
Michels 2005, 108.
Michels 2005, 113.
Haushofer in 1933, Franz Thierfelder foresaw the prudence of maintaining an
independent language-teaching profession around the world during the political
transformations afoot in Germany: “We can only successfully continue and strengthen
our cultural promotion work abroad, if the scholarly cloak of our organization does not
By the late 1930’s, language program coordinators at the Foreign Bureau were
assessing the results of five years of National Socialist governance on German cultural
policy abroad. Foreign language education planners began to foresee new dilemmas for
the future linguistic management of Europe. Wilhelm Burmeister, Director of the DAAD
in 1937, expressed concern about what he perceived as Germany’s radical cultural
isolation—even from such allied states as Italy. According to Burmeister, this
predicament of inter-ethnic understanding [zwischenvölkisches Verständnis] could be
remedied by a more sensitive approach to teaching the language and culture of the New
A Lingua Germana
Thierfelder’s 1938 treatise Germany as a World Language [Deutsch als Weltsprache] is
conscious that sober intercultural diplomacy must take the place of the halcyon
expansionism of early National Socialist cultural policy. He stressed that Nazi language
policy must assist foreigners in overcoming the difficulties endemic in the German
language itself—such as the inconsistencies in its “two-script” system.
.Michels 2005, 108.
Franz Thierfelder. Deutsch als Weltsprache. Berlin: Verlag für Volkstum, Wehr und Wirtschaft, 1938.
changes in the living language of German since the end of the 19
century have made it
increasingly difficult even for “America-Germans” to understand the language of the
“New Germany.” In charting a course for a foreigner-friendly language policy,
Thierfelder steers clear of both utilitarianism and philological purism; for him, impurity
is the price that German must pay to become a language of global importance [Kaufpreis
If German was to become a language of “use between peoples” [zwischenvölkischer
Gebrauchs], Nazi language policy could not afford to purify German of French and Latin
influences. Thierfelder opposed a general policy outlawing “foreign words” in the
German language. It would have been a grave mistake, for instance, to create a German
medical vocabulary to replace the existing physiological lexicon of Latinate derivation.
Organizations interested in a revivification of the German language, he contended, should
concentrate on removing lifeless ornamentation and “paper-bound style,” rather than
ferreting out foreign words. which had earned the “rights of the guest” [Gastrecht] and
offer much-needed assistance to second language learners.
Nor could German language teachers abroad afford to exact perfection from their
Thierfelder reasoned that since teaching German abroad had become a matter
of “public service” in the National Socialist age, the DAAD must employ only the most
“humane” pedagogues, regardless of their academic credentials. By this, he meant to
promote the hiring of instructors who would gladly stray from the philological and
grammatical dreariness of the lesson plan to build inroads into the “heart” of the
Thierfelder 1938, 52.
The National Socialist language teacher was entirely capable of overcoming
these intercultural problems, because “Germans are most capable and prepared to
understand the foreign nation in its innermost being and to recognize its special value.”
Gaining access to the hearts of his foreign students required that the teacher know the
political relationships between the German people and the host country. The teacher must
resist the temptation to remain isolated in the monolingual company of his German
contemporaries. He or she must learn the language of his guest country, regardless of its
ranking or currency among world languages, if only out of a commitment to “human
duty.” Since “the personal, internal gain achieved from the learning of any language is
beyond doubt,” the Nazi teacher can return to Germany with “a piece of the world,”
ensure that Germany will not become isolated, and lay the groundwork for the expansion
of the German Empire.
For Thierfelder, if these cosmopolitan provisions for a global German were
consistently embodied, the German language teacher would ultimately succeed in his
task. Nonetheless, “The imperial German language teacher [Reichsdeutscher
Sprachlehrer] would step into the circle of his pupils often as the first representative of
his people, and from the outset he is greeted with an implacable and uninterrupted
critique.” Some foreign students, claims Thierfelder, would be disappointed if their
German teacher were not blond. It is thus the first responsibility of the language teacher
to recognize that his students will not be able to differentiate between the medieval
German, the Wilhelmine German, the Republican German, and the National Socialist
Thierfelder 1938, 59.
Thierfelder 1938, 59.
Thierfelder 1938, 60.
German. The teacher must therefore be “a son of his time” [Sohn seiner Zeit],
demonstrating to his pupils the commonalities between the National Socialist and
Germans of bygone ages, and when necessary, making his “otherness” [Anderssein]
Since the prejudices of peoples towards one another are stronger than a
mere logical or factual refutation could counter, the language teacher must be a living
counter-example to the vices ascribed to Germans over the ages: self-righteousness,
heavy drinking, a predilection for physical altercations and sentimentality, lack of grace,
tactlessness, and brutality. Yet Thierfelder was certain that “in general, the openness to
the German essence will overcome any deep-seated rejection.”
The work of
counteracting these stereotypes among foreign learners, he claimed, required that the
German teacher demonstrate good taste, physical fitness, and cleanliness in the
maintenance of his person, home and effects.
Thierfelder insisted that the German language must not shy away from expressing
those qualities—masculinity, complexity, and organicity—that allow it to “stride forth
respectably, like a German.” The intractable shapelessness of the German sentence is
deceptive; it veils a strict yet supple capacity to imitate the actual “process of living
speech” [lebendigen Sprechvorgangs], while English and French remain stranded at the
level of “abstract thought process” [abstrakten Denkvorgangs].
Teaching these life-
affirming features of the German language, even though they present consistent difficulty
to second-language learners—setting the bar high, he reasons—will prepare the foreign
language student for the great challenge of countenancing the German Volk.
Thierfelder 1938, 58.
Thierfelder 1938, 58.
Thierfelder 1938, 54.
Soon after the conquest of Paris, the German Romanist Friedrich Sieburg expressed
his hopes for the future of France in the 1941 preface to his best-selling 1929 book God
in France [Gott in Frankreich]: “The defeat goes beyond France itself and affects ideas
and forms of life that are woven into every human being. More than ever, it is worth
thinking about the fate of France. Will it renew itself and find its place in the emerging
order, or will it take on no formative role in the future of our continent?”
In his dissertation on National Socialist foreign policy in 1941, the Hamburg-based
philosopher Roland Adolphi praises the French for their self-representational savvy:
One might be of the opinion that, for the reputation of a people, it is sufficient for
it to have culture and to let it shine upon foreign lands; an organized, planned
communication with other peoples is superfluous and even aggravating from this
perspective. Yet the French have come the closest to realizing that this is not the
case and have been among the earliest to apprehend the following: in French, it is
said “Even God has a need for his bell to be rung,” and he needs to be manifestly
transmitted in cultural affairs. Just as one must open one’s mouth in order to speak
the truth, it is not enough in the life of the peoples that one have culture. One must
make others talk about oneself, one must show his culture.
Speaking in the Aftermath
Thus far, I have attempted to show how the German language itself was transformed over
the course of Nazi rule—in lexicon and idiom, in its transnational reach, and in its short-
Friedrich Sieburg. Gott in Frankreich? Frankfurt am Main: Societäts Verlag, 1929. 15. Karl Epting.
Frankreich im Widerspruch. Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1943.
Roland Adolphi. Grundlegung für eine kritische Darstellugen der deutschen auswärtigen Kulturpolitik in
den Jahren 1919–1933. Hamburg: Hamburg Philosophische Fakultät, 1941. “Man könnte meinen, für
das Ansehen eines Volkes genügt es, Kultur zu haben und diese aus sich selbst auch aufs Ausland
ausstrahlen zu lassen, ihre organisierte, planmäßige Vermittlung an andere Völker sei überflüssig, sogar
störend. Dass dem nicht so ist haben (…) die Franzosen am besten und jedenfalls am frühsten begriffen.
Französisch hat das Wort “Dieu lui-meme a besoin, qu’on sonne les cloches” und seine übertragene
Anwendung auf dem Gebiet des Kulturellen. Und wie man auch der Wahrheit den Mund öffnen muß,
so genügt es im Völkerleben nicht, daß man Kultur hat,—man muß auch von sich reden machen, man
muß seine Kultur zeigen.”
lived yet indelible significance as the harbinger of a globalizing imperial power. By 1945,
it could be said that all of Europe had become multilingual, subject to the
“monolingualism of the other” of Nazi occupation. Klemperer remembers, just before the
Dresden bombings in 1945, a friend named Waldmann, who had been a fur salesman
“before.” Upon learning that Mussolini has been toppled, Waldmann greets his friend
Stühler at the latter’s door, saying:
“Is it allowed for me to enter?” he called. “Since when are you so polite?” came the
answer from within. And Waldmann responded immediately. “It’s coming to an
end, so I have to become accustomed again to the conversational tone with my
customers, and I’m starting right now with you.” He was speaking in complete
seriousness, he certainly had not intention to joke; his heart longed for the old social
status of his language.
Stühler is taken off-guard by the high-toned politeness of his friend. Without hesitating,
Waldmann explains that “It is almost over, you see, and so I have to become re-
accustomed to the tone of negotiating with customers, since I will begin chatting with
them again soon.
Interesting here is Stühler’s objection to his friend’s precipitous shift in register back to
pre-1935 conversational conventions, which betrays a discomfort with the prospect of a
return to the hierarchical linguistic relations that had conditioned the friends’ relationship
before Nazi rule. The shared circumstances among Dresden’s beleaguered Jewish
survivors had obscured the distinctions of social class and status that had previously
Klemperer 1978, 195. “‘Ist es gestattet einzutreten?’ rief er. ‘Seit wann bist du denn so höflich?’ kam von
drinnen die Antwort. Und Waldmann erwiderte sofort: ‘Es geht ja nun zu Ende, da muß ich mich
wieder an den Umgangston mit meinen Kunden gewöhnen und fange gleich bei Ihnen an.’ Er sprach
völlig ernst, er harte gewiß nicht die Absicht zu scherzen; in der Hoffnung seines Herzens verlangte es
ihn nach der alten Sozialschicht seiner Sprache zurück.”
existed between them. Klemperer continues: “LTI knows no private sphere distinct from
a public one, nor a written language distinct from a spoken one—everything is talk, and
everything is public.”
What emerges most powerfully from his descriptions is the success with which
linguistic specificity was expropriated from its speakers and delivered back to them in
altered form—through everyday artifacts, interpellations, clichés, and signage. New
words and phrases came from an elsewhere beyond the self, yet they could not quite be
considered foreign. Such processes of alienation established a precarious political split
between a speaker and his/her “own language” under Nazi rule—what might be
considered, in reference to Derrida’s formulation above, a monolingualism of the Other.
In what language, then, was a narrative of witness to be possible?
Assimilated Recollections, Translingual Manuscripts
As the first KZ-memoirs went to press in 1946, overwhelmingly under the financial
auspices of the four Allied administrations in Germany, the new genre of “camp
testimony” quickly took on a programmatic shape. Already in 1948, Hannah Arendt had
taken a public stance against the predominance of a new, standard-bearing genre of camp
testimonial she called “assimilated recollections.” For Arendt, this narrative mode was
evident in recently published texts like Eugen Kogon’s The SS-State [Der SS-Staat] and
David Rousset’s The Concentrationary Universe [L’univers concentrationaire]—
memoirs that, in Arendt’s words, “inspire those passions of outrage and sympathy
Klemperer 1978, 29. “Die LTI kennt sowenig ein privates Gebiet im Unterschied vom öffentlichen, wie
sie geschriebene und gesprochene Sprache unterscheidet—alles ist Rede, und alles ist Öffentlichkeit.”
through which men have always been mobilized for justice.”
She claims that the goals
of this urgently informative genre threatened to draw attention away from testimonies
that might lack the urge to disambiguate—texts that, through their commitment to
retaining and reenacting the experience of the KZ’s indecipherability, may leave the
reader “cold, apathetic, and baffled.”
In contrast to “assimilated recollections,” Arendt suggests that there is another, less
prominent genre of testimony that
records but do[es] not communicate things that evade human understanding […]
There are numerous such reports by survivors; only a few have been published,
partly because, quite understandably, the world wants to hear no more of these
things, but also because they leave the reader cold. […] We attempt to express
elements in present or recollected experience that simply surpass our powers of
understanding. We attempt to classify as criminal a thing which, as we all feel, no
such category was ever intended to cover.
Arendt’s early critique, penned while many former Nazi captives like Levi were still
living in Displaced Persons camps, presaged a debate that would frame the next half-
century of Holocaust Studies. Who may testify to what? How may one testify, and in
what sort of national and/or context-specific languages? Though not specifying the
multilingual composition of Nazi concentration camps, of the inevitability of being
routinely confronted with language one does not understand, her judgment begs precisely
this angle of analysis.
Instead, the conative testimonial—with its key values of comprehensibility and
comprehensivity—was quickly becoming the hallmark of authentic representations of
Hannah Arendt. “The Concentration Camps.” Partisan Review 15.7 (1948). 743.
Arendt 1948, 743.
Arendt 1948, 743.
camp life. By decoding the otherworldly signifiers of the KZ space for the post-War
reader who had never beheld the likes of a concentration camp, Rousset and Kogon
offered a sociological, informative foundation upon which to reckon, research, and
debate. Giving access to “what the camps meant” required that these author-witnesses lay
their words unequivocally bare—including the symbols, technical terms, and
organizational principles that constituted a day in a given KZ. These assimilated
recollections, according to Arendt, retroactively deciphered the macrocosm and observed
it (in the spatial sense of “attending from above”), a luxury that no inmate ever
Witnessing the Unpublishable
Raised in the golden decades of national philology, the midcentury generation of
European editors and publishers reading these manuscripts had never encountered such
an intractably translingual narrated space as the concentration camp. Oschlies notes how
post-War Polish press editors “sat helpless over manuscripts of former inmates,” cutting
sections that failed to meet industry-standard lexicon, tone and relevancy criteria.
Potential publishers were mesmerized by camp signifiers, and yet unable to manage their
variability and unassignable provenance. Despite the KZ system’s Babelic design,
assimilated testimony—in a broadly accessible and translatable language—became the
urgent key not only with which to communicate experiences of camp life, but with which
to refashion a European future that might resemble its pre-Nazi past.
Wolf Oschlies. “’Lagerszpracha’: Soziolinguistische Bemerkungen zu KZ-Sprachkonventionen.”
Muttersprache 96 (1986): 98–109.
Jagoda et al. note that most camp memoirs written in camp languages [lagerzspracha]
remain unpublished, while those that have been published were first cleansed of the
“pathological jargon” that facilitated social exchange in the camps and catalyzed their
Still other publishers, notes Jagoda, tended to Germanize the
camp lexicon after the fact, effacing the hybrid provenance of Auschwitz-Birkenau
Despite the painstaking archival work of his research team in today’s Polish
community of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Oschlies pleaded as late as 1985 that “We are
standing somewhat helplessly at the beginning of a new systematic research project”
about adverse multilinguality in the Holocaust.
In the spirit of eliminating the linguistic gap between concentrationaires and their
implied readership, it was common for early post-War survivors, sociologists, and their
editors to add glossaries to their accounts for the sake of clarification. Publishers
encouraged memoirists to provide a list of common camp terms, which would help
readers reconstruct an authentic feeling of a given camp’s milieu.
The terms that received the most frequent glossing in early Auschwitz survivor
memoirs, according to Jagoda et al., were:
cugang / aufnama (entrance / intake)
efekty (personal effects)
Micenab (Hats off!)
prominencja lagrowa (The most privileged classes of camp inmates, the “camp
Zenon Jagoda et al. “Selbsthilfe und Volksmedizin im Konzentrationslager.” Die Auschwitz-Hefte.
Weinheim and Basel: Beltz, 1987. 241.
Jagoda 1987. Oschlies 1985.
bindy (armbands denoting the penal class, and thus social standing, of a given
biksy (“Büchse,” food vessels made of preserve cans that held coffee and soup)
bazaar (market where commodity exchange took place between prisoners)
Taking, as an example, the word blokführerztuba [Block Leader’s Room], spoken in
Polish inflection and declension, Jagoda et al. note how it had no potential synonym in
the Polish or German language. Wartownia, though it denotes “watchpost,” would lack
necessary denotative power for the camp milieu. It would not mean “the place in which
the fate of prisoners is decided.”
Birkenau lagerzspracha combined Polonized German
words, non-Polonized German words, Polish and German vulgarizations and brutalisms,
Polish neologisms, dialectal variations, military German words, and abbreviations in both
Oschlies’ study highlights how early narratives foregrounded the grotesque
symbolic reinscription of words like Musulmann, millionaire, translator, organize, and
string concert to mean—respectively—speechless inmate near death, inmate with a
seven digit identification tattoo, bludgeon, steal, and beating.
The camp language of Auschwitz also differed vastly from the camp languages of
Ravensbrück and Mauthausen, which were heavily informed by the Spanish of the Civil
War period. In the case of each camp language, the lexicon changed according to the
staggered influx of dominant first languages in the respective camp. The sharp increase in
the deportation of Hungarians in 1942–43, for example, shifted the lexical fundaments of
Auschwitz camp language away from Polish. The daunting empirical and ecological
Jagoda 1987, 243
Jagoda 1987, 242.
Jagoda 1987, 242.
variability of camp-language all but precluded researchers from undertaking any more
than a tentative inventory of the “language situation” in the camps.
In immediate post-War accounts, the explanation of selected terms became a special
mode of authentication, seeking to provide relief for the uninitiated reader. Yet even
these glossaries often came with telling caveats. David Rousset prefaces the “Attempt at a
Glossary” [Essai de glossaire] from his 1946 The Days of our Death [Les Jours de notre
mort] with the following:
To transcribe according to phonetic principles would not have presented any sense
for the majority of readers. We have tried here in the most appropriate way to
reproduce, according to sonority, but the accent, the tone, the gesture of our
Russian companions are inimitable…. I must add that the translation is quite often
Rousset’s pressing nota bene calls the reader’s attention to the untranslatable rhetorical
excess of each of the camp-specific words he presents; without the proper sensory
circumstances, the tonal and gestural setting of the words, the reader has access only to a
pale imitation of the language.
Marsalek’s testimony from the Mauthausen camp also contains a glossary, which he
introduces in the following terms: “The incomplete collection of camp expressions listed
here in alphabetical order attests to the perverse brutality of the circumstances and the
David Rouset. Les jours de notre mort. Paris: Editions de Pavois, 1947. 770. “Transcrire selon les
principes phonétiques n’aurait présenté aucun sens pour la plupart des lecteurs. On s’est efforcé ici, de
la façon plus approchée, de reproduire selon la sonorité, mais l’accent, le ton, la mimique de nos
compagnons russes sont inimitables…. Je dois ajouter que la traduction est bien souvent adoucie.”
“devilish” linguistic confusion among speakers from all over Europe.
compendium, which Marsalek characterizes as incomplete, nonetheless seeks to
forensically reorder the “incorrigible confusion of languages.”
Others, including Floris Bakels, chose to embed this glossing technique into their
The beatings have become independent of purpose, an issue on its own. A
systematic exercise for its own sake. The human element—one man murdering
another—has been lost. The muscle-machine smashes flesh, makes mincemeat out
of it. […] When the muscle-machine runs out of fuel, it stops. Slowly it takes human
shape again. That of a murderer. The Nazis call it fertigmachen.
As an alternative heuristic strategy to the glossaries of Marsalek or Rousset, Bakel’s
lyrical manner of laying bear the term fertigmachen builds backwards from the
description into its context-specific term.
In his short, incisive bibliographical survey, Taterka notes that—though fifty years of
Holocaust literature has produced a burgeoning corpus of technical reference works on
camp-specific jargon—there has been a dearth of research on the “language situation”
[Sprachsituation] in KZ’s and Nazi-ruled ghettos. As Taterka, Ochlies, and Aschenberg
note, glossaries and lexical primers on camp jargon only obliquely addressed the
experience of language use that shaped camp life.
In order to record the linguistic and
Hans Marsalek. Die Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Mauthausen. Dokumentation. Vienna:
Lagergemeinschaft Mauthausen, 1974. 275. “Die unvollständige Sammlung der hier in alphabetischer
Reihenfolge aufscheinenden Lagerausdrücke bezeugt die perverse Brutalität der Verhältnisse und das
heillose Sprachenwirrwar der aus ganz Europa stammenden Gefangenen.”
Floris Bakels. Nacht und Nebel. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1979. 117.
Thomas Taterka. “Zur Sprachsituation im deutschen Konzentrationslager.” Juni. Magazin für Literatur &
Politik 21 (1995): 37–54. Heidi Aschenberg. “Sprachterror. Kommunikation im nationalsozialistischen
Konzentrationslager.“ Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 118.4 (2002): 529-572.
ethical other-worldliness of the concentration camp, another kind of narrative would be
Levi and the Unsayable
An extended passage from Primo Levi’s The Truce dramatizes—at the level of the
sentence—the tension between assimilated recollection, untranslatability, and linguistic
survival in concentration camp memoir:
Hurbinek was a nothing, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about
three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and had no name;
that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the
women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that
the baby let out now and again. He was paralyzed from the waist down, with
atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face,
flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter
the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to
teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare
both savage and human, even mature, a judgment, which none of us could support,
so heavy was it with force and anguish. […] After a week, Henek announced
seriously, but without a shadow of selfconsciousness, that Hurbinek “could say a
word.” What word? He did not know: a difficult word, not Hungarian: something
like “mass-klo”, “matisklo.”
Levi’s three-year-old fellow inmate—called Hurbinek in the absence of any given
name—died a few weeks after saying the word: mass-klo / matiskli. Born and socialized
in Auschwitz, the child appeared to have no native language among the scores of
interwoven codes and pidgins that channeled and dispersed meaning in the concentration
Levi 1987, 198. Levi 1963, 27–29. Translation modified. “Hurbinek era un nulla, un figlio della morte,
un figlio di Auschwitz. Dimonstrava tre anni circa, nessuno sapeva niente di lui, non sapeva parlare e
non aveva nome: quel curioso nome, Hurbinek, gli era stato assegnato da noi […] Dopo una settimana,
Henek annunciò con serietà ma senza ombra di presunzione, che Hurbinek “diceva una parola”. Quale
parola? Non sapeva, una parola difficile, non ungherese: qualcosa come ‘mass-klo’, ‘matiskli’.”
camp space from 1933 to 1946. Hurbinek’s enunciation occurs in an unrecoverable other-
language that belongs only to the camp. The referential terrain of his language was not
the national territories from which his various fellow inmates had once come, but the
translingual camp space itself. Hurbinek’s emergent speech was a creolizing pidgin,
nourished by the extreme repertoire of signs available in the concentrationary universe of
Birkenau. Levi continues:
During the night we listened carefully: it was true, from Hurbinek’s corner there
occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same
word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different
articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a
name. Hurbinek continued in his stubborn experiments for as long as he lived. In
the following days everybody listened to him in silence, anxious to understand, and
among us there were speakers of all the languages of Europe; but Hurbinek’s word
remained secret. No, it was certainly not a message, it was not a revelation, perhaps
it was his name, if it had ever fallen to his lot to be given a name, perhaps (according
to one of our hypotheses) it meant “to eat,” or “bread,” or perhaps “meat” in
Bohemian, as one of us who knew this language maintained.
According to Levi’s account in The Truce, Hurbinek was three years old at the time of his
death in mid-1945. In these first moments following the fall of Hitler’s New Europe, Levi
and his blockmates listened to Hurbinek’s speech with an almost forensic attention. As
representatives of Europe’s national languages, they listened closely to this “native
speaker” of Auschwitz’ camp language. On the one hand, they listened for traces of a
Levi 1987, 198. Levi 1963, 27–29. “Nella notte tendemmo l’orecchio: era vero dall’angolo di Hurbinek
veniva ogni tanto un suono, una parola. Non semper esattamente la stessa, per verità, ma era certamente
una parola articolata; o meglio, parole articolate legermente diverse, variazioni sperimentali attorno a un
tema, a una radice, forse a un nome. / Hurbinek continuò finché ebbe vita nei suoi esperimenti ostinati.
Nei giorni seguenti, tutti lo ascoltavamo in silenzio, ansiosi di capire, e c’erano fra noi paratori di tutte
le lingue d’Europa, ma la parola di Hurbinek rimase segreta. No, non era certo un mesaggio, non una
rivelazione; forse era il suo nome, se pure ne aveva avuto uno in sorte, forse (secondo una delle nostre
ipotesi) voleva dire “mangiare”, o “pane”; o forse “carne” in boemo, como sosteneva con buoni
argomenti uno di noi, che conosceva questa lingua. “
comprehensible national language—whether Bohemian, Hungarian, or otherwise. Yet
they were also awaiting an act of transcendent meaning-making from Hurbinek that
might bring “crematorium Esperanto” itself into circulation and relevance.
expectation is flouted on both counts; Hurbinek ultimately has no decipherable message
to reveal to his interlocutors.
“Nothing remains of him,” writes Levi, “He bears witness through these words of
Hurbinek’s non-revelation, his frail native pidgin language opens a mise en
abyme in Levi’s text that haunts Holocaust narrative. Though it has been standard in
Holocaust historiography to understand unrepresentability and speechlessness as an index
of the ethically incomprehensible in the Holocaust,
Hurbinek’s dilemma of
enunciation—and that of his blockmates—was an urgently linguistic one. What is most
menacing for all participants (including us as readers) is not just the underlying factum of
what is to be said or written, but also the entropic code of camp language in which that
signified is indefinitely sequestered. To cite Arendt’s distinction above, Levi records the
utterances that Hurbinek produces without communicating them. The prose moves about
laterally, guessing at the meaning, producing asyndetons of possible yet improbable
matches for the sound the child is repeating in his corner. The prose thus emulates, on the
level of sentence syntax, the process of waiting and divining a signifier that will
nonetheless always remain concealed.
Tadzeuz Borowski. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Trans. Barbara Vedder. New York:
Levi 1987, 198.
Susan Gubar. Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2003. Elrud Ibsch. Die Shoah erzählt: Zeugnis und Experiment in der Literatur.
Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 2004.
Birkenau’s Native Speakers
Levi calls attention to a generation of young native speakers of camp language as it began
to develop from a pidgin into a creole.
Hurbinek was not the only child. There were others, in relatively good health; they
had formed a little ‘club’, very closed and reserved, in which the intrusion of adults
was visibly unwelcome. They were wild and judicious little animals, who conversed
in languages I could not understand. The most authoritative member of the clan was
no more than five years old.
Since Levi was well aware of how Hungarian, Greek, Moravian, and Catalan sounded,
when he writes of “languages I could not understand,” he is talking about new pidgin
languages, hybridized during the long-term confinement of people speaking scores of
dialects and codes in the compressed space of Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). Levi’s
description of the IG-Farbenindustrie chemical plants begins to suggest how the
linguistically incomprehensible and the ethically incomprehensible were mutually
constitutive in camp life:
The Buna is as large as a city; besides the managers and German technicians, forty
thousand foreigners work there, and fifteen to twenty languages are spoken. All the
foreigners live in different Lagers which surround the Buna […] The Carbide
Tower, which rises in the middle of Buna and whose top is rarely visible in the fog,
was built by us. Its bricks were called ziegel, briques, tegula, cegli, kamenny, matinal, teglak,
and they were cemented by hate, hate and discord, like the Tower of Babel, and it is
this that we call it; Babelturm, Babelturm; and in it we hate the insane dream of
grandeur of our masters.
Again, Levi’s lyricism emulates the multilingual means of production at work in Buna,
the process of building brick-by-brick, cognate-by-cognate, the Babel tower. Designed
Levi 1987, 200.
Levi, 1987, 78–79.
around linguistic hierarchies and regulated through cross-lingual incomprehensibility, the
Buna work camp tortured and mortified with language itself. Being an inmate meant the
inability to decode, and yet the (impossible) necessity to apprehend and reproduce rapidly
variant and binding linguistic repertoires. Richard Glazar’s tableau from Treblinka
accentuates the KZ’s extreme multilingualism:
Somehow [the foreman] makes whatever language he is speaking sound like
German. There are many words I don’t understand, and I fill in with what I assume
he wants to say. He is standing above me on the gigantic mountain of clothing from
which the others are pulling, yanking, tugging, running in and running out. I look up
at him, up there spreading his arms wide, the whip dangling from his wrist.
Power is in the hands, not of a monolingual German SS officer, but of a multilingual
designee, himself a prisoner, speaking a language that may or may not be German. The
narrator is unsure, even indifferent, to the actual provenance of the language. Inmates are
meanwhile stripped bare of the signs and symbols that had bound them to the world
outside. Levi writes:
They have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak they will not
listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our
name; and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do
so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were,
Silence and Semiotic Awareness
Robert Antelme articulated the distinction between camp life and life outside in the
following terms: “In the camps, the “silence” of the detainee is not the silence of one who
Richard Glazar. Trap with a Green Fence. Trans. Roslyn Theobald. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern
University Press, 1995. 7.
Levi 1987, 33.
should not speak, but of one who cannot speak.”
This inability to speak was, of course,
of multiple provenances. Hunger, illness, delirium, and cold drove inmates to become so
emptied out of affective engagement with the external world that many never spoke
except when responding to an order. Yet this “silence” for Antelme was also the
experience of being unable to respond in the proper code, of not being able to use the
context-specific lexicon and idiom as it abruptly evolved in a given camp system.
Administrative routines of call-and-response speech drove voluntary, expressive
speech to the margin of social life. The subject was drawn into a compulsory procedure
of decoding even the most fleeting, paralingual signs. In addition to the variously colored
triangles sewn into uniforms, some deputized inmates from the camp’s “prominent” class
wore silk armbands of various decorative colors and patterns denoting what scarce
commodities they currently had on hand for bartering purposes.
The tattoo system also
resulted in an intricate mode of social literacy:
Everyone will treat with respect the numbers from 30,000 to 80,000; there are only a
few hundred left and they represented the few survivals from the Polish ghettos.
One does well to watch out in commercial dealings with a 116,000 or a 117,000;
they now number only about forty, but they represent the Greeks of Salonica, so
take care they don’t pull the wool over your eyes.
As Levi, Glazar, and others assert, decoding distant semiotic and sensory data in spite of
one’s immobility and noncomprehension was a primary activity for inmates. Floris
Robert Antelme. L'espèce humaine. Paris: Gallimard, 2001. 201. “Dans les camps, le “silence” du detenu
n’est pas le silence de celui qui ne doit pas parler, mais de celui qui ne peut pas parler.”
Hermann Langbein. People in Auschwitz. Trans. Harry Zohn. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Levi 1987, 34.
Bakels describes his acute attunement to semio-spatial dispersion in his memoir Night
and Fog [Nacht und Nebel]:
One acquires an astonishing heightening of the senses…Man’s brain can
accommodate a certain quantity of impressions. A vacuum develops. This cannot be
filled with new stimuli, so one’s awareness of what already exists is heightened. At 9
am you smell what is being prepared in the kitchen, 200 meters away.
Inmates had to anticipate meaning, guess meaning, and reproduce unknown meaning
regularly, often while unable to shift perspective or inspect the source-data in the midst of
the other physically devastating tasks.
Monolingual inmates with only minimal access to or knowledge of German and
Yiddish were far less likely to survive the first few weeks of imprisonment. It is therefore
a gruesome, structural precondition of the corpus of camp memoirs we read today that
most surviving witnesses were multilingual. At the time of their arrest and deportation,
most surviving memoirists already possessed, or were able to quickly achieve, an above-
average cache of multilingual capital. Though all KZ-inmates were de facto situational
multilinguals—compelled to life-and-death procedures of deciphering beyond their native
language—only those in possession of a certain permutation of multilingual proficiency
(often including Yiddish or German) tended to survive long enough to bear witness. The
stark immediacy of language hierarchies haunts Levi’s writing precisely because it did
not represent an “obvious transgression” on the part of the individual prisoner:
You review your memories. … No, you find no obvious transgressions, you did not
usurp anyone’s place, you did not beat anyone (but would you have had the strength
to do so?), you did not accept positions (but none were offered to you …), you did
not steal anyone’s bread; nevertheless you cannot exclude it. It is no more than a
Bakels 1979, 43.
suspicion, indeed the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother’s Cain,
that each one of us (and this time I say “us” in a much vaster, indeed, universal
sense) has usurped his neighbour’s place and lives in his stead.
A gruesome corollary of this principle existed in some inmates’ overidentification with
camp language as an adopted dominant code. Levi tells the story of a certain 12-year-old
non-German Kapo protégé at Auschwitz, who had so voraciously adopted the language
of the enemy that he reproduced it in his sleep after liberation.
He shouted imperious commands in German at a troop of non-existent slaves. “Get
up, swine, understand? Make your beds, quickly; clean your shoes. All in line, lice
inspection, feet inspection! Show your feet, scum! Dirty again, you shit heap! Watch
out, I’m not joking. If I catch you once more, it’s the crematorium for you!” Then,
yelling in the manner of German soldiers: “Fall in! Dressed! Covered! Collar down;
in step, keep time! Hands in line with the seams of your trousers!
The boy’s ability to produce and mimic German commands had ensured his survival until
the dissolution of the Nazi regime. Many non-Yiddish-speaking monolinguals did not
survive even to enter the symbolic life of the camp; often they did not even know where
they were before dying. This begins to explain the predominance of bilinguals and
multilinguals among the authors of camp literature. The silences in the Holocaust canon,
where accounts by monolinguals would have been, made a language-based history of the
Holocaust all the more recalcitrant.
This asymmetry both begs a reconception of Holocaust memoir from the perspective
of multilingual survival and undermines Giorgio Agamben’s assertion that the camp was
“the most absolute biopolitical space ever to have been realized, in which power
Primo Levi. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Summit Books, 1988.
Levi 1987, 202.
confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation.”
Mediating between power and
pure life was an intricately structured economy, an emergent market of mutually
incomprehensible languages spoken simultaneously, and in close quarters. Understood
along the lines of Erving Goffman’s notion of situation as a “set of mutual monitoring
camp space was a landscape of linguistic capacities and incapacities, of
speech and speechlessness—a hyperbolic language market that regulated subsistence
according to who could understand and operate within the vernacular code of the
Thresholds of Reinitiation
Despite the centrality of multilingual and creole competence in daily survival, the pidgins
and mixed languages of the KZ became the object of social and scholarly stigmatization
after 1945. One of the most incisive and data-rich studies of “crematorium Esperanto” to
date characterizes lagerzspracha as being “imbued with the inhuman situation [of the
camp] and saturated with brutalisms, inhumane curses and expletives. One can perceive
this degenerate lagerzspracha […] as a language-pathological phenomenon that is already
fading into history, for there are not many former camp inmates who continue to use it in
their intimate circles.”
As pathological and barbaric, the lexicon of witness was
subjected to cleansing. The translation practices that made possible the publication of
early camp testimonies were to a great extent homologous with other rituals of first-
Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1998. 170–171.
For Goffman, a social situation is “any environment of mutual monitoring possibilities that lasts during
the time two or more individuals find themselves in one another’s immediate physical presence, and
extends over the entire territory within which this mutual monitoring is possible.” Irving Goffman.
Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face to Face Behavior. Chicago: Aldine, 1967. 167.
Jagoda 1981, 241.
encounter between concentrationaires and their liberators. Levi describes his experience
of being bathed by two Russian teenagers at the Auschwitz Displaced-Persons
encampment after liberation as a kind of translation rite—benevolent, yet antiseptic:
I am not questioning that a bath was opportune for us in our condition: in fact it
was necessary, and not unwelcome. But in that bath, and at each of those three
memorable christenings, it was easy to perceive behind the concrete and liberal
aspect a great symbolic shadow, the unconscious desire of the new authorities, who
absorbed us in turn within their own sphere, to strip us of the vestiges of our
former life, to make of us new men consistent with their own models, to impose
their brand upon us.
The successive national christenings—first by Polish, then Russian, then American
hands—that reintroduced the narrator’s body into life outside would also recur in the
redaction and editorial preparation of camp memoirs. In order to transition from camp-
life back to the world of the living, ex-inmates needed to be cleansed in body and then in
language. That re-socializing inmates’ use of language to the status quo ante effectively
obscured the linguistic changes and specificities they experienced over the years in a
given camp was an unobjectionable matter of course.
The task of ensuring comprehensibility for readers who never experienced
“concentrationary language” was thus entrusted to the pre-war national languages.
Whether written in broken military German, lagerzspracha, or a mix of languages,
pidgins, and dialects, testimony needed to be shepherded out of the translingual matrix of
its production. Through an unprecedented total mobilization of translation across the
Levi 1987, 194. “Non intendo gia mettere in dubbio che un Bagno, per noi in quelle condizioni, fosse
opportune; era anzi necessario, e non sgradito. Ma in esso, ed in ciascuno di quei tre memorabili
lavracri, era agevole ravvisare, dietro all’aspetto concreto e letterale, una grande ombra simbolica, il
Desiderio inconsapevole, da parte della nuova autorità che volta a volta ci assorbiva nella sua sfera, di
spogliarci delle vestigia della nostra vita di prima di fare di noi degli uomini nuovi, conformi ai loro
modelli, di imporci il oro marchio.”
continent, the translingual sublime of fascism’s camp spaces was gradually disentangled
to befit the monolingual orders of post-War national reconstruction.
Translating the Speech of the Annulled
All manner of immediate post-war encounters with the ex-inmate—the translingual
detainee who no longer quite belonged to any respective national community—were
marked not only by linguistic estrangement, but other forms of mutual repulsion as well.
Levi remembers his first post-liberation encounter with Russian soldiers as follows:
They did not greet us, nor did they smile; they seemed oppressed not only by
compassion but by a confused restraint, which sealed their lips and bound their eyes
to the funereal scene. It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned
us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage:
the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another
man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have
been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist, and that his will for
good should have proved too weak or null, and should not have availed in defense.
Levi himself describes a yearning for national re-homogenization among his comrades,
amid the chaos of mass post-War repatriation:
In those days and in those parts, soon after the front had passed by, a high wind was
blowing over the face of the earth; the world around us seemed to have returned to
primeval Chaos, and was swarming with scalene, defective, abnormal human
specimens; each of them bestirred himself, with blind or deliberate movements, in
anxious search of his own place, of his own sphere, as the particles of the four
elements are described as doing in the verse-cosmogonies of the Ancients.
Here, I suggest amending James Chiampi’s principle of the “concentrationary sublime” (based in Croce’s
aesthetics) to include the specifically linguistic features of camp life. See James T. Chiampi. “Testifying
to his Text: Primo Levi and the Concentrationary Sublime.” Romantic Review 92.4 (2001): 491–511.
Levi 1987, 188.
Levi 1987, 208.
Levi here describes the tension between a longing for home, for one’s “own sphere” as it
pre-existed Nazi deportation, and a need to document the other “own sphere” of the
concentration camp in its untranslated, irreconcilable, radically other form. This tension
between “assimilated recollection” and the subjugated languages of camp life
underscores the dilemma memoirists faced.
Remembering his first return to Germany after liberation, Levi attests to his own
intense need to tell his story to the Germans and elicit their response:
We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German,
and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent
need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, like chess players at the
end of a game.
Yet Levi’s own enunciative position often mirrors the annulled speech of Hurbinek—the
aspiring yet indecipherable child-speaker of Auschwitz. Once, upon meeting a group of
Poles during the months of his post-War transport through Eastern Europe, he asks a
lawyer to translate “his story” to them. Levi describes his request for language assistance
in the following way:
I had a torrent of urgent things to tell the civilized world: my things, but everyone’s,
things of blood, things which (it seemed to me) ought to shake every conscience to
its very foundation. The lawyer translated into Polish for the public. Now I do not
know Polish, but I know how one says ‘Jew’ and how one says ‘political’; and I soon
realized that the translation of my account, although sympathetic, was not faithful to
it. The lawyer described me to the public not as an Italian Jew, but as an Italian
political prisoner. […] I asked him why, amazed and almost offended. He replied,
embarrassed: “C’est mieux pour vous. La guerre n’est pas finie.”
Levi 1987, 176.
Levi 1987, 226–7. “It’s better for you. The war is not over.” The lawyer addresses Levi in the second-
Convinced of the universal import of his account, the narrator watches the lawyer
deliberately mistranslate for his own safety. Here we may note a relation among 1)
Hurbinek’s inarticulate, non-revelatory enunciations among his blockmates at Auschwitz,
2) the Polish-speaking lawyer’s precautionary (and yet paternalist) mistranslation of the
narrator’s account, and 3) Levi’s literary intervention itself. Each of these three
enunciative moments represents an impossible imperative to “shatter the tomb of
The Only Means
Primo Levi’s narrative practices foreground a set of symbolic circumstances in camp life
that resist translatability and monolingual representation: the enforced silence of cross-
language exchange, the emergence of strictly camp-specific codes among long-term
prisoners, the annihilation of given names and interpersonal distinction, and the
unprecedented multilingualism of the camp. It is on this basis that many witnesses insist
that camp-language is the only means to “overcome the distance” between life outside
and the concentrationary universe.
Oschlies cites the testimony of a fifty-year-old Czech doctor Frantisek Blaha at the
Nuremberg tribunals in 1946, who declared:
In the interests of this trial, I am prepared to give my testimony in German for the
following reasons. 1. I have lived exclusively in a German environment for the last
seven years. 2. A series of particular topical expressions, that arose within and
around the concentration camp, are exclusively German inventions, and one can
find no equivalent in other languages.
Accounts from Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Mauthausen and other camps indeed
demonstrate an imperative to defend camp language against the cleansing practices of
publishers and translators. For Devoto,
This language, which includes terms used formally and informally by the Nazis and
other terms used by the deportees, is the only means (or so it appears to us) to
penetrate into the interior of the camps and avoid being kept out, as would happen
if we based our research solely on historical sources and statistical data. It also
represents the only instrument with which to overcome the psychological distance
that separates us from the nightmarish dimension called the “Lager.”
According to this account, camp language not only recognizes and reenacts the
experience of an inimitable symbolic situation, it represents the primary condition for the
iterability of this experience at all. One Polish-speaking inmate, Maria Slisz-Oyrzyiska,
attested to this fact in more personal terms:
Among us former women captives, we use camp language. We cannot exchange
memories in another language. Often we lack the fitting expressions for denoting
types of work or events. But when we share memories in our lagerzspracha, we see
everything as it really was.
Even Levi, the eloquent dramatist of cross-lingual aporia, narrates an instance in which
his native Italian is insufficient for communicating a story about his life in Birkenau.
Daydreaming about being back in Italy, the narrator imagines the intranslatability of what
he witnessed first hand as follows:
Heidi Aschenberg. “Il faut que je parle au nom des chose qui sont arrivés… Zur Übertragung von
Konnotation und Aposiopese in Texten zu Lager und Shoah.” Jahrbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache 24
(1998): 137–158. Trans. Graziano Paolicelli. “Questo linguaggio—che va dai termini usati
ufficialmente e ufficiosamente dai nazisti, fino a quelli adoperati dai deportati—e l’unico mezzo (cosi
almeno ci sembra) per penetrare ail’interno del campi e non rimanare invitabilmente fuori, como
accadrebbe basandoci unicamente sulli fonti storiche e statistiche. E anche l’unico mezzo per superare
la “distanza” psicologica che ci separa da quell mondo d’incubo che fu il ‘Lager.’”
Jagoda 1976, 47.
I would lie down on the ground to kiss the earth, as you read in books, with my face
in the grass. And a woman would pass, and she would ask me “Who are you?” in
Italian, and I would tell her my story in Italian and she would understand, and she
would give me food and shelter. And she would not believe the things I tell her, and
I would show her the number on my arm, and then she would believe.
Imagining being back in Italy and recounting his experiences, his native Italian language
doesn’t suffice to verify the experience. Levi needs the tattooed number to certify the
story, to make it communicable. The verification, inscribed on his body, is of another
code that is not his own; the entire story could never be told in Italian alone. The number
on his arm, an indelible element of the camp’s living “traffic in meaning,” supersedes the
narrative potential of his own language.
The sign of the tattooed number is the threshold, indexing a story that cannot be told
in a national language. Here we may recall Levi’s role as spokesperson for the
who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of
men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose
tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first
days of March 1945, free but not redeemed.
Levi 1987, 49–50.
Levi 1987, 198.
Discipline and Barbarism
As you have not invited a German this year, but
me instead, that must have something to do with
the fact that you don’t consider me a stranger, a
foreigner. And without a doubt, you are right
—Jorge Semprún, Speech at the German Bundestag, 2003
The ethno-national mythos upon which Nazi domination was constructed—its
bloodthirsty distillations of Germanness on the homefront—tends to overshadow how the
Third Reich brought about radical linguistic ruptures within Europe’s national territories.
In unprecedented numbers, native citizens became foreigners, foreigners became
denizens of domination, and both were made subject to a strategically adulterated
German language. Through the chaos of conquest, occupation, and mass forced
migration, the regime simultaneous gave rise to more hybrid forms of language and
identity throughout Europe than any philological field or social science is equipped to
account for. Violently initiated into Germanness, witnesses like Jorge Semprún and
Primo Levi became the negative denizens of the Third Reich’s imagined community, as
Germans saw their own language transmorgified and exported. Such is the linguistic
barbarism of 1930–50, a maelstrom of expropriated and juxtaposed codes and languages,
unmoored from the normative language territories that had been established throughout
As a genre, Holocaust memoir has thus been faced with a number of confounding
representational tasks, beyond that of systematized mass murder. It has had to account for
Winlfried F. Schoeller. Jorge Semprún. Munich: Text & Kritik, 2006. 73. “Wenn Sie in diesem Jahr
keinen Deutschen, sondern mich eingeladen haben, hängt das irgendwie damit zusammen, daß Sie mich
vielleicht nicht für einen Fremden, für einen Ausländer halten. Und zweifelsohne haben Sie damit
the explosive semiodiversity of the European landscape under Nazi monolingualism; it
has had to tell stories for which any one national language is ill-suited; it has had to
demonstrate the captive and refugee lifeworlds that totalitarianism both created and
destroyed; and it had to be conversant enough in the brutal idioms of fascism to critique
them, despite the post-War world’s efforts to banish such speech from public discourse.
With a vivid turn of phrase, Michael Rothberg claimed that the Nazi Holocaust was
itself an interdisciplinary project, borne up by the industrial confluence of the natural
sciences, historiography, medicine, geopolitical theory, semiotics, architecture, sociology,
diplomacy and economics—on a transnational scale.
Sifting through sixty years of
philosophical accounts of the death camps—Lyotard’s differend, Cohen’s tremendum,
Arendt’s banality of evil—Rothberg concludes that the impasses encountered in
representing the death camps are rooted not so much in the unfathomable fact of
industrial mass murder, but in our own epistemic stances and limitations. “Perhaps the
frequently intoned ‘impossibility’ of comprehending the Holocaust,” he writes, “arises in
part from the preservation of traditional disciplinary boundaries and structures of
To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.
Debate still swells about whether
Adorno’s bedeviling sentence about Auschwitz and literature was an injunction or
something more speculative.
In style and syntax it seems to be nothing less than a moral
Michael Rothberg. Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 3.
Rothberg 2000, 6.
Theodor Adorno. ‘‘Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft.’’ Prismen. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1955. 30. “Nach
Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.”
Gubar 2003, 240. Ibsch 2004, 48.
condemnation—unless we allow the word “barbaric” to signify differently than the
Enlightenment binaries of civilization versus brutality suggest.
With Julia Kristeva’s
etymology of barbaric in mind—as the Hellenistic onomatopoeia for foreign speech:
—Antony Rowland sees Adorno’s sentence as descriptive rather
than injunctive. Poetry after Auschwitz will have the quality of mixed, foreign speech—
perhaps even of “inarticulate, unimportant scribbling.”
Part Two of this dissertation
explores the post-War legacy of Adorno’s dictum, of a German landscape populated by
foreign and unintelligible speech.
Antony Rowland. Tony Harrison and the Holocaust. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001.
Kristeva 1992, 51.
Rowland 2001, 258.
On the Other Side: The Languages of Turkish German Fiction
Scholars still have good reason to hesitate before proposing links between Jews and
Turks in twentieth-century Germany. As recently as July 2008, the renowned researcher
Faruk Sen was locked out of the Center for Turkish Studies in Essen, which he founded,
for having referred to Turks as the “new Jews of Europe” [Avrupa’nın yeni Yahudileri] in
a May 19 column in the Turkish business newspaper Referans.
from the Turkish Community [Türkische Gemeinde] to the prominent author Dilek
Zaptçıoglu recognized how unadvisable such an equation was, they nonetheless protested
against the imperious backlash in the German press. Comparability notwithstanding,
Dilek Zaptçıoglu echoed Sen’s sentiment with the equally broad claim that “Every
German Turk feels connected to the history of Jews in Germany.”
And the Director of
Germany’s influential Central Council for Jews, Stephan Kramer, insisted that Sen was
“neither a Holocaust relativizer nor an anti-Semite," and that the charges against him
For his part, Sen gave the telling explanation that his remarks were not
appropriate for a German audience, and that his two roles—as an expert on Turkey when
in Germany, and as an advocate for emigrants’ rights when in Turkey—had awkwardly
coalesced in the course of this affair.
Faruk !en. “Avrupa'nın Yeni Yahudileri.” Referans 19 May 2008.
Dilek Zaptçıoglu. “Jeder Deutschtürke fühlt sich mit der Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland verbunden.
Wenn Faruk Sen wegen seines missglückten Vergleichs jetzt gehen soll, ist das absurd.” die
tageszeitung [Berlin] 3 Jul. 2008.
“Turkish Expert Resigns: Scholar Steps Down After Comparing Turks to Jews.” Der Spiegel Online 16
Yet even where resonances between the literary positions of German Jews and those
of Turkish German authors are at their most salient, scholarly apprehension persists. As
Dunphy would have it, “There is perhaps an interesting analogy between Kafka's feelings
about not knowing Hebrew and Özdamar's on her lack of Arabic, but more general
parallels between the situation of German Jews in the first half of the twentieth century
and that of German Turks in the second must be handled with the greatest of care.”
Leslie A. Adelson, this admonition to carefully “handle”—or abstain from handling—
such constellations in the same critical setting has led to a situation in which “A Czech
writer such as Libuse Monikova (1945-1998), who lived in Germany after 1971, was
readily celebrated as an heir to Kafka and Joyce, while Zafer Senocak's ties to Celan,
Camus, Kafka, and others go largely unattended.”
Already in 1987, Arlene Akiko Teraoka argued against this state of affairs, pointing
out genealogical echoes between Kafka’s linguistic position and those of German Turks.
Elizabeth Boa heeded this call with her incisive essay on the Kafkaesque “language
traffic” in the works of three Turkish German women authors, Özdamar, Aysel Özakın,
and Renan Demirkan. Adelson approaches this delicate historical constellation as
Narratives in which victimized Turks make contact with victimized Jews are
“touching” tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews, in part, because they evoke a
culturally residual, referentially non-specific sense of guilt, blame, and danger.
Additionally, one question to be foregrounded here pertains to the epistemological
Grame Dunphy. “Review of Mary Howard. Interkulturelle Konfigurationen: Zur deutschsprachigen
Erzählliteratur von Autoren nichtdeutscher Herkunft.” The Modern Language Review 96.1 (2001):
Leslie A. Adelson. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical Narrative,
and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique 80 (2000): 93–124, 119.
“touch” of such ambiguous referentiality. If Turkish and Jewish figures or
references meet in German literary narratives of the recent past and do not merely
stand in representationally for each other, what does the representational “touch”
The second half of this dissertation considers texts on the German Turkish literary
spectrum, texts that are the latter-day kin of Kafka’s and Levi’s adverse multilinguality in
the midst of the German language. Like Kafka’s “Returning Home” and Levi’s The
Truce, these texts register in spatial terms a historical and epistemological apprehension
about German monolingualism. In his 2002 novel Snow, Orhan Pamuk picks up on this
still inchoate relationship between the writerly positions of Franz Kafka and the authors
of Turkish German literature of migration.
Scholarly accounts of the literature of migration in Germany have struggled to evoke
fitting spatial metaphors that account for the conceptual work of borderland writing.
From Walraff’s metaphor of the “lowest of the low” to Dilek Zaptçıoglu’s “living in two
worlds,” one’s choice of spatial metaphors has been a potent litmus test, signaling one’s
discursive-political stance on any number of Turkish-German topics.
Berlin’s House of World Cultures in 2000, Leslie A. Adelson implicitly addressed the
German head-of-state in a speech entitled “Against Between”:
The “dialogue of cultures” that [Federal President] Johannes Rau and other public
figures call for may be useful, even necessary, in the sociopolitical realm, but it fails
completely, oddly enough, in the imaginative realm of social production that is often
taken to represent culture. Whoever mines literary texts of the 1990s and beyond for
Adelson 2000, 102.
Dilek Zaptçıoglu. “Living in two Worlds.” Trans. Tes Howell. Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration
1955–2005. Eds. Deniz Göktürk, David Gramling, Anton Kaes. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 2007. 345–347. Günter Wallraff. Ganz Unten. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1985. Gert von
Bassewitz. Morgens Deutschland, abends Türkei. Berlin: Fröhlich und Kaufmann, 1981. Carmine
Abate. Zwischen Fabrik und Bahnhof. Bremen: CON Medien- und Vertriebgesellschaft, 1981.
evidence of mutually exclusive collective identities in communicative dialogue with
one another is not reading this literature for its most significant innovations. […]
The imaginary bridge “between two worlds” is designed to keep discrete worlds
apart as much as it pretends to bring them together.
Spatial figuration thus remains a potent affective and philosophical resource for
critiquing, or affirming, such political tonguetwisters as “cultural integration”, “parallel
societies”, and the fabled “clash of civilizations.” These tropes have aroused the
imaginative energies of a range of artists—from the early novelists of Turkish migration,
like Aras Ören and Güney Dal, to the filmmakers Tevfik Ba¸er and Fatih Akın. The title
of Part Two of this dissertation, “On the Other Side,” is inspired by the Hamburg-based
filmmaker Fatıh Akın’s most recent film of the same name, though it has been translated
into English as The Edge of Heaven. Perhaps because Auf der anderen Seite is Akın’s
most stridently and subtly multilingual film to date, it represents the belated
desublimation of the “two worlds” metaphor—of Turkishness and Germanness
disconnected by civilizational distance and subsequently reconnected by bridges of
intercultural good will.
Though the film title can connote unbridgeable differences, it also suggests a
Protagorian antilogy: the idea that two contradictory arguments may be held
simultaneously, as expressed in the English phrase “on the other hand.” As such, Akın’s
film is a narrative epistemology about how uncanny juxtapositions, missed encounters,
and analectic simultaneity shape everyday experiences and pursuits of meaning in a
transnational context—often in clear contravention of any given character’s self-concept
and semiotic repertoire. This ethics of simultaneity is embodied in the film’s multilingual
array of characters: Ayten, who speaks Turkish and English but no German; Nejat, who
communicates with equal reticence in Turkish, English and German; and Susanne, who
speaks German and English only.
The film suggests these three characters as a kind of
triadic multilingual speech community, sharing Nejat’s apartment in Istanbul for an
indefinite period, brought together by a cascade of rejuvenating yet fatal events—
including the deaths of Ayten’s mother and Susanne’s daughter. Thus the film hinges on
a constant recursive movement between differently-languaged speakers, among whom no
one character or language maintains discursive authority on questions of culture, history,
In the film, the Germanistik professor Nejat gives his father Ali, a former guest
worker living in Bremen, a Turkish translation of a book he has read and enjoyed, Selim
Özdogan’s novel Die Tochter des Schmieds [The Daughter of the Blacksmith].
book, OK dad?” [“Kitabı oku, baba, tamam mı?”] entreats Nejat. Though Ali indeed
completes Özdogan’s novel over the course of the film, Nejat’s gift (and symbolic
imposition) present a subtle paradox, as Özdogan’s German-language novel itself
remained untranslated into Turkish at the time of the film’s release. A cover bearing the
title Demircinin kızı was produced for the fictional world of the film, acting as a kind of
promissory note for the future of Turkish German culture—to labor toward a more fluid
and expansive bilateral traffic in meanings and translations between the languages.
It is this lateral, cross-language tension—an unwillingness to foreclose on meaning or
truth in one language only—that characterizes Özdamar and Pamuk’s textual project as
Thomas Elsaesser has also suggested how the film foregrounds a certain “ethical calculus,” yet questions
of language and multilingualism do not inform his analysis. Thomas Elsaesser. “Ethical Calculus: The
Cross-cultural Dilemmas and Moral Burdens of Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven.” Film Comment
Selim Özdogan. Die Tochter des Schmieds. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 2005.
well. Though Pamuk writes in Turkish and Özdamar in German, their texts pulse with the
traces and dilemmas of the language “on the other side” of their respective textual
threshold. While Özdamar stakes her German-language project on its traffic with Turkish
literary and figural language, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow takes involuntary detours through the
channels of political capital that the German language commands.
My readings, and particularly those concerned with Özdamar, differ from those
offered in German Studies thus far in that I claim that her novel Life is a Caravanserai is,
despite its manifold multilingual features, a monolingual text, or what Cheesman has
called “a polite fiction.”
Like a charcoal drawing that emulates an oil painting—in its
brushstrokes, range of color, and depth of texture—Özdamar’s writing remains acutely
aware of the constraints of its monolingual medium.
In proposing a positional kinship between these Turkish German axial authors and
early twentieth-century multilingual interlopers in German—Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus,
Elias Canetti, Robert Antelme, and Primo Levi—this analysis joins an increasing number
of studies that seek to account for transnational texts from beyond the explanatory lenses
of ethnic origin, non-nativeness, and intercultural dialogue.
On the concept of an “axial” author, see Tom Cheesman et al. “Axial Writing: Transnational
Literary/Media Cultures and Cultural Policy.” Accessed 21 Aug. 2008.
Özdamar: An Inn with Two Doors
Like an oblong piece of furniture being carried up a narrow staircase, Emine Sevgi
Özdamar’s first novel gingerly bears one of the longest titles in twentieth century German
literary history—if we agree to disregard Fassbinder’s 1974 film adaptation of Effie
The author herself prefers the entire title Life is a Caravanserai Has Two Doors I
Came in One I Went out The Other, and though the significance of its length rarely
garners critical attention, we might wonder: what was the German literary world to make
of this roomy title, a text in itself, which flouts the Gricean maxims of quantity and
The title itself takes up too much space and time, and most scholarship does not get
past the fifth word when mentioning it. At first glance, the title seems to be a clear and
concrete spatial story, consisting of 18 (out of 19) basic German words. But
Caravanserai? Specific to Persian and Turkish transit cultures since the mid-16
it is likely that this one word, out of 19, spoils the transparency of the title for the vast
majority of German (and English) readers. And yet, the title itself is an act of translation,
a declaration of metaphor, inviting and urging inquiry and vicarious experience.
I propose to read Özdamar’s novel not as an autobiography, but as a parable about
German Turkish literary history. This strange, two-door construction of the
Effi Briest oder: Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch
das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus
bestätigen. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Tango Film, 1977.
H. Paul Grice. “Logic and conversation.” Eds. P. Cole and J. Morgan. Syntax and Semantics, Vol 3. New
York: Academic Press, 1975.
caravanserai—we might imagine it as a sprawling roadhouse inn that mirrors the
structure of the journey itself—is emulated by its lengthy, cobbly title, which itself cites
the popular folksong “Day and Night” [Gündüz Gece], as sung by A¸ık Veysel, Barı¸
Manço, Bülent Ersoy, the U.S. heavy-metal band Pentagram, and the Turkish German
pop superstar Tarkan
Uzun ince bir yoldayım
Gidiyorum gündüz gece
Bilmiyorum ne haldeyim
Gidiyorum gündüz gece
Dünyaya geldi#im anda
Yürüdüm aynı zamanda
$ki kapılı bir handa
Gidiyorum gündüz gece
I am on a long, narrow road
Walking day and night
I don’t know where I am
I walk day and night
When I came to this earth
I was already walking
In a building with two doors
Walking day and night
Özdamar’s title cites and performs a spatial figure, but also a widely known, classic
Turkish lyric about ceaseless existential travel and the life path of the itinerant minstrels
[a¸ıklar] of Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. In the text of Caravanserai,
the only explicitly two-doored house belongs to Aunt Pakize, who “lived in the gypsy
quarter in a wooden house with two doors, because she was a whore. When the police
came in one door, she could take off through the other.”
The narrator, Pakize’s niece
refers to herself as having a “whore mouth,” and eventually joins her aunt on a “whore
train” bound for West Germany.
The figural triad between the narrator’s “whore mouth,” the “whore train,” to
Germany, and aunt Pakize’s two-door house imbues the novel’s title with a new sense of
A selection of audio recordings is accessible at http://www.turkishhan.org/asik%20veysel.htm.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der
anderen ging ich raus. Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch. 1992. 374.
Özdamar 1992, 379.
a dissident domicile where one can escape out the back when the authorities arrive. Such
an ill-famed building on an indefinite “long, narrow road” might be one of the more apt
metaphors for Özdamar’s literary language, and indeed for the broader arc of Turkish
German literary history itself—one indefinite yet non-sedentary dwelling, in which one
cherishes the possibility of free egress and continued travel.
Coming to Voice
It has become a scholarly template of sorts to periodize Turkish German cultural
production from 1970 to the present as an arc from compelled testimony to autonomous
critical intervention, from the labor of authenticity to that of imagination, from
ethnicization to aesthetic discovery. In the arena of German Turkish film, Deniz Göktürk
postulated this shift in production and spectatorship as one from a “cinema of duty” to
“the pleasures of hybridity.”
Over the course of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this hard-
won meta-narrative arose out of intensive conceptual cross-pollination among various
disparate yet overlapping sectors of German society—including civil rights advocacy
organizations, academic and transnational interventions (ranging from the uptake of
Said’s Orientalism and Black British Cinema to the general rise of antiessentialism in the
academy), and homegrown efforts among Germany’s pan-ethnic activist collectives like
Yet, two decades on, this meta-narrative—of a critical-aesthetic project ripening
towards the “freedom” and “self-assertion” that Sheila Johnson and Annette Wierschke
Göktürk (2002) makes this observation in reference to Sarita Malik. “Beyond ‘The Cinema of Duty’? The
Pleasures of Hybridity: Black British Film of the 1980s and 1990s.” Dissolving Views: Key Writings on
British Cinema. Ed. Andrew Higson. London: Cassell, 1996.
describe, respectively, as being the conceptual core of Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s work—
has potential literary-historical drawbacks.
Reliance on a notion of “coming to voice” in
German texts, of a literary maturation out of a parochial, patriarchal, or otherwise
hegemonic adolescence—often figured as the heritage language of “the fatherland”—
threatens to obscure as much as it illuminates about the (literary) history of Turkish
migration to Germany.
In such a patently multilingual context, the notion of “coming to
voice” through literary fidelity to the German language—even when it takes the critical
stance of “speaking back”—deserves closer scrutiny.
Nearly fifty years after the first labor recruitment agreement between Germany and
Turkey, attempts to hone a genealogy of contemporary Turkish German writing often
hinge on pragmatic publishing variables that obscure some of its most interesting
particularities and foreclose upon scholarly inquiry. The most consequent of these
variables include: 1) whether a given text was written in German or Turkish (or Kurdish)
2) whether and how it was translated, 3) whether the publication format (newspaper,
chapbook, occasional anthology, etc.) lent or lends itself to archiving and reproduction, 4)
how the text was introduced to German literary institutions, and 5) whether its author fits
well within a normative legacy of mass Turkish labor (im)migration to Germany.
Sheila Johnson. “Transnationale Ästhetik des türkischen Alltags: Emine Sevgi Özdamar's Das Leben ist
eine Karawanserei.” The German Quarterly 74.1 (2001): 37–57.
See for instance Kamakshi P. Murti. “Review of Annette Wierschke. Schreiben als Selbstbehauptung:
Kulturkonflikt und Identitdt in den Werken von Aysel Özakın, Alev Tekinay und Emine Sevgi Özdamar.”
German Studies Review 22.2 (1999): 354–355. Sohelia Ghaussy. ”Das Vaterland verlassen: Nomadic
Language and “Feminine Writing” in Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei.” The
German Quarterly 72.1 (1999): 1–16.
Murti notes the case of Aysel Özakın who, after ten years publishing in West Germany, left for England
in 1990. Murti 1999.
Such inherent variables of transnational writing have garnered little resonance in
even the most inclusionist and multicultural of German literary histories, which often
choose monolingualism as their common and unproblematized denominator. In pointing
out the dearth of coverage about migrant literature in Wellbery et al.’s encyclopedic New
History of German Literature (2004), B. Venkat Mani notes—with prudent uncertainty—
that grappling with the transnational circumstances of Turkish German literature requires
more than an inclusionist solution: “What kinds of beginnings are being carved out for
the multicultural production? What are the documents, how are they being catalogued?”
Not unlike Kafka’s parable of “The Burrow,” the programmatic institutional pathway by
which the literary domain of Turkish German writing has developed leaves many of its
most promising points of entry either blocked, camouflaged, or left in disrepair.
Aided by a reading of Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Life is a Caravanserai as a literary-
historical narrative, this chapter opens up some questions about the monolingualist
underpinnings of literary historiographies that view Turkish writing in Germany as an
exodus out of the cramped postures of semilingual testimony into the expanses of
aesthetic sovereignty. Main contexts for this rereading of Özdamar are 1) the de facto
multilingualism and aesthetic internationalism of the late guest-worker era (1970–1980),
2) the institutional push for German as a literary lingua franca for Turkish cultural
integration in Germany (1980–1990), and 3) the figural interplay—or lack thereof—
B. Venkat Mani. Cosmopolitical Claims: Turkish German Literatures from Nadolny to Pamuk. Iowa
City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2007. 188. David E. Wellbery, Judith Ryan, Hans Ulrich
Gumbrecht, et al., eds. A New History of German Literature. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2004. The controversial distant-reading approach promoted by Franco Moretti—in
which simply counting the number of texts composed in a certain period according to how they fare on
the above five criteria—may offer scholarship on Turkish German literary history a more steady
epistemological foundation. Franco Moretti. Graphs, Maps, Trees. London: Verso, 2005.
between mono- and multilingualism in two intimately embattled novels, Feridun
Zaimoglu’s Leyla (2006) and Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Caravanserai (1992). Taken in
concert, these three literary-historical events contribute to a rethinking of multilingual
authorship in the literary history of Turkish Germany.
What is Niyazi’s Business in German Literature?
Nicht immer schreien!
Nicht immer nein sagen!
Ich bin nicht dein Diener.
Ich bin nicht verbrecher
Ich bin arbeiter.
Arbeiter arbeiten immer.
Arbeiter zahlen steuer.
Du machen bitte
Meine papier ordnung
Labor Bureau II.
Not always shout!
Not always say no!
I am not your servant.
I am not criminal.
I am a worker.
Worker always work.
Workers pay tax.
You make please
my papers in order
—Aras Ören, What is Niyazi’s Business on Naunyn
Aras Ören, Was Will Niyazi in der Naunynstrasse. Ein Poem. Trans. H. Achmed Schmiede und Johannes
Schenk in collaboration with the author. Berlin: Rotbuch, 1973. 68. Berlin Üçlemesi. Istanbul: Evrim
Matbaaçlık Ltd., 1980. 88-9. I have modified the standard English title to correspond with Ören’s
original Turkish title Niyazi’nin Naunyn Soka!ında "#i ne?, which connotes, alongside the main
character’s desires and intentions, his “labor” or “business” [I¸i].
Niyazi Gümü¸kılıç is most often cited as the first fictional creation of Turkish migration
to Germany. Nonetheless, he has all but fallen out of the literary-historical archive.
Relatively “ungoogleable” today and of ambiguous national affiliation—(“Was it written
in German or Turkish?”)—the hero of Aras Ören’s 1973 Berlin milieu poem What is
Niyazi’s Business on Naunyn Street? hovers on the edge of German literary history—
despite Niyazi’s status as post-War Germany’s first Turkish literary subject. In Ören’s
poem—which was first written in Turkish—Niyazi is laconically introduced with the
following set of traits:
Iyi Almanca bilir
Ve kulaklarının altına inen
He can speak German well
Takes care of his appearance
And has sideburns down to
Below his ears.
the poem states his reason for residence in Berlin-Kreuzberg:
Bu Almanya i%i çıkınca,
Herkes gibi ben de
Almanya bir küçük Amerika.
When the thing with Germany came up,
I said to myself,
Like everybody else, me too:
Germany is a little America.
Rita Chin and Tom Cheesman have offered cogent readings of Ören’s 63-page poem.
note for the present context is the lack of import afforded to the German language (which
is set in a parallel equivalence with “appearance” and “sideburns,” connoting artifice and
contemporary fashion) and the German nation (which is brushed off as a purgatorial
version of the eldest NATO sibling, the United States.) With the preemptive description
Ören 1980, 34-35.
Ören 1980, 38.
Rita C.-K. Chin. “Imagining a German Multiculturalism: Aras Ören and the Contested Meanings of the
‘Guest Worker,’ 1955-1980.” Radical History Review 83 (2002): 44–72. Cheesman 2007.
“He can speak German well/Takes care of his appearance,” the reader is given to
understand that s/he need worry neither about Niyazi’s linguistic proficiencies nor his
capacity to get along sociably in Germany.
Thus though Niyazi is regarded as the first Turkish German poetic text to reach a
German reading public, the language and culture of the host country remain quite
incidental topics for the narrative. The location of Naunyn Street is a site for labor-rights
struggles on an international scale; yet it observes no pregiven metonymic relationship to
Germany or Germanness per se.
Ören’s poem chronicles the dynamics of social solidarity in a working-class Berlin
neighborhood surrounded by the GDR on three sides, a working-class isthmus of intra-
and transnational migration where landlords were rumored to be relatively more open to
rental applicants with Turkish-sounding surnames. Against this backdrop, questions of
Niyazi’s own identity, his struggles with or against cultural assimilation into a German
national community, and illustrations of Turkish cultural identity, play an inconsequential
role in this poem. The narrator prefers to delve into the family history of his ethnic
German neighbors, the Kutzers, who—it turns out—were also immigrant expellees from
The narrative is localist and lateral in orientation, surpassing any sustained
thematization of national identity.
Next to international class solidarity and pan-ethnic affiliation among migrants, the
topicality of national language and culture seems to register as little more than faint
detail. Reflecting on the publication context of this poem, Sievers observes how
Ören 1973, 25.
Ören’s poems perfectly matched Rotbuch [Publishing House’s] contemporary titles,
including several books on Marxism, such as Bernd Rabehl’s History and Class Struggle
or D. Rjazanov’s Marx and Engels for Beginners but also poems, stories and essays by
German left wing writers, such as F. C. Delius and Peter Schneider.
The penultimate section of the poem is a climactic conversation between Niyazi and
Horst Schmidt, in which Horst attempts to rally the glum Niyazi to labor solidarity:
We should begin with this street,
Niyazi, like others have begun on their streets.
We live here, and here,
On this street, in this neighborhood, we are many, many—like him, like you, like
me—who are pushed up against the wall every day
And many don’t know what to do. […]
When Niyazi asks where this effort should start, Schmidt replies:
Way at the bottom [Ganz unten], Niyazi, way at the bottom.
First we have to show them how they can get what’s rightfully theirs.
They have to learn to push back against people who take these rights away. Do you
They should start petitions, for example,
Write to every office
with every little bit of their German
and go to every person, every bureau,
everywhere, where someone is taking the rights away,
Wiebke Sievers. “Writing Politics: the Emergence of Immigrant Writing in West Germany and Austria.”
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 34.8 (2008): n.p.
that are available to them.
Here, using German is not a literary or aesthetic choice, nor a signal of community
membership of any kind, but rather a pragmatic tool for securing civil rights
With Niyazi as one of its first and primary exemplars, early guest-worker fiction and
poetry was of a localist and internationalist socio-political bearing than its more
nationally oriented successors in the late 1980s left behind, gaining it—in the words of
one critic—the damp retrospective moniker of “proletarian prose.”
Published in heritage
language newspapers like the Turkish Anadil [Mother Tongue] and the Italian Correo
D’Italia [The Mail from Italy], the hypotexts of migration were to be found not preserved
between book covers, but folded over in leaflets and newspapers.
Tilting the Literary Cube
An overarching dilemma is how and to what effect the internationalist, multilingual web
of migrant texts and hypotexts in the 1970s and early 1980s graduated into a migration
literature in the 1990s in which mastery of the German language played an omnipresent
and exclusionary role. How do literary scholars, and the authors they critique, come to
terms with this development? I read Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s 1992 novel as an oblique,
Ören 1973, 67.“Wir sollten mit dieser Straße anfangen, / Niyazi, wie andere in ihren Straßen anfangen. /
Hier wohnen wir, und hier, / In dieser Straße, in dieser Gegend, sind wir viele, viele, die wie er, wie du,
wie ich, / Jeden Tag von neuem an die Wand gedrückt werden, /Und viele wissen nicht, was tun. […]
Ganz unten, Niyazi, ganz unten. / Erst einmal müssen wir ihnen zeigen wie sie zu dem kommen, was
ihr Recht ist. / Sie müssen lernen, gegen die vorzugehen, die ihnen diese Rechte wegnehmen. /
Verstehst du?/ Eingaben machen sollen sie, zum Beispiel, /Forderungen stellen, /Mit dem eigenen
bißchen Deutsch / An jede Stelle schreiben /Und hingehen /Zu jeder Person, zu jeder Behörde./ Überall,
wo man ihnen das Recht wegnimmt/ das ihnen zusteht.”
Henryk Broder. “I am Not a Bridge.” Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration 1955–2005. Eds. Deniz
Göktürk, David Gramling, Anton Kaes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 419.
figural response to this dilemma, as a text which both critiques and partakes in the
progressive monolingualization of migration literature over the course of the 1980s.
With this clash and coalescence of multilingualism and monolingualism in mind, my
reading of Özdamar’s work will focus less on its capacity to expand and hybridize the
German language—as Horrocks, Seyhan, Göktürk, Boa, and others have shown—than on
how the text highlights the expressive limits of German. For Caravanserai, this
monolingualism is a productive constraint that fuels figuration rather than obstructing it.
In lieu of the linguistic expansionism described in much of the secondary literature on
Özdamar’s work, it might make sense to speak of an ascetic writing practice—of
renouncing or suspending one semiotic domain of the writerly imagination in favor of
another. To this end, Özdamar’s novel engages in what Meir Sternberg, in his 1981
article on polylingualism and translation, called “conceptual reflection,” in which a text
Retains […] not so much the verbal forms of the foreign code as the underlying
socio-cultural norms, semantic mapping of reality, and distinctive referential range,
segmentations and hierarchies. Conceptual reflection thus lies at the crossroads of
language and reality.
Where Sternberg’s notion of “conceptual reflection” turns on the frictions between two
distinctly encoded languages—Aramaic and Hebrew, for instance—my reading will
focus, analogously, on those between the multilingual lifeworld of the narrator and the
monolingual constraints of the text. Therefore I am less concerned with identifying the
specific signifying interferences between German and Turkish—which Göktürk has aptly
demonstrated—than I am in the interference of multilingual practices into a single-
Sternberg 1981, 11.
Helpful in this context is Maria Kotsaftis’ passing reference to what she calls the
“literary cubism” in the Italian German author Franco Biondi’s writing, a style of writing
“where fragments […] from disparate sources are taken and reassembled in a manner that
exposes the seams and ruptures of a seemingly homologous discourse.” To pursue her
critical metaphor a bit further, one might consider Biondi’s writing practice in German a
cube whose other rhetorical and stylistic “sides”—say, those arising out of Italian—are
indicated apophatically as uncanny absences or spatialized distances. To reintroduce a
term from the introductory chapter, such texts as Özdamar’s and Biondi’s might be
termed henolingual—in that, while generally upholding the meta-formal constraint of
literary monolingualism, they nonetheless tilt or shake the cube of linguistic subjectivity,
exposing its other, or neighboring, sides.
This is a different claim than Kotsaftis’ contention that Biondi expands “the
boundaries of the dominant language.” (This often-invoked metaphor of the expansion
and enrichment of dominant languages harbors a hidden monolingualism.) Rather, texts
such as Caravanserai keenly observe the binding power of such language thresholds,
illustrating how these boundaries are immediately consequent for the lyrical and
representational project at hand.
Is There a Guest Worker in this Text?
Since shortly after the contentious international debut of Günter Walraff’s exposé The
Lowest of the Low in 1985, scholarly research has gone to great lengths to decommission
the iconic power of the word “guest worker.”
In their contribution to the volume Turkish
Culture in German Society Today, Sabine Fischer and Moray McGowan aimed to clear
up a few misunderstandings:
Contemporary Germany has a diverse and diversifying population of de facto
immigrants who form an integral part of German society as ethnic minorities. The
term Gastarbeiter is clearly no longer—if it ever was—suitable to describe these social
In their subsequent reading of Franco Biondi’s 1984 novel Farewell to the Shattered
Years, Fischer and McGowan accordingly describe the main character Mamo as follows:
[He] now begins to feel 'foreign'. He dreams of studying his face in a mirror: that is,
he is forced to view his identity as an image of himself as transmitted to him in the
gaze of the powerful, a theme which echoes women's writing of the period. His
identity as a Gastarbeiter is part of a script written by the socio-economic forces
which created the Gastarbeiter in the first place.
Over the course of the 1980s, the notion that being a guest worker was an existentially
impossible contradiction-in-terms gained favor in the Center-Left press, as the term itself
became an emblem of the early Kohl administration’s anti-immigration policies. In the
scholarly context, the word has come to be viewed as an anachronistic stumbling-block to
all manner of inquiry into contemporary German social phenomena—whether migrant,
postmigrant, or nonmigrant. Levent Soysal expresses it as follows:
The term Gastarbeiter continues to captivate our scholarly and popular imagination.
It has been almost a customary sign of credibility to make a reference to the guest
Rafik Schami and Franco Biondi. “Literatur der Betroffenheit: Bemerkungen zur Gastarbeiterliteratur.”
Zu Hause in der Fremde: Ein bundesdeutsches Ausländer-Lesebuch. Ed. Christian Schaffernicht
Fischerhude: Verlag Atelier im Bauernhaus, 1981. 134–5.
Sabine Fischer and Moray McGowan. “From Pappkoffer to Pluralism: On the Development of Migrant
Writing in the German Federal Republic.” Turkish Culture in German Society Today. Eds. David
Horrocks and Eva Kolinsky. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1996, 1–18. 1
Fischer and McGowan 1996, 9.
worker when writing about migrants in Germany and Europe. Even those who set
out to evidence the “changes” in the status of migrants find it hard to refrain from
the practice. In our narratives, migrants, and Turks in particular, appear as perpetual
guest workers, arrested in a state of cultural and social liminality.
“Refraining from the practice” of referencing the guest worker in social science or
literary history is assumed to ensure that readers or researchers can engage more subtlely
with Turkish German culture, narrative, and everyday life. Yet it is the emblematic guest-
worker trope itself—and not the elaborate international infrastructure of recruitment and
mobilization it describes—that is thus seen as intruding into today’s more differentiated
civic discourses around migration—essentializing, ethnicizing, and de-voicing all it
touches. This political and critical moratorium on calling forth guest-worker
representations in the context of migration discourse has become, to invoke Rey Chow, a
kind of iconophobic reflex. Denouncing the iconicity of the Gastarbeiter is often
considered tantamount to redressing the specific and immutable historical circumstances
to which it refers.
In this sense, Max Frisch’s epiphanic axiom that “One called for a workforce, but
humans came” threatens a historical elision of sorts.
As indicated by the title of a recent
anthology of “Turkish German life histories”—Gekommen und Geblieben—the West
German guest worker program poses a dilemma for historiography—one that no national
culture has been particularly fond of attending to: is a “life history” tellable (i.e.,
publishable) only if the subject of that story “stays”? Highlighting this meta-narrative
Levent Soysal. “Labor to Culture: Writing Turkish Migration to Europe.” The South Atlantic Quarterly
102.2/3 (2003) 491–508, 493.
Alexander J. Seiler. Siamo italiani. Gespräche mit italienischen Arbeitern in der Schweiz. Zürich: EVZ-
Verlag 1965. 7.
predicament, Levent Soysal cites German census data showing that, between 1954 and
1994, while 21.6 million non-citizens “immigrated,” at least 15.5 million left the federal
territory during the same period. Many of those who did not “stay” included prominent
authors like Aysel Özakın and filmmakers Tevfik Ba¸er and Erden Kiral; their accessions
remain a forgotten line item in the balance sheet of German Studies.
Given the value afforded to “coming and staying” as opposed to “coming and going,”
it is no surprise that the predominant bearing of Turkish German literary historiography
preferences unidirectional settlement, and not, say, of transmigration over the course of a
long and unpredictable life.
As a consequence, there is little enduring research interest
in what “temporary foreign labor power”—or non-immigrant guest workers—might
mean for German Studies.
Lifting the Ban
Despite efforts to document “50 years of labor migration to Germany,”
guest workers in
the literary-historical context are now remote antecedents of their more differentiated
successor generations, who are better known as immigrants or Germans of foreign
descent. As the first generation of Turkish guest workers begins to celebrate their
eightieth birthdays (whether in Germany, Turkey, or elsewhere), their iconicity is retiring
Yet more than seven million people did “guest work” in Germany between 1956–
1974, and this legacy represents specific multilingual, transnational, and spatial
See for instance the web archive and migration museum initiative Dokumentationszentrum and Museum
über die Migration in Deutschland, www.domit.de.
Hilke Lorenz. “Antonios Abschied: Wie ‘Gastarbeiter’ an ihrem Lebensende begleitet werden.”
Südwestrundfunk 4 Mar. 2007.
circumstances that literary-historical discourses about migration during of the 1980s and
90s eagerly overlooked. Early recruits from Italy and Turkey were assigned to barracks
that, a decade earlier, had housed the Third Reich’s foreign forced laborers and ethnic
Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after 1945.
When the Christian Democratic
government of Konrad Adenauer announced the first in a series of foreign-worker
recruitment initiatives in late 1954, it was not responding to an absolute labor shortage; at
least one million working-age West Germans were unemployed at the time. What guest
workers offered was the kind of anational, spatial motility that early European
Community governments were just then learning to effectively harness.
The private sector strategists of the West German Economic Miracle prized early
guest workers above their German counterparts: they were unfettered by daily family
constraints and were easily transferred to new sites when sudden, critical labor shortages
struck (often in industry and mining towns along the Soviet sector borders, where many
West German citizens dared not settle). Because of their presumed “temporary status,”
foreign guest workers could be counted on to take up only nominal roles in unions and
political advocacy organizing. Furthermore, their lack of German-language training
precluded all but the most fleeting association with the local populace in the on- and off-
hours—at least initially. This predestined early guest workers for tedious and isolating
tasks requiring little bidirectional linguistic exchange with other workers on the job-site.
Mark Terkessidis. Migranten. Hamburg: Rotbuch, 2000. 16.
Following Kaufmann et al. (2004), I understand motility in terms of “mobility as capital” or as “the
potential and actual capacity of goods, information or people to be mobile both geographically and
socially.” Vincent Kaufmann, Manfred Max Bergman, and Dominique Joye. “Motility: Mobility as
Capital.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28.4 (2004): 745–756.
Thus, the gambit of positions, spaces, and experiences that came to be known and
reified over the course of the 1970s as “the guest worker milieu” arose through strategic
design: 1) by reusing the evacuated sites of previous social segregation between the
native and non-native (forced labor barracks, expellee camps, on-site dormitories) 2) by
precluding the possibility of a locally-situated temporality through the constant
imminence of site-transfer or contract termination, 3) by investing recruited “labor
power” with the commodified, market-premium motility necessary for transferring
quantities of labor from one site to another, 4) by fortifying “the language barrier”
between Germans and guest workers with spatial and symbolic partitions in the
workplace and housing. This hattrick—spatial segregation, permanent status as a mobile
labor reserve, and the fortification of the “language barrier”—made the “guest-worker
experience” a midcentury limit-case in the hegemony of space over time.
The temporal virtues of development, self-identity, civic investiture, autochthonous
narrative, and linguistic assimilation were kept indefinitely subordinate to transit, non-
sequitor, contingency, and functional multilingualism. One could speak of a kind of
lateral (as opposed to progressive) grammar underlying these labor initiatives, which had
been conceived in the rhetorical spirit of the “free movement of workers between
European countries” in the early days of the European Coal and Steel Community.
Michel Foucault could claim in 1964 that “We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in
the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the
Göktürk et al. 2007, 1–30.
Germany’s foreign labor recruits in the 1960s were the living vanguard of
that epoch-making condition.
Dursun Akçam cites the potent summation of one guest worker, Memi¸ Bozkir, who
described this carefully engineered set of conditions as follows: “For me, the Germans
are like a picture. I see it, it moves, it speaks.”
Such articulations index a poetic tradition
of spatial and linguistic subalterity based in temporary labor recruitment, one that is not
readily amenable to translation into the monolingual integrationism of such 1980s
institutions as the Adalbert von Chamisso Prize, which will be discussed in detail below.
A kind of “guest-worker taboo” remains in force in many scholarly domains. For
Leslie Adelson, this divestiture is justified in the following terms:
This is less about the historical content of any national narrative than it is about the
optical illusion to which we fall prey when we mistake figural representation for
cultural alterity stripped of historical narrative. For some time now, Turks in
Germany have been made to bear the burden of this illusion as and on the face of
With good reason, Adelson identifies the rhetorical excesses that crowd the
representation of Turkishness in German literature. Yet as Chow suggests, strident
divestiture from any iconic motif tends “to conflate the […] instability of the sign with
In other words, by no longer citing the guest worker as a valid and
“truly existing” socio-historical position in West German history, all manner of
“Nous sommes à l’époque du simultané, nous sommes à l’époque de la juxtaposition, à l’époque du
proche et du lointain, du côte à côte, du dispersé.” Foucault 1984, 46–49.
Dursun Akçam, Deutsches Heim—Glück allein. Wie Türken Deutsche sehen. Göttingen: Lamuv, 1982.
37. “Die Deutschen sind für mich wie ein Bild. Ich sehe es, es bewegt, es spricht.”
Leslie A. Adelson. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical Narrative,
and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique 80 (2000): 93–124. 123.
Rey Chow. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press,
discourses are absolved from accounting for the specific circumstances of those people
who were, or continue to have been, West Germany’s foreign labor recruits from the
1960s and 1970s. While “integration” continues to thrive thematically in the op-ed
sections of major newsweeklies, the cultural history of the several million guest workers
of the first and second generation (born between 1940 and 1955, roughly) are becoming
increasingly eclipsed on the historiographic horizon. This means that fewer literary,
historical, and social research endeavors take the transnational life-worlds of early guest
workers as an independent domain of inquiry.
Rethinking the Tactical Invention of Guest-Worker Literature
That a localist and internationalist literary politics of social solidarity, designed for
multiple audiences in multiple languages, tended to trump national, ethnic, and religious
affiliations in early Turkish German cultural production is evident in Güney Dal’s first
novel, published by edition der 2 in Berlin in 1979, a narrative account of the 1973 “wild
strike” at Cologne’s Ford factory.
The variant titling between the Turkish and German
versions of Dal’s novel indicates the “localizing” translational dynamics of early guest-
worker publishing—that is, the strategic procedure of sculpting a translation towards the
presumed socio-political norms of a given community of readers.
Where the 1976
Turkish version had been titled Labor Exiles ["# sürgünleri], Brigitte Schreiber-Grabitz’
German translation released three years later foregrounded ethnicity with the title When
Ali Hears the Bells Ring [Wenn Ali die Glocken läuten hört]. Where, for Turkish readers,
For an important counter-example to this tendency, see DOMiT. Projekt Migration. Cologne: Kölnischer
On this watershed event, see “The Turks Rehearsed the Uprising” in Göktürk et al. 2007, 42.
Anthony Pym. The Moving Text: Localization, Translation and Distribution. Philadelphia: John
the novel had signaled the collective historical experience of temporary foreign labor
recruitment, its German-translated title stressed the individualized alterity of an “Ali”
amid the tolling bells of the German workday.
Feminist internationalism also informed the principal narrative conflicts of early
migration literature, including Aysel Özakın’s 1983 novel Die Leidenschaft der Anderen
[The Passion of Others] and Helma Sanders-Brahms’s 1976 film Shirins Hochzeit
[Shirin’s Wedding], which foregrounded women’s solidarity across national identity or
ethnic background. In 1980, the Turkish military coup accelerated this prevalent civil
rights agenda: both Özakın and her contemporary, Fakir Baykurt, were among those who
emigrated to Germany as a result of Turkish domestic political turmoil at the turn of the
decade. This chain of events only reinforced the internationalism at the helm of migration
literature in the early 1980s, a literature for which the BRD provided only one sphere of
influence among others.
Sievens points to an incipient internationalism in guest worker poetics that stressed
linkages between workers of various cultural origins. Gino Chiellino’s poems “The Next
Morning” and “Guestworkers in Italy” were appeals for solidarity among guest workers
in different countries—Turkish steel workers in Italy as well as Italian workers in
Like Ören’s Niyazi, Rafik Schami’s “The Potato Glasses” [“Die
Kartoffelbrille”] stresses coalitions among guest workers and German citizens.
Cheesman 2007, 145–192.
Gino Chiellino. “Gastarbeiter in Italien.” Im neuen Land. Eds. F. Biondi, Y. Naoum, R. Schami, R. and
Taufiq, S. Bremen: CON, 1980. 5.
Rafik Schami. “Die Kartoffelbrille.” Ein Gastarbeiter ist ein Türke. PoLiKunst-Jahrbuch '83. Augsburg:
PoLiKunst, 1983. 74–83.
Naoum’s short story “To Have a Boss like That” [“So einen Chef haben”] similarly
stressed workers’ strength in numbers.
The literary rubric “guest-worker literature” was tactical from its inception—placing
as much critical stress on “worker” as on “guest”—as many of its initial exemplars from
the PoLiKunst and Südwind literary collectives emphatically pointed out. Yüksel
We consciously use the term Gastarbeiter that has been imposed on us, in order to
expose the irony within it. The ideologues have managed to shove together the
concepts “guest” and “worker,” although there have never been guests who worked.
The provisional status that is supposed to be expressed in the word “guest” has
been shattered by reality. Gastarbeiter are in fact an established segment of the West
It was this very sentiment, reframing guest-workers as a permanent presence in German
society—a patently justifiable claim from a civil rights point of view—that dovetailed
with a West German Center-Left discourse that would transmogrify Turkish Germany
from a transnational to a subnational space, as the administration of Helmut Kohl began.
Yusuf Naoum. “So einen Chef haben.” Im neuen Land. Eds. F. Biondi, Y. Naoum, R. Schami, R. and
Taufiq, S. Bremen: CON, 1980. 6-28.
Schami and Biondi 1981, 134–5, n.l.
From Internationalism to Speechlessness
An image of helpless subalternity […]
characterizes not only the perception of migrants
and the minoritized as a whole, but also all of their
—Hito Steyerl, Can the Subaltern Speak German?
Teraoka points to a corpus of literary texts, films, plays and television shorts in the mid-
1980s that, by suppressing representations of multilinguality, gave rise to a speechless
Turkish figure in German society. Franz Xavier Kroetz’ 1984 Fear and Hope in the BRD
[Furcht und Hoffnung der BRD] features a Turk who laughs but never speaks. In Botho
Strauss’ Big and Small [Groß und Klein], a Turk blusters about in German
monosyllables, giving his German wife such commands as: “Beer,” “Come,” “Shit.”
Iconic speechlessness reached a highpoint with Günter Walraff’s best-selling Ganz
Unten—tellingly translated into French as Tête de Turc—in which a stealth investigative
reporter goes undercover as the Turkish daylaborer “Ali.” Walraff writes:
The foreigner’s German I used in my new life was so rough and ready and clumsy
that anyone who had ever made the effort to really listen to a Turk or Greek living
here would have noticed that something wasn’t quite right. I simply left out the final
syllables of some words, reversed the order of sentences, or often, just spoke a
slightly broken Kolsch or Cologne dialect. However, strange as it may seem, no one
ever became the least suspicious of me. These few little changes were enough.
[...] Of course I was not really a Turk. But one must disguise oneself in order to
unmask society, one must deceive and dissimulate in order to find out the truth. I
Hito Steyerl. “Can The Subaltern Speak German?” Trans. Aileen Derieg. Accessed 18 August 2008.
http://translate.eipcp.net/strands/03/steyerl-strands01en. Hito Steyerl, Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez,
and Nghi Ha Kien. Spricht die Subalterne deutsch?: Migration und postkoloniale Kritik. Münster:
Arlene Akiko Teraoka. “Gastarbeiterliteratur: The Other Speaks Back.” Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 77–
still don't know how an immigrant copes with the daily humiliations, the hostility
and the hate.
One is led to wonder how Walraff’s assessments of Turkish loneliness in Germany may
have differed had he himself been prepared to have a relaxing chat in Turkish (and not
just in his imperfect Gastarbeiterdeutsch) during his year as the guest worker Ali. A bit
of hearty conversation in Turkish from time to time might have saved him from re-
presenting what Homi K. Bhabha would later stridently diagnose as the “lonely figure
that John Berger named the seventh man."
Adding inanimacy to loneliness, Bhabha
ultimately sums up the Turk as leading “the life of a double, the automaton. ”
The sedimentation of these images—of “the head of a Turk” without a single
language, let alone two—seems to have been taken up whole in institutional and
scholarly contexts. In her co-edited collection A Not Only German Literature with Harald
Weinrich, Irmengard Ackerman was thus able to dub German-writing immigrants as
“spokesmen for the speechless” in contradistinction to their countrymen and women who
“remain mute in their suffering.”
Already in 1985, Teraoka began to identify in this
trend “a silencing of the aesthetic of the other.”
Bhabha’s gloss in The Location of Culture is, of course, telling:
How opaque the disguise of words.… He [the Turk] treated the sounds of the
unknown language as if they were silence. To break through his silence. He learnt
Günter Wallraff. Lowest of the Low. Trans. Martin Chalmers. London: Methuen London, 1988. 2.
Homi K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 139. John Berger. A Seventh Man:
Migrant Workers in Europe. New York: Viking Press, 1975.
Bhabha 1994, 316.
Irmgard Ackermann and Harald Weinrich, eds. Eine nicht nur deutsche Literatur: zur
Standortbestimmung der Ausländerliteratur. Munich: Piper, 1986. 248–251.
Teraoka 1987, 22
twenty words of the new language. But to his amazement at first, their meaning
changed as he spoke them…. Is it possible to see the opaqueness of the words?
How is it that the opaque, new language is the only language worth considering in such a
vivid, psychological depiction? The possibility of Turkish-speaking camaraderie or
pleasurable multilingual exchange of any kind plays as little of a role in Bhabha’s
analysis as it had in Berger’s text fifteen years prior. Yet even in one of the most
sustained and poignant interventions on what she called “speech of the uncounted,”
Begüm Özden Fırat overlooks the stark omission of multilingualism in Bhabha’s
While an image of the languageless Turk was being circulated in the domestic culture
industry and implicitly seconded in the academic sector, migrant authors were grappling
with the topic from a vastly different angle. For Aras Ören, speechlessness was the
overall historical condition of modern Europe in a “turbulently developing world of
Seconding Enzensberger’s call for a new consciousness
industry that might counter mass media incursions into civic life, Ören claimed in 1986
Europe is the reflection of my face, and I am the reflection of the face of Europe.
My speechlessness is also Europe’s. […] This mutual impact signifies an expansion
of my creative energies and allows them to become an integral part of the creative
European zeitgeist. My search for the new language contributes to this movement in
that it can overcome the speechlessness on the borders of language.
Bhabha 1994. 165.
Leslie A. Adelson. “Opposing Oppositions: Turkish German Questions in Contemporary German
Studies.” German Studies Review 17.2 (1994): 305–330. Göktürk. 2002. Soysal 2003.
Aras Ören. “Chamisso Prize Acceptance Speech.” Germany in Transit. Eds. Deniz Göktürk, David
Gramling, and Anton Kaes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 392.
Ören 2007, 393.
Thus, as early as the mid-1980s a struggle over the definition of “speechlessness” began
to take shape, as exemplified by Ören’s implicit contestatory response to Walraff. As in
the domain of Holocaust narrative discussed in Chapter Two, this theme of
“speechlessness” has not been sufficiently explored in its multilingual context.
Otobüs: A Nationally Indifferent Excursion
By way of approaching the discursive invention of “speechlessness” in Turkish German
history, I will briefly turn to a 1976 film Otobüs (Dir. Tunç Okan), which neither
intervenes in the German cultural archive, nor resists ethnicized representation in any
coherent way, nor cosmopolitanizes German society, nor stakes unambivalent claims.
Despite (or because of) its unlikely profile for uptake into the canon of Turkish German
texts, this film helps to carve out a genealogical analysis of Turkish German fictions.
Through its representations of space, multiple-language use, and apparent disinterest in
Germany as the “cultural space in question,” the film indicates how the evanescence of
the guest-worker motif was not just a narrative maturation, but a shift in focus: from a
(nationally indifferent) poetics of relation to a (nationally construed) politics of voice.
Though Otobüs’s band of protagonists are both Turks and German Turks, the film lies
far afield of what counts today under the category Turkish German fiction. In the film,
Germany appears to play only a minor role, and ethno-national identifications—whether
German, Turkish, or otherwise—are never mentioned. Yet the film does not hesitate to
stage clearly recognizable ethnicized figures, including the speechless guest worker “as
and on […] the face of things.”
For these initial reasons alone, Otobüs seems to be no
Adelson 2005, 16.
prime contender for uptake in the critical Turkish German canon of the twenty-first
As the film credits roll, we see various sections of a dusty, blue 1950s bus with the
phrase “ALLAHA EMANET” [Trust in God] stenciled under the outside of the
windshield. Cuts to the interior of the bus introduce ten black-haired men in various
states of half-sleep, each in semi-formal traveling clothes. Driving the bus is the group’s
chatty bon-vivant chaperone, a German Turkish guest worker singing a well-known
Anatolian rock tune by Barı¸ Manço, ostensibly to pacify the anxieties of his speechless,
forlorn passengers. Upon arriving at the unidentified north European metropolis where
they expect to be assigned a worksite, the driver collects a pile of Turkish lira from each
prospective worker, and then further advises that they hand over their passports and extra
cash so he can register them at the local police station. “That’s the custom here!” he
clarifies. After instructing the men to stay in the bus until he returns, the driver walks
through downtown Stockholm and boards a Lufthansa flight to Hamburg with his newly
acquired fortune. Before boarding the plane, he tosses the pile of passports in an airport
Now penniless, stateless, and speechless in this undisclosed location, the hoodwinked
would-be guest workers have no idea what country they are in, as their chaperone makes
his way back to Hamburg to cash in. It is only after 25 minutes into the film that the bus-
bound Turks begin to speak with one another, conjecturing about where the driver has
gone. Fearing discovery, they draw the bus-window curtains, not daring to step out onto
That 80% of the film dialogue in Turkish or Swedish is another complicating factor, though its tendency
toward silent-film conventions invites cross-lingual viewership.
Stockholm’s Straerter Tor, a striated space of urban renewal, affectionately and derisively
nicknamed “the Slab” [Platten].
The first time the Slab is shown, it is introduced with a
sweeping 90-degree pan and a rush of cymbals. In an admixture of vaudevillian and noir
stylizations, the remainder of the film depicts the efforts of the bus-inhabitants to subsist
in their precarious new place of residence.
So what makes this film more than just one more depiction of hapless guest-workers
victimized “between two worlds”? After all, with the interventions of Walraff, Berger,
and the filmmaker Hark Bohm, the period from 1975 to 1988 was the heyday of guest-
Yet already in 1977, Okan’s Otobüs is recasting tragedy as farce with
extreme lighting, expressionistic stagings and gestural excess that undermines the
contemporaneous political topicality of Turks in Germany.
Through a rhetoric of excess,
the film calls attention to the process of iconization that would produce the guest-worker
motif. Rather than jettisoning the guest worker itself in favor of a more differentiated
representational project, this film instead floods the icon with all the resources of
This bearing first becomes clear as the chaperone/driver gathers the men together for
a group portrait while en route to their new workplace. With the “latest American model”
camera, the Turkish guest worker in Germany takes a medium-long shot of his charges,
directing them “not to fidget while I take the picture.” [“Kıpırdamayın, çekiyorum.”] The
resulting image cites the battery of photographs included in John Berger’s The Seventh
Man, of the previous year. This scene of being photographed, of being memorialized as
Yasemin. Dir. Hark Bohm. Hamburger Kino-Kompanie, 1988.
Göktürk et al. 2007, 339–342.
part of a recognizable multitude, forecasts the rancorous contentions that would structure
the debate on Turkish German representation for the next two decades. Yet as the film
narrative “progresses,” the figures framed in the driver’s portrait turn the tables on this
economy of the gaze, inspecting Europe from behind the curtains of their abandoned bus.
(Simultaneously, now back in Germany, the Turkish German bus driver feigns
speechlessness at the Hamburg airport customs inspection counter, once again citing the
iconic Turk of journalistic exposés of the time.)
After enduring the cold for several hours, a few of the passengers decide to sneak out
into the dark square to look for water. As a couple fornicates loudly in a nearby telephone
booth, the contraband Turks sneak back and forth from the bus to the bathroom, in groups
of two and three. Lighting, physical comedy, and extreme close-ups make the
performances truly vaudevillian, as the figures cite Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s
apoplectic encounters with the modern metropolis, here in the form of Stockholm’s
deserted shopping district.
Emboldened by the empty cityscape, the men begin to quietly survey the spoils of
downtown Stockholm’s storefronts. Scanning the manikins, knick-knacks, and gadgets,
they window-shop their way around the deserted pedestrian thoroughfares. On the
following afternoon, the Straeter Tor fills with a new set of cultural oddities, which the
men take in from behind the curtains of their bus. They observe a middle-aged woman
singing and playing “How Great Thou Art” on a portable organ amid a crowd of
unmoved bystanders, they watch a crowd of drunken revelers wrestle each other to the
ground. They gaze at a row of rotisserie chickens, a police officer directing a band, a
woman purchasing a vacation package to Spain at a travel agency. A jump-cut shows
their busdriver in Hamburg, shopping for a prostitute. In this montage, it is the
community of Turkish men who, from their perch in the epicenter of postmodern
European urban planning, attempt to decode the inscrutable leisure rituals of the North
On a formal level, this series of montages in Otobüs once again enacts Morton’s
concept of “sideshadowing,” here also in an adversely multilingual context. Because the
men in the bus cannot understand the language of those they observe, and because the
men are spatially isolated, the narrative may only proceed laterally, from one scene of
potential, deferred contact to the next. As the Swedish-language exchange between the
travel agent and her Spain-bound customer unfolds, the inexplicable bus hulks quietly in
the background like an unnoticed bystander. This mise-en-scene of spatial segregation
and linguistic incommensurability is recapitulated when the men, who have found their
way into a subway station, are surrounded by a group of Swedish revelers on their way
back from a masquerade ball. Intending to frighten the men, the natives put their masks
and accessories back on, surround the men, and dance in a circle around them—howling
all the while. This scene is a gruesome reillustration of what has come to be known as
“intercultural dialogue”: as the natives don exotic masks, the foreigners shrink back in
Lost in Stockholm’s shopping district, one of the men calls out (in Turkish) to a
solitary dog-walker: “Brother, have you seen the bus, the bus!” [“Otobüsü gördün mü,
karde#, otobüsü?”] Flustered upon being hailed in this way, the man picks up his
miniature dog from the sidewalk and sets off quickly in the opposite direction. Here, the
Turkish-speaking man attempts to call the Swedish passerby’s attention to the most
crucial icon of his current situation: the bus. Neither identity, heritage, nor homeland are
on the tip of his tongue, but rather the strange vehicle of his current predicament.
Naturally, this entreaty falls on allolingual ears, and the two strangers’ paths diverge
again without consequence.
This bus has been the frame through which he has perceived the city. Nonetheless the
two policemen patrolling the square have only this to say about it:
This vehicle is still here.
Strange, what do we do?
It’s as if no one has been here.
The film concludes with the destruction of the bus. As the vehicle is eventually towed to
police headquarters, the front door is broken open, and the men are dragged out one by
one, the camera cuts each time to a shot of the bus being smashed. This set of cuts is the
most jarring sequence of the film; as the men are brought into state custody, their
(im)mobile observatory and former mode of transit is smashed to shards of glass and
Comical and defamiliarizing in an era hungry for realist depictions, Tunç Okan’s
Otobüs registered a minority opinion on the scope and bearing of Turkish-European
migration narrative. Like the 1988 guest worker comedy Polizei (dir. Serif Gören), its
multilingual script and performances further diminished its potential for uptake amid the
rise of multicultural doctrine in 1980s West Germany.
A (Not Only) German Literature
That Germany as a linguistic community or space of integration played next to no
guiding role in the politics of early guest-worker literature may provide some indication
about its awkward position, not only in German literature overall, but in the “literature of
migration” canon as well. Whereas the multilingual guest-worker literature of the 1970s
had generally been predicated, in the absence of a large German-language readership, on
labor rights and the collective position of labor migrants, the literature of migration
during the Kohl era was propelled by growing public receptivity on the political Center-
Left to narratives about ethnic background, cultural difference, homelands, religious
identity, integration, and individualistic liberalism. The moniker “guest-worker literature”
eventually came to be regarded as a literary-historical period to be transcended at all
costs, in favor of an engagement with literariness and intercultural understanding in an
exclusively German-language context.
The shift from a labor-based to a culture-based bearing in the field of Turkish German
literature began to take hold around 1982 amid two contemporaneous political acts of
recognition from German institutions: 1) a growing consciousness and parliamentary
commitment to foreigners’ rights at the highest level of the federal government, and 2)
scholarly initiatives to recognize immigrants’ German-language literary competence
through prizes and competitions. Where writers’ efforts in the 1970s had generally been
focused on expanding political expression through poetic (and journalistic) means in any
language, the 1980s discourse focused on commending stylistic achievement in German
This subtitle refers to one of the early multicultural anthologies designed by German-as-a-Foreign-
Language pedagogues, marking a shift from labor internationalism to cultural integration. Ackermann
and Harald Weinrich 1986.
as a foreign language, as academic institutions began to respond to the multicultural civic
imperatives of the late 1970s. Harald Weinrich, the founder of the Adalbert-von-
Chamisso Prize for second-language writers of German, described the provenance of this
new impulse in 1986 as follows:
The creation of the Adelbert von Chamisso Award for authors with native
languages other than German should be a signal that this literature, coming from the
outside, is welcome among us Germans and that we can appreciate it as an
enrichment of our own literature as well as a concrete piece of world literature. And
even if we sometimes are not sure how to address these half-foreigner, half-native
authors who often do not have a German passport but do have a German pen, we
are momentarily absolved of our linguistic confusion when we name them
That the namesake of this prize, Louis Charles Adélaïde de Chamissot, was a French
aristocrat driven into exile as a youth by the French Revolution begins to suggest the
irony of the ascription “Chamisso’s grandchildren” to writers who had first entered West
Germany alongside millions of labor migrants. This break with “guest-worker literature”
entailed a number of concomitant shifts: 1) a reinvestment in the singular author as the
primary locus of enunciation, as opposed to literary collectives, translation
collaborations, and anthologies; 2) a prohibitive investment in German as the preferred
language of literary expression (with the important exceptions of Güney Dal and Aras
Ören) 3) a strengthened recourse to host-country or heritage “culture” as the proper
theme of migrant writing (as opposed to labor and civil rights), and 4) a de-preferencing
of spatial motifs that might reiterate stereotypical guest-worker milieus: imprisonment,
dystopia, claustrophobia, etc. Such syndromes of claustrophobia, which shaped the
Göktürk et al. 2007, 390–391.
narrative world of Tevfik Ba¸er’s 1986 film Forty Square Meters of Germany to Sinan
Çetin’s 1993 film Berlin in Berlin, met with decreasing resonance in the pan-ethnic
Kanak critiques of the 1990s, which prized a rhetoric of ubiquity (“We are everywhere!”
[“Wir sind überall!”].
Through the annual event of the Chamisso Prize, this German-as-a-foreign-language
tradition of (monolingual) literary competence gradually gained the rhetorical upper-hand
in discussions about the cultural integration of Turks in German society. The eloquence
of Turkish German authors in the German language became a touchstone for public
discourse about the “integratability” of all Turks, whether or not they were interested in
German literature at all. This spirit of language super-mastery as a kind of immigrant
coup d’esprit emerged poignantly in Sten Nadolny’s 1990 epic novel Selim, oder die
Gabe der Rede [Selim, or the Gift of Speech] and lives on in the cabaret performances of
Fatih Çevikkoglu and Django Asül, who dazzle their German audiences with
hyperauthentic Colognish and Bavarian dialects respectively. (Çevikkollu regularly refers
to his Cologne dialect as a means for demonstrating his unimpeachable Germanness in
contrast to ethnic Germans who hesitate to use their dialects in mixed company.)
The inchoate, multiple-language context of the 1970s yielded to the single-language
“cosmo-polite fictions” of the 1980s. With this term, Tom Cheesman refers to the
discursive tension between political euphemization and transnational lifeworlds in
Turkish German prose narrative.
This relationship could be usefully described as one of
Cheesman 2007, 15.
hypertext and hypotext: of a set of published narratives that emulate the shared traffic in
stories, letters, heritage-language newsletters and leaflets, and personal notations which
were exchanged below the threshold of publishability from 1959 to approximately 1980.
A recent controversy between two renowned German authors of Turkish descent
indicates how this imagined and authoritative corpus of source-narrative based in the
institutions and milieus of the “guest-worker program” still holds sway in how migration
literature is composed and interpreted. The scandal between Feridun Zaimoglu and
Emine Sevgi Özdamar hinged upon the authors’ alleged propriety over the narrative
content of a set of audio-cassettes dictated in Turkish by Zaimoglu’s mother, a former
guest-worker herself. Both a narrative resource and a critical albatross, such documents
of the guest-worker period form a multilingual hypotext that underlies the production and
reception of Turkish German literature today.
Though this relationship between text and hypotext is evident as early as Ören’s
Niyazi—the last lines of which reproduce fragments of letters in broken German—other
later authors followed suit. Noteworthy exemplars are Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s “Karagöz
in Alamania” [Blackeye in Germany], a stylized rendering of the letters of an unnamed
guest worker. Feridun Zaimoglu took this genre of text/hypotext adaptation a step further
with his mock ethnographies and mock interviews in Kanak Sprak and Kopp und Kragen,
where Zaimoglu steps into the role of spokesperson for multiple Kanaken, whose
language is implicitly in need of normalization in order to be publishable. In his
introductory manifesto to Kanak Sprak, Zaimoglu made his hypotextual venture explicit:
Their underground codex developed long ago, they speak a jargon of their own.
Kanaki speak, a kind of creole or underworld argot with secret codes and signs.
Their speech is related to the freestyle sermon of the rappers; like them, they adopt
a pose to express themselves. This language decides their existence: it is a wholly
private performance in words. The verbal power of the Kanakis expresses itself in a
forceful, breathless, nonstop hybrid stammering, marked with random pauses and
turn of phrase invented on the spot. The Kanaki’s command of his mother tongue
is imperfect, and his grasp of “Allemannish” is no less limited. His vocabulary is
composed of “gibberish” words and phrases known to neither language. Into his
improvised metaphors and parables he weaves borrowings from high Turkish and
from the dialectal slang of Anatolian villages.
As with Franz Kafka’s stance as cultural mediator between the Yiddish theater and the
German-Jewish intellectuals of the Bar Kochba in 1912, or Levi speaking on behalf of an
inmate whose language would not be understood beyond the threshold of Birkenau,
Zaimoglu both presents Kanak Sprak to the reader and simultaneously indicates its
recalcitrance, its incommensurability with the dominant literary language. Instead of
expanding the signifying capacity of German, Kanak Sprak insists on an aesthetics of
constraint, of rendering the voluble heteroglossia of Kanak speech comprehensible by
translating it into a (somewhat impolite) “polite fiction.” Zaimoglu’s later work,
especially in the 2006 Leyla, abandons this stylistics of recalcitrant multilingualism in
favor of the “deictic presence” of testimonial realism.
Feridun Zaimoglu. “Preface to Kanaki Speak.” Trans. Tom Cheesman. Göktürk et al. 2007, 407.
Interesting Stuff Came From Foreigners
O you who sell outlandish words wrapped in
A book of odes is not a copy of the dictionary
Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s novel Life is Caravanserai has Two Doors I Came In One and
Went out the Other (1992) bears the volatile distinction of having been the platform for
two entirely unrelated, high-profile literary scandals over the course of 15 years. Even
before the novel was published in its entirety, some commentators interpreted Özdamar’s
1991 win at the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for Literature competition in Klagenfurt,
Austria as the straw that broke German literary competence. Whereas the Chamisso prize
was reserved for non-native writers, the Bachmann Prize had been awarded annually
since 1977 for an individual author’s excellence in German literature, regardless of how
or when they learned German.
Jens Jessen, a literary columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described
the helpless text of a German-writing Turkish woman, which plays with folkloristic
elements from the fairy tale tradition of her homeland, and which the jurors good-
naturedly viewed as surrealism. For this reason, among all the others, the Ingeborg
Backmann Prize is as good as dead. Only out of the deference befitting an obituary
shall we say the author’s name: Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Against the backdrop of
contemporary Turkish prose, which is in no way naïve or folkloristic, the choice is
absurd, even insulting.
A. S. Levend. Türk dilinde geli#me ve sadele#me evreleri. Ankara: Türk Dil Kurumu Yayınları, 1972. 78.
“Ey ¸i’r miyanında satan lafz-ı garibi. / Divan-ı gazel nüsha-ı kamus degüldür.”
Jens Jessen. “Lockruf der Eitelkeit.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2 Jul. 1991.
In a like-minded diatribe entitled, “Why Don't the Germans Love to Read Their Own
New Writers?” Arno Widmann described Caravanserai as a “grammarless flood of
Such vitriol, however, competed with other headlines announcing
how “Interesting Stuff Came from Foreigners” and “Immigrants are Breathing Life into
In the ensuing months, these two historically laden encampments
turned into full-fledged discourses in their own right, with Caravanserai as a kind of
Just as the newly awarded Bachmann Prize was being lauded and bemoaned in the
press, a concurrent literary-historical event was taking place in Berlin. The promotional
material for a year-long series of readings and events called Türkei literarisch [Turkey
Literarily] described its corrective aim as follows:
Modern Turkish literature is still one of the least known among European literatures
here. With the exception of Ya%ar Kemal and Nazım Hikmet, a sufficient reception
of Turkish literature is still to come in Germany. This year, the Literary Colloquium
presents a series of the most important authors from Turkey. The spectrum ranges
from the great lyric poet Fazıl Hüsnü (b. 1914) to the young theatrical and prose
author Murathan Mungan (b. 1955), from the novelist Adalet A#ao#lu to the
experimental short-story writer Ferit Edgü. In addition, Turkish authors living
abroad, especially in Germany, will be represented, including those of the younger
generation who have begun to build a bridge to the language and literature of their
second homeland. The beginning of the series evokes the literary city of $stanbul,
the intellectual and cultural center of Turkey. The Turkish literature known in
Arno Widmann. “Why Don’t the Germans Love to Read Their Own New Writers?” The European 28
Jan.–3 Feb. 1994. 12–13.
Karen Jankowsky. “‘German’ Literature Contested: The 1991 Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize Debate,
‘Cultural Diversity,’ and Emine Sevgi Özdamar.” The German Quarterly 70.3 (1997): 261–276. 266.
Germany, from a more rural and provincial perspective, will be placed in a new light
by the invited authors from $stanbul.
The series, which included such lesser unknown authors as Orhan Pamuk and Bilge
Karasu, was accompanied by an anthology of the participants’ works translated into
German. As a collection, A Sky Belongs to Every Word [Jedem Wort Gehört ein Himmel],
sought to complement a German literary engagement with Turkey that “is in general
shaped by a longing for the totally Other. From the sacks of coffee that were left standing
at the gates of Vienna to the Döner kebab stands of Berlin stretches an arc of exotic
pleasure—enticing but also often unsettling.”
It is easy to see how these two simultaneous literary-historical events marked both a
cleft and a convergence in the institutional transmission of German Turkish writing.
While Özdmar’s Bachmann Prize valorized the content and composition of one
representative immigrant writer’s achievements in German, the concurrent Türkei
Literarisch—with its painstaking efforts to translate and transmit a range of Turkish and
Turkish German authors—sought to undermine precisely the monolingualist exclusions
at the heart of the Bachmann award. (A certain irony lies in the fact that Ingeborg
“Türkei Literarisch.” Berlin: Literarisches Colloquium Berlin e. V. 1991.“Immer noch ist die moderne
türkische Literatur eine der hierzulande unbekannten europäischen Literaturen. Abgesehen von Ya¸ar
Kemal und Nazım Hikmet steht eine befriedigende Rezeption türkischer Literatur in Deutschland noch
aus. Das Literarische Colloquium stellt in diesem Jahr eine Reihe mit den wichtigsten Autorinnen und
Autoren der Türkei vor. Das Spektrum reicht vom großen Lyriker Fazıl Hüznü Daglarca (geb. 1914) bis
zum jungen Theater- und Prosaautor Murathan Mungan (geb. 1955), von der Romanschriftstellerin
Adalet Agaoglu bis zum experimentellen Erzähler Ferit Edgü. Auch türkische Autoren, die im Ausland,
vor allem in Deutschland leben, werden vertreten sein, vor allem solche der jüngeren Generation, die
begonnen hat, zur Sprache und Literatur ihrer zweiten Heimat eine Brücke zu bauen. Der Auftakt der
Reihe steht im Zeichen der Literaturstadt Istanbul. Die in Deutschland eher aus ländlich-provinziellen
Perspektive bekannte Literatur wird durch die eingeladenen Istanbuler Autoren in ein neues Licht
Deniz Göktürk and Zafer Senocak. Jedem Wort gehört ein Himmel. Berlin: Babel, 1991. 7. “Von den
Kaffeesäcken, die die flüchtenden Osmanen vor den Toren Wiens stehen ließen, bis hin zu den Kebap-
Buden in Berlin spannt ein Bogen der exotischen Genüsse—verlockend, doch zugleich oft unheimlich.”
Bachmann herself exceeded in stridently multilingual writing, especially in her 1972
short story “Simultan.” [“Simultaneous Interpreter”].)
Still largely untranslated in German, the vast majority of contemporary Turkish
literature has a necessarily hypotextual relationship—both to the contemporary German
discourses on transnational themes and to German Turkish writing itself. In absence of
extant translations for German readers, it is the (German-writing) Turkish German
literary authors who must overwrite this hypotext with legible, and often critical,
Well, I may venture so far as to say that the paper
gives its holder a certain power in a certain quarter
where such power is immensely valuable.
—Prefect G., “The Purloined Letter,” Edgar Allen Poe
Nowhere was this hypotextual dilemma of migration literature more evident than in a
2006 plagiarism debate between Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoglu. An
anonymous Germanist—who later turned out to be named Marianne Brunner—published
her findings that Zaimoglu had plagiarized motifs from Özdamar’s 1992 Caravanserai
novel. The Munich-based researcher alleged a preponderance of overlapping narrative
detail in Zaimoglu’s 2006 novel Leyla—from the Eastern Anatolian setting of Malatya, to
the shaving routines of its female characters, to the phonetically spelled cameo
appearances of Hollywood luminaries like Kessrin Hepörn and Humprey Pockart. That
the same editor at Cologne’s Kiepenheuer and Witsch publishing house had shepherded
both novels through the editing process was just one of the infelicitous circumstances
upon which feuilleton reporters launched a splashy summer exposé just days before the
World Cup was to open.
Few witnesses of this plagiarism scandal would care to remember May 2006 as an
important moment in any sort of literary history. “Literary critical argumentation could
degenerate no further,” claimed one rueful critic, “than this demagogic repartition of
subjunctive and indicative.”
Despair multiplied on a daily basis as journalists implicated
ever-new co-conspirators in a duel that had first appeared to involve the two veteran
authors alone. The predominantly male reviewers of Zaimoglu’s novel from only weeks
before now appeared woefully unreliable, if not disingenuous. The editorial staff at
Kiepenheuer and Witsch came under suspicion for having negligently overlooked a
looming disaster in order to ensure high sales with a novel that features intrafamilial
honor killings, domestic sexual violence, and young Muslim women’s subjectivity—
topics that have topped the German pop literary charts since 2005.
lampooned for lifting motifs from a more skilled literary artist than himself, in order to
ease his as yet unsuccessful transformation from activist pseudo-ethnographer to literary
Redoubling the crisis was the fact that both authors were generally regarded as iconic
bellwethers in Germany’s literature of Turkish migration, a sub-genre that had been
prone to evaluation on an authenticity scale since Akif Pirinçci’s novels hit the market in
the early and mid-1980s. This painful episode revived obsolescent polemics about
See for example Elmar Krekeler. “Tante tratschen: Deutscher Moment.” Die Welt 13 Jun. 2006.
Norbert Mecklenburg. “Ein türkischer Literaturskandal in Deutschland” in literaturkritik 7 (July 2006).
Necla Kelek. Die fremde Braut: ein Bericht aus dem Inneren des türkischen Lebens in Deutschland.
Munich: Goldmann, 2006. Seyran Ate¸. Grosse Reise ins Feuer: die Geschichte einer deutschen Türkin.
Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt-Taschenbuch-Verlag. 2006.
authenticity, identity, and sociological realism—not to mention Orientalism.
In order to
head off the threat of a collective conceptual recidivism along these lines, most parties
hoped the story would fall from public view after a few news cycles.
publishing house quashed the threat of a long and public legal struggle by way of a
But the affair signals an important moment for the literature of migration in Germany,
not because of the veracity of any of its contentions, but because of the unique structure
of the discourse and the presumptions about authorship and originality that it brings to
light. The very public interplay of each of these factors during the plagiarism scandal
called productive attention to the question “what creates the authority with which authors
Zaimoglu claimed that the similarities between his novel and Özdamar’s ought to be
seen as the norm, rather than the exception, in the overall itinerary of literary influence.
“Take a look at post-War German literature. In the 1960s and 1970s, novels are chock
full of Nazi fathers who are more than just somewhat similar to one another.”
Zaimoglu’s retort insists that borrowing or sharing motifs is a norm of the literary field,
and that migration literature bears no special forensic burden to prove uniqueness. Here
Zaimoglu seems to second Bourdieu’s attempt to demystify
the ideology of creation, which makes the author the first and last source of the
value of his work, [and] conceals the fact that the cultural businessman (art dealer,
publisher, etc.) is at one and the same time the person who exploits the labour of
Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia, 1993. 76.
Feridun Zaimoglu. “Faule Aprikosen aus Malatya.” Netzeitung.de 14 Jun. 2006. “Sehen Sie sich doch
mal die deutsche Nachkriegsliteratur an. In den sechziger und siebziger Jahren sind die Romane voller
Nazi-Väter, die sich teilweise mehr als nur ähnlich sind.”
the “creator” by trading in the “sacred” and the person who, by putting it on the
market, by exhibiting, publishing or staging it, consecrates a product which he has
“discovered” and which would otherwise remain a mere natural resource.
For some, the way this affair pulled apart domains of authorial subjectivity, which had
heretofore been protected under the cloak of literary craft, was both refreshing and
sobering. Phrases themselves—languages (native and foreign), figures, and discursive
layering—were, for the moment, as sovereign as the individual authors and their
emblematic success in the market.
Özdamar, in turn, was baffled by the charge that she was the one who had “stolen”
narratives from Zaimoglu’s aunt decades before, when the two women were living at a
guest worker dormitory on Berlin’s Stresemann Street in the 1960s.
mother Güler Zaimoglu played a prominent role in the debacle as her son’s
authenticating, Turkish-speaking alibi. The forensic frenzy left no one, including the
novel’s readers, uninjured. One observer, Zafer Senocak, commented that “The question
whether one author copied from another is unimportant. But the fact that a journalist
investigating such a question rings up the protagonist of a novel, indeed must do so, in
order to confirm her authenticity—that is disturbing.”
What the affair indicates for migration literature—irrespective of the discourse of
authenticity—is how a multilingual corpus of hypotext from the guestworker period
(Güler Zaimoglu’s cassettes, stories shared at guestworker dormitories, letters,
notebooks) continues to fertilize the ground of Turkish German literary fiction and its
Bourdieu 1993, 76.
Cited in Cheesman 2007, 191.
reception. Unfit for publication in its occasional, multilingual, and personal form, this
hypotext nonetheless harbors accounts of historical circumstances that are documented in
no other format. Like Holocaust memoir, collective belief in such a hypotextual corpus or
oral history archive fuels both a wide variety of textual rituals of retrieval and emulation,
and a tradition of contestation about the veracity of their sources.
An Inn with Two Doors
The way Özdamar’s text was revisited in 2006 as an allegedly purloined hypotext for
Zaimoglu’s novel offers us an opportunity to differentiate between modes of multilingual
representation in the novel, a topic that escaped attention in the press debate. Whereas
Zaimoglu’s novel Leyla adheres to the testimonial realism prevalent in such
programmatic texts as Necla Kelek’s The Foreign Bride (2006) and Seyran Ate¸’ Great
Journey into the Fire (2003), Özdamar’s text strains against this genre of what Arendt
might have called “assimilated recollection,” making it an odd sourcetext for Zaimoglu’s
figurations in Leyla.
Over the fifteen years between the publication of the two novels, Caravanserai has
become a staple for Anglo-American syllabi on Turkish German writing, and for any
kind of literary history on migration to Germany. For Azade Seyhan, the text was about
nothing less than “language in all its forms and manifestations, as speech and script, as
language game and everyday practice, as ritual and performance, and as survival and
mastery” as well as being a “palimpsest of erased, occluded, forgotten, and remembered
signifying practices such as homilies, litanies, ancient curses, and modern political
David Horrocks added his understanding of the novel as “blowing a great
raspberry in the face of all official versions of history and all those who have wielded
power in the past.”
For Shiela Johnson, the text “gives voice to the economically,
culturally and politically weak or suppressed, such as women and/or the mentally ill.”
Since then, Caravanserai has been a fulcrum for debates about German Studies,
multiculturalism, minor literatures, deterritorialization, and hybridity.
Some researchers left the realm of culture and Orientalism behind in order to advance
theses about the text’s stakes in translingualism and translatability. Sohelia Ghassy
discusses the dual operation of language creolization and threshold-crossing in
Caravanserai as a means to “leave behind the Vaterland,” with its patriarchal logics and
Seyhan further describes how the narrative voice decouples linguistic signs
from their first-order significations, attaching themselves to “another not-so-transparent
Such stances hearken back to Chiellino’s appeal from the early
1980s to locate
a language within the German language that in its essential qualities could not be
used against what is foreign, that no longer makes foreigners sacrifice or even betray
the content of their work, a language that is open enough to accept foreign content
Azade Seyhan. “Lost in Translation: Re-Membering the Mother Tongue in Emine Sevgi Özdamar's Das
Leben ist eine Karawanserei.” The German Quarterly 69.4 (1996): 414–426. 420.
David Horrocks and Eva Kolinsky, eds. Turkish Culture in German Society Today. Providence:
Berghahn, 1996. 14
Johnson 2001, 21
Seyhan 1996, 424.
Gino Chiellino. Fremde: a Discourse of the Foreign. Trans. Louise von Flotow Toronto: Guernica, 1995.
Yet such a search for a German language—and particularly for a German literary
language—which is itself open to foreign content, underestimates the social durability of
monolingualism in this context. Even Caravanserai, with its rough-shod translations of
Turkish idioms and cameo appearances of Turkish and transliterated Arabic phrases,
remains a fundamentally monolingual(ist) text—a linguistically “polite” fiction. Attuned
to the fact that using untranslated words would be prohibitive for a German readership
whose knowledge of Turkish is statistically insignificant, Özdamar always provides
parenthetical translations of Turkish phrases, and only rarely includes complete,
grammatically complex segments of non-German text. In a sense, it is thus an
overstatement to claim hybridity and creolization as the principle compositional modes in
the text. In what follows, I will suggest how Caravanserai appropriates the resources of
monolingualism to demonstrate its own frailties in presenting the dynamic hypotextual
traffic of multilingual lifeworlds.
Though Caravanserai is almost invariably read as an autobiographical text, there is
strong case to be made that it is—to reiterate a distinction suggested in Chapter One in
the context of Kafka criticism—rather a linguagraphical meditation, depicting the
emergence and evanescence of language(s) in the process of subjectivation. Whereas her
first collection of short stories, Mother Tongue [Mutterzunge] had declared in overt terms
the relationship between a narrator and “her” language, Caravanserai engages in a more
speculative mode of figuration. Compare, for instance, the opening claims of both texts,
first from “Mother Tongue”:
In my language, tongue means: language. The tongue has no bones, wherever one
twists it, it turns in that direction. I sat with my twisted tongue in this city of Berlin.
[…] If only I knew when I lost my mother tongue.
And from Caravanserai:
First I saw the soldiers. I stood there in the belly of my mother between the bars of
ice, I tried to hold on and grabbed the ice and fell and landed in the same spot.
Knocked on the wall, no one heard.
While Mother Tongue is an explicit meditation on the narrator’s willful retrieval of a lost
language, Caravanserai begins with a kind of narrative bilocationality, a Deixis am
Phantasma of double “hereness” through which the narrative voice is born.
narrator is “inside” her mother, no one on the other side hears her speech. The speaker
sees the action outside her mother’s body like a film—with Turkish soldiers attending to
a mother, as she travels on the train toward her father’s house to give birth. In the cold,
otherworldly womb the narrator finds herself “between the bars of ice”—ironizing such
spatial metaphors of being “between the worlds” mentioned above. That no one outside
the mother’s womb, including the mother herself, hears the narrator’s speech suggests a
founding narrative predicament of language for the text. If we forgo the option of reading
this text autobiographically—as the telling of the first moments of one’s own life—the
fantastic spatial split and the narrator’s attempt to reason with the outside world suggests
a different kind of birth is taking place—that of the narrative voice itself, speaking
Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Mutterzunge. Berlin: Rotbuch 1990. 9. “In meiner Sprache heißt Zunge: Sprache.
/ Zunge hat keine Knochen, wohin man sie dreht, dreht sie sich dorthin. / Ich saß mit meiner gedrehten
Zunge in dieser Stadt Berlin. […] Wenn ich nur wüßte, wann ich meine Mutterzunge verloren habe.”
Özdamar 1992, 9. “Erst habe ich die Soldaten gesehen, ich stand da im Bauch meiner Mutter zwischen
den Eisstangen, ich wollte mich festhalten und faßte an das Eis und rutschte und landete auf demselben
Platz, klopfte an die Wand, keiner hörte.”
German, yet enveloped on all sides by “Muttersätze” [mother sentences] in Turkish. Yet
in describing a distinction between Özdamar’s Caravanserai and the later novel The
Bridge of the Golden Horn, Elizabeth Boa claims:
Both novels are narrated in German, but Karawanserei has a monolingual Turkish
protagonist whereas in the second novel the initially Turkish-speaking protagonist
learns German. In the first novel, then, the linguistic divide runs between narrator
and protagonist, whereas in the second there is a convergence.
I would argue that there can be no such linguistic divide between narrator and
protagonist; the narrative voice is necessarily multilingual, in constant transit between
German and Turkish. The following section gives a potent example of this recursive
narrative procedure between memory and enunciation across languages.
A Secret Language Fills the Soul
Though brief, Göktürk’s 1994 essay on “Multicultural Tonguetwisters” remains the most
prescient and compelling language-oriented intervention into Özdamar criticism.
Forgoing a thematic reading of Caravanserai, Göktürk points out that the novel’s “literal,
not particularly successful translations” of Koran and Turkish lyric verse index not an
“aesthetics of deficiency” but a deliberate stylistic innovation that foregrounds the
author’s claim that “Mistakes are my identity. Five million people who live here speak in
mistakes. It is a new language.”
Göktürk adds that “It is not only Turks that write false
German, in the meantime German literaturks are doing so as well. […] Time will tell how
far they will reach into literature.”
Elizabeth Boa. ¨Ozdamar’s Autobiographical Fictions: Trans-National Identity And Literary Form.”
German Life And Letters 59.4 (2006): 526–539. 526.
Deniz Göktürk. “Multikulturelle Zungenbrecher: Literatürken aus Deutschlands Nischen.” Sirene.
Zeitschrift für Literatur 12–13 (1994): 77–93. 81.
Göktürk praises the novel’s contribution to “a humorously liberated stance vis-à-vis
processes of cultural mixing” that breaks the cycle of “moaning and commiseration
fostered amid the consoling warmth of multicultural niches.”
Nonetheless her essay
shares an overt reticence about the novel with other early critics like Zafer Senocak, who
saw in it a potential alibi for a new streak of Orientalism in German public and
intellectual discourse about Turkey. For Göktürk this ambivalence lay not only in
Caravanserai’s emulation of (debatably) childlike oral narrative, but in the German-
language publishing industry’s inveterate lack of curiosity about modern Turkish
literature. (In subsequent essays, Göktürk reconsidered this reticence, discovering in the
text a potent and comical canvas for staging the narratability of Turkish themes for
contemporary German audiences.
Until the rise to prominence of such Turkish writers as Orhan Pamuk, the languid
pace of literary translations out of Turkish into German contrasted starkly with the
accelerated program of translating European belles-lettres for use in Turkish primary and
secondary schools under Education Minister Hasan Ali Yücel, an event that Özdamar
comically documents in her novel: “Then a little fat man came into the school, an actor.
The school had a stage. He said, ‘Atatürk and his Culture Minister Hasan Ali Yücel had
all the world’s classics translated into Turkish for you.’”
This acute unidirectionality of translation leads Göktürk to question Özdamar’s
awkward impromptu rendering of, for instance, an Ahmet Ha¸im poem “The Staircase”
Göktürk 1994, 89.
Deniz Göktürk. “Kennzeichen: weiblich/türkisch/deutsch. Beruf: Sozialarbeitering/ Schriftstellering/
Schauspielerin.” Frauen Literatur Geschichte. Eds. Hiltrud Gnüg and Renate Möhrmann. Stuttgart:
Metzler, 1999. 514–532.
Özdamar 1992, 269.
[Merdiven], instead of drawing on the already extant and elegant literary translation by
“One might have hoped for a more careful philological
engagement with literary sources,” writes Göktürk.
At second glance, the narrator of Caravanserai herself seconds Göktürk’s
discomfiture about how she renders Ha¸im’s beautiful and tender poem: “I read it in a big
room in front of many people. I read, but it sounded like a limping song. Backstage, I saw
my schoolblouse—the hem hanging down in the back.”
A seeming non-sequitor follows
this detail, as the narrator turns to thoughts of her literature teacher, who encouraged her
to read stories in class.
Is this a scene of shame and self-consolation? The patent difficulty in translating the
poem from (late Ottoman) Turkish into contemporary German has long been the object of
While Göktürk suggests Özdamar might have effectively preempted
charges of naïve exoticism by, for instance, taking advantage of the cumulative resources
of German philology and Turkology in coming up with a translation of “The Staircase,”
the narrator’s first public reading (at age twelve) seems to index a rich translingual
dilemma that restages the “mistakes” that, according to Özdamar, characterize her own
The hem of the narrator’s school blouse, hanging out in back while she reads the
poem, signals a rebellious or negligent impropriety in how the narrator attends to school
Ahmet Ha¸im. “Die Treppe.” Trans. Annemarie Schimmel. Türkische Gedichte vom 13. Jahrhundert bis
in unsere Zeit. Istanbul: Milli Egitim Ba¸ımevi, 1973. 142.
Özdamar 1992, 268.
Ak¸it Göktürk. “Probleme der Übersetzbarkeit dargestellt am Beispiel von Ahmet Ha¸im’s Gedicht
“Merdiven” und seiner Übersetzung von Annemarie Schimmel.” Der Werdegang der modernen Türkei.
Ed. Pia Angela Göktürk. Istanbul: Nazım Terzioglu Matematik Ara¸tırma Merkezi Baskı Atöleysi,
norms that may be seen as constitutive of her narrative presence in the novel. (The
narrator often complains about how her school blouse is too small.) Yet the poem that she
reads on stage begins:
A#ır a#ır çıkacaksın bu
Etiklerinde güne% rengi bir yı#ın
Heavily, heavily, you will climb
A bundle of sun-colored leaves
at your hem
Schimmel’s translation reads
Langsam, ganz langsam wirst du diese Treppe hinaufgehen
An deinem Saume sonnenfarbige Blätter
In contrast, Özdamar’s narrator below misplaces the infinitive verb steigen and transfers
the plural from merdivenler [stairs] into the German Treppen, though the singular would
be more idiomatically precise:
Langsam, langsam wirst du steigen auf diese Treppen
In deinen Röcken viele Blätter, sonnenfarbig.
As the narrator finishes the poem and proceeds backstage, she notices the embarrassing
seam of her blouse, which compounds the uneasiness she feels with the “limping song”
she has just performed of Ha¸im’s lyric. Yet the poem itself begins with such an image:
of sun-colored leaves at one’s hem, as she climbs the stairs—dignified, heavy, and slow.
Thus the narrator implicitly locates her own equivocal public performances of language
within Ha¸im’s lyrical tableau, of a woman climbing a staircase toward the evening
horizon. That the remembrance/translation of Ha¸im’s verse is presented in the
stereotypical mixed syntax of “guestworker German” establishes an arc between the 12-
year-old’s reading of the poem, Özdamar’s own writing career and practice, and Turkish
That both performances arose in the course of a “poetry contest” at school mirrors the
promotional, institutional culture of the Adalbert-von-Chamisso-Prize for second-
language writers of German. Remarkable (because absent) in the narrator’s reading of
Ha¸im’s poem is the second-to-last line of the ten-line poem: “Bu bir lisân-ı hafîdir ki
ruha dolmakta.” [“This is a secret language that fills the soul.”] Omitting this line from
her written recollection performs yet again the secrecy of this new language of errors that
“fills the soul.”
It is directly after this scene of reading—a few non-sequitors later—that the little fat
man arrives to the school to deliver the Kemalist government’s translations of world
classics, including Moliere’sè The Imaginary Invalid, in which Özdamar’s young narrator
plays Beline, the conniving wife of an inconsolable hypochondriac. This abrupt
juxtaposition between the narrator’s two performances—Ha¸im’s ascending figure and
Molière’s fretful and sanguine Beline—offers a comic and subtle index of the tension
between Ottoman literary modernism and midcentury Kemalism’s emphasis on imported
Western classics. (During the same period the Milli Egıtim Bakanlıgı Yayınları also
published a series of transcriptions of Ottoman and Turkish classics, which had been
heretofore unavailable to a generation of readers that had grown up reading Latin script.)
Ha¸im’s second book of poetry &'()* Piyale [The Goblet], in which the poem “The
Staircase” was published in 1926, would be one of the last books of poetry to be printed
in the Arabo-Persian script of the Ottoman Empire before the “catastrophically
successful” switch to a modified Latin alphabet in 1928.
selection of The Imaginary Invalid as her narrator’s first theatrical role parodies the West
European perception of Ottoman society as the perpetual “sick man of Europe.” About
the process of language reform in Turkey, Ha¸im wrote:
For the last three days, while I write, I watch curiously the grappling of alien words
with the new letters on the white page. These words written with letters, the outlets
of which were the nose and the throat, cannot find their sounds on the keyboard of
the new alphabet to make themselves heard. In a sentence, these words sound like
the muffled, ugly screams of people who have lost their voices.
The narrator in Caravanserai embeds Ha¸im’s confrontation with language change and
language loss in her own performance of reading, the struggle to maintain a language that
has been either taken away, or a language one has had to renounce. In this she calls forth
the history of rapid, long-term, and strategic language reengineering since the early 19
century in Turkey which knows no equivalent in post 18
century Germany. In the 1860s,
the co-founder of the Hürriyet newspaper Ziya Pasha would write:
Today, when decrees and orders are read out in the hearing of the common people,
can anything be made of them? Are such compositions meant exclusively for those
with a mastery of the written word, or is it intended that ordinary people should
understand what the State commands? Try talking to any commoner in Anatolia and
Rumelia about a commercial regulation, or the decrees and orders relating to the
auctioning and awarding of the right to collect tithes, or establishing the amount of
tax due from each household, or any matter at all; you will find that none of the
poor creatures knows nothing about any one of them.
Geo!rey Lewis. The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Oxford/New York: Oxford
University Press, 1999.
Ahmet Ha¸im. “Lisan Imarı.” "kdam 3 Dec. 1928. Also cited in Nergis Ertürk. “Modernity and its Fallen
Languages. Tanpınar’s Hazret, Benjamin’s Melancholy.” PMLA (2008): 41–56. 49.
Cited in Lewis 1999. 79. “Elyevm resmen ilan lunan fermanlar ve emirnameler ahad-ı nas huzurunda
okutuldukta bir ¸ey istifade ediliyor mu? Ya bu muharrerat yalnız kitabette melekesi olanlara mı
As late as 1900, Gibb would note of the baffling multilingual flexibility and figural
potential of Ottoman literary language:
It is not too much to say that during the whole of the five and a half centuries [14
to mid-19th] every Persian and Arabic word was a possible Ottoman word. In thus
borrowing material from the two classical languages a writer was quite unrestricted
save by his own taste and the limit of his knowledge; all that was required was that
in case of need he should give the foreign words a Turkish grammatical form.
In re-performing Ha¸im’s lyric in the context of her own narrative experimentations with
German, Özdamar proposes a lineage of multilingual writers arcing through Ottoman
verse, modern Turkish poetry in the midst of language reform, and Turkish German
writing. For her, none of these three positionalities represent a “commitment” to one
language to the exclusion of others, but rather an engagement with language as a
Long before A¸ık Veysel sang his haunting recordings of “Day and Night,” previous
tellings of this parable offered a wellspring of advice for everyday speakers in
multilingual situations. In the Book of the Stranger [Garipname], the 13
mystic A¸ık Pasha had written:
To know all the staging posts of the road
Do not despise the Turkish and Persian languages.
[…] None had regard for the Turkish tongue;
Turks won no hearts.
Nor did the Turk know these languages
mahsustur? Yoksa avam-ı nas devletin emrini anlamak içün müdür? Anadolu’da ve Rumeli’de ahad-ı
nastan her ¸ahsa, devletin bir ticaret nizamı vardır ve a’¸arın suret’i müzayede ve ihalesine ve tevzi-i
vergiye ve ¸una buna dair fermanları ve emirnameleri vardır deyü sorulsun, görülür ki biçarelerin
birinden haberi yoktur.” (sic)
Elias John Wilkinson Gibb. A History of Ottoman Poetry, Vol. 1. London: Luzac, 1900. 8.
The narrow road, these great staging posts.
For A¸ık Pasha, not only great literary artists but common people may attain true
knowledge by learning many languages—here Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, though the
latter remains the most in need of reinvigoration. Nonetheless, each of these languages is
represented not by a territorial principle—by the exclusive use of one language in a given
space—but rather by the figure of the caravanserai [here menzil], through which one must
pass on a continual and indefinite journey. Özdamar’s novel is principally dedicated to
refiguring language use in this light.
A Literary History of Accessions and Successions
B. Venkat Mani brings forth a potent critique of literary historiography in his volume on
Turkish-German novels, suggesting that the “random access history” model presented in
Wellbery et al.’s New History of German Literature is structurally unsuited to grapple
with Turkish German texts that, like Odradek, are made up of “old, torn pieces of thread
of the most various kinds and colors, tied on to and snarled up within one another.”
Perhaps Turkish German literature is more aptly imagined historically as an “inn with
two doors”—a field of discontinuous accessions and attritions, of institutional
recognitions and misrecognitions, of tactical euphemizations, and a fluidity between
national and international media structures that is, after all, dissimilar to those of its non-
migrant counterparts. Consider for instance the film career of Erden Kiral, whose Berlin-
Fahir Iz. Eski Türk edebiyatında nazım. Vol. 1. Istanbul: Küçükaydın matbaası, 1967. 584–5. “Çun
bilesin cümle yol mezilleri. / Yirmegil sen Türk ü Tacik dillerin […] Türk diiline kimesne bakmaz idi /
Türklerin hergiz gönül akınaz idi / Türk dahi bilmez idi bu dilleri / Ince yolı, ol ulu menzilleri.” (sic)
Kafka, Franz. Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Drucke zu Lebzeiten. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1994. 282.
“Es sieht zunächst aus wie eine flache sternartige Zwirnspule, und tatsächlich scheint es auch mit Zwirn
bezogen; allerdings dürften es nur abgerissene, alte, aneinander geknotete, aber auch ineinander
verfitzte Zwirnstücke von verschiedenster Art und Farbe sein.”
based filmmaking in the 1980s has had only the most ephemeral interface with
multiculturally oriented histories of contemporary German film since Kiral moved to
Istanbul in the 1990s. Or the work of Zafer Senocak, whose Turkish-language novels
German Education [Alman Terbiyesi], The Pavilion [Kö#k], and Yolculuk Nereye [A
Voyage to Where?] enact and entail a break with the German-language market, in which
he had published novels and essay collections since the mid-1980s.
Even Emine Sevgi
Özdamar, who was cited early on as a central figure in contemporary German literature,
is beginning to publish texts in Turkish for which no German-language translation is yet
The fact that many such authors have traveled back and forth from one
language to another (and to the next) over this thirty year period means that “the German
literary scene” may be too modest an aperture through which to account for literary-
historical phenomena that we are now often poised to delegate to the sphere of
cosmopolitanism. Given the historical circumstances sketched out in this chapter, the
Caravanserai of German Studies will have to honor their complex right of return.
The Frankfurt Travelogue
Shortly before his death in 1933, Ahmet Ha¸im left Istanbul on a five day train ride to
Frankfurt for a surgical procedure. In his Frankfurt Travelogue [Frankfurt
Seyahatnamesi], he describes what awaited him there:
We arrived at the goal of my journey, Frankfurt, after midnight at twenty before
two. Despite the late hour, the mechanical sounds of trade and industry could be
heard from the depths of every quarter; yet how many people would you guess got
Zafer Senocak. Alman Terbiyesi. Istanbul: Alef, 2007. Yolculuk Nereye? Istanbul: Alef, 2007. Kö#k.
Istanbul: Alef, 2008.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar. “Kendi kendinin Terzisi Bir Kambur”: Ece Ayhan’lı anılar, 1974 Zürih günlügü,
Ece Ayhan’ın mektupları. Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2007.
out of our magnificent express train? Just two. [...] From our first step, we
encountered an exhausted Germany. [...] Who are these prematurely bespangled
men with mean visages, fake hunting uniforms of yellow cloth, fake armbands, and
fake munitions for an imaginary future campaign? These are Hitler’s soldiers.
Looking around, who are these other men, walking around silently in the darkness
wearing red neckties? These are the communists, who, since Hitler, are less
fortunate indeed. [...] On the first day, I ran to Goethe’s house.
Such literary visitations between Germany and Turkey in the early twentieth century
remain somewhat of a discursive orphan; neither the proper domain of Turkology nor of
contemporary Turkish-German critique. Yet the literary and socio-historical imbrication
of the two societies—during the Second and Third Reichs, as well as during the West
German Economic Miracle and the Berlin Republic— is marked more by continuity than
rupture. From Nazım Hikmet and Sabahattin Ali to Günter Grass and Jörg Fauser,
German and Turkish writing have been keenly and anxiously aware of one another
throughout the twentieth century.
Ahmet Ha¸im. Bize Göre, Gürebahane-i Laklakan, Frankfurt Seyahatnamesi. Ankara: Kültür Bakanlıgı
Yayınları, 1981. 176–184. “Insan, hayatının tatsizlıgından ve etrafında görüp bıktıgı ¸eylerin yorucu
aleladeliginden bir müddet kurtulabilmek ümidiyele seyahate çıkar. Bu bakımdan seyahat
“Harekuladelikler avı” demektir. […] Seyahatımın hedefi Frankfurt’a gece yarısından sonra ikiye yirmi
kala vardık; gecikmi¸ saate ragmen derinden derine her taraftan makine gürültüleri duyulan ticaret ve
sanayı ¸ehrine muhte¸em ekspresimizden kaç ki¸i indi tahmin edersiniz? Yalnız iki ki¸i. […] Ilk adımda
bitmi¸ bir Almanya ile kar¸ıla¸mı¸tık. [...] Sarı bezden uydurma bir avcı üniforması üzerinde, uydurma
bir kayı¸, uydurma bir matra ve muhayyel gelecek bir seferin uydurma domatımı ile erken süslenmi¸ ¸u
bayagı çehreli adamalar kim? Bunlar Hitlerin askerleridir. Etrafa yan bakarak, sessiz ve karanlık
dola¸an kırmızı gravatlı gençler kim? Bunlar da Hitlerinden daha hayırlı olmayan komünistlerdir. […]
Vardıgım ilk günü Goethe’nin evine ko¸tum.”
Pamuk: Disorienting the Castle
My hero is a Turk and therefore no relation of
Kafka’s; they are related only in the literary sense
of the word.
—Orhan Pamuk, “In Kars and Frankfurt”
A Turkish novelist walks into a German library.
[It] was a modern and anonymous building. Inside were the types you always find in
such libraries: housewives, old people with time to kill, unemployed men, one or
two Turks and Arabs, students giggling over their homework assignments, and all
other manner of stalwarts from the ranks of the obese, the lame, the insane, and the
mentally handicapped. One drooling young man raised his head from his picture
book to stick out his tongue at me.
Among the motley contents of this modern and anonymous library, the drooling young
man sticks out his tongue, as if to expel the intruding author from the space. That the
word dil in Turkish can be translated either as tongue or language redoubles the
Just hours before his death, the poet-hero of Pamuk’s 2002 novel Snow, a resident of
one of Western Europe’s premier publishing and finance capitals Frankfurt am Main,
made his daily visit to this dystopic interior space: the city’s Central Library. For over a
decade, Ka (short for Kerim Alaku¸oglu) had been living as a political exile a few blocks
away on Goethestrasse, supplementing his government asylum stipend with honoraria
Orhan Pamuk. “In Kars and Frankfurt.” The Nation 17 Nov. 2005.
Orhan Pamuk. Kar. Istanbul: Ileti¸im, 2002. 252. Snow. Trans. Maureen Freely. New York: Knopf, 2004.
252. “Ka’nın her sabah gittigi Frankfurt Belediye Kütüphanesi modern ve kimliksiz bir binaydı. Içeride
bu kütüphanelerin tipik ziyaretçileri, ev kadınları, vakit öldüren ihtiyarlar, i¸sizler, bir-iki Arapla Türk,
okul ödevi yaparken kıkirdayıp gülü¸en ögrenciler ve bu yerlerin ¸a¸maz müdavimleri; a¸ırı ¸i¸manlar,
sakatlar, deliler ve geri zekalılar vardı. Agızından tükürük sarkan genç biri, baktıgı resimli kitabın
sayfasından kafasını kaldırıp dil çıkardı bana.”
from poetry readings before local Turkish audiences. On most days he sat in this library
reading Auden, Coleridge, and Browning. One evening, he left the library as usual,
stopped by a green grocer on a side-street off Kaiserstrasse, and was shot in the back
three times. Ka’s body was found on the wet pavement beneath a pink neon K sign. As
the only “witness” to his death, this illuminated K pulses above the ill-fated transnational
author “in bright pink solitary splendor.”
But Pamuk insists, when pressed, that his Ka has nothing but a “literary” relationship
to Kafka’s landsurveyor in The Castle. To be sure, Ka’s assassination and posthumous
brush with this pulsing pink simulacrum of his would-be literary predecessor K.—at the
intersection of two streets named for Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Kaiser Wilhelm I–
seems hardly a heartening tableau of world-literary encounter. Why might this silent and
iconic letter K preside over Pamuk’s self-described “political novel” Snow, a novel that
invents and then mourns the untimely death of its hero Ka, a Turkish writer living in
German exile, a troubled cosmopolitan who derives political influence from the German
language while refusing to learn it himself?
Indeed this unhappy meeting-of-the-signs between K and Ka on the margins of the
public literary space of Frankfurt—site of the annual international book fair and the
comprehensive national archive of German-language writing—seems all but befitting the
bicultural syncretism with which the Nobel Foundation conferred its 2006 Prize for
Literature on Orhan Pamuk. Explaining their decision, the prize committee suggested that
Pamuk’s superlativity as a writer lay in having “renewed the art of the novel—by having
Pamuk 2002, Turkish 253, English 253. “Kül rengi içinde pırıl pırıl bir pembeyle parlayan neon bir K
recourse to two cultures, cultures that are, of course, related but profoundly different, two
cultures that he masters with equal excellence.”
The grounds for recognizing Pamuk’s
genial craft thus lay in his masterful diplomacy between two whole and isometric
“cultures” and his diligence in setting them into productive, imaginative juxtaposition.
Yet Snow’s pseudo-documentary realism—its uncanny recursions between the parodic
and the mystical, between local fixations and transnational traces—leads the work to
resist designation as a twenty-first century parable about Turkish-European relations.
What uncanny and disorienting “history of contact” might this novel offer instead?
Nobel Foundation. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2006.” Accessed 15. Aug 2008.
Comparatism, Made Difficult
Here we come to the East-West question.
Journalists are exceedingly fond of the term, but
when I see the connotations it carries in some
parts of the Western press, I’m inclined to think
that it would be best not to speak of the East-
West question at all. […] There is also a strong
suggestion that the culture, the way of life, and the
politics of places like the one where I was raised
provoke tiresome questions, and an expectation
that writers like me exist to offer solutions to the
same tiresome questions.
I have a peculiarity that distinguishes me from all
my acquaintances—not essentially, but more
strongly as time goes on. We both know
characteristic exemplars of Western Jews. I am, as
far as I know, the most Western-Jewish of them,
which means—though I exaggerate a bit here—
that no quiet moment is given to me, nothing is
given to me, everything must be acquired, not just
the present and future, but the past as well.
—Franz Kafka, letter to Milena
With its explicitly bicultural, bicivilizational understanding of Pamuk’s works, the Nobel
committee seems to have picked up on the figural bearing of his early fictions, where
mirror-images and double-subjects are a poignant metaphorical vehicle. Erika Greber and
Deniz Göktürk have shown how Pamuk’s 1985 novel The White Castle introduces a
doppelgänger relationship that unsettles the East-West binary upon which an essential
oppositionality between Europe and Turkey is recited. After years living with his
Cited in Giuliano Baioni. Kafka—Literatur und Judentum. Trans. Gertrud Billen and Josef Billen.
Stuttgart: Metzler, 2001. 4. “Ich habe eine Eigentümlichkeit, die mich von allen mir Bekannten nicht
wesentlich, aber graduell sehr stark unterscheidet. Wir kennen doch beide ausgiebig charakteristische
Exemplare von Westjuden, ich bin, soviel ich weiß, der westjüdischste von ihnen, das bedeutet,
übertrieben ausgedrückt, dass mir keine ruhige Sekunde geschenkt ist, nichts ist mir geschenkt, alles
muss erworben werden, nicht nur die Gegenwart und Zukunft, auch noch die Vergangenheit.”
Ottoman master Hoca (“Teacher”), a captive Venetian scientist and first-person narrator
of The White Castle discovers that he and his captor are in fact the same person—that
“We two are one!”
This belated recognition of the Self as Other—as the two men stand
abreast, observing their synchronized movements and identical wounds in the mirror—
shows the Venetian that he and his Ottoman adversary have always been in a relationship
of mutual learning and monitoring with one another, despite centuries of bellicose
civilizational one-upmanship. The Venetian is thus made to interrogate how his own
personal history of acculturation as a “European” has proceeded via a constant and
intimate exchange of concepts and commodities with Turkey. Yet even after their uneasy
epiphany on the shores of the Bosporus, the union between the two men remains one of
intimate mutual suspicion, and it becomes increasingly unclear which one of them is
actually narrating the novel in the end.
Snow, however, distances itself from this contemplative rhetoric of the doppelgänger,
giving rise rather to what Nergis Ertürk—in her uneasily comparatistic essay on Walter
Benjamin and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar—called the “missed encounters” constitutive of
Turkish-European literary modernity. Thinking through Emily Apter’s work on the
uprooting and relocation of German literary comparatism to Istanbul during the Nazi era,
Ertürk concludes that:
Modern Turkish language and literature have been and are, in an almost absurdly
literal as well as critical-theoretical sense, a kind of absent presence in this project.
[…] Though modern Turkish literature has been and is still generally studied and
taught through the frame of a national canon, what we call national language and
literature was a problem of comparison in (and for) $stanbul long before [Leo]
Orhan Pamuk. Beyaz Kale. Istanbul: Can Yayınları, 1985. 91. “Ikimiz birimiz.”
Spitzer and [Erich] Auerbach arrived there. Ottoman and Turkish language and
literature, in other words, have been dealing literally with the problem of
comparability with Europe at least since the middle of the nineteenth century.
Here Ertürk makes plain how a series of Westernization endeavors from the Tanzimat
period (1839–1876) through the alphabet and language “revolutions” [harf ve dil
devrimleri] of the late 1920s and 1930s, were part of a state strategy to breach obsolete
cultural and literary gaps between modern Turkey and Western Europe. The novel Snow,
a late literary-historical heir to this large-scale, Westernizing overhaul of Turkish society,
is designed to complicate the notion that “Turkish national literature” is an autonomous
domain that can be evenly compared with its Western European counterparts.
As Roberto Schwarz writes in his essay on the importing of the novel to Brazil,
‘‘Foreign debt is as inevitable in Brazilian letters as in any other field. It’s not simply an
easily dispensable part of the work in which it appears, but a complex feature of it.”
this assertion, Itamar Even-Zohar adds that “There is no symmetry in literary
interference. A target literature is, more often than not, interfered with by a source
literature which completely ignores it.”
In shedding the symbology of intercultural
dialogue, Snow is a fiction about this discursive traction between “source” and “target”
In a remarkable piece on “Reading Pamuk’s Snow as Parody,” Sibel Erol points out
Ertürk 2008, 41. Emily Apter. “Comparative Exile: Competing Margins in the History of Comparative
Literature.” Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Ed. Charles Bernheimer. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. 86–96.
Roberto Schwarz. “The Importing of the Novel to Brazil and Its Contradictions in the Work of Roberto
Alencar.” Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture. Eds. Roberto Schwarz and John Gledson.
London: Verso, 1992. 50.
10 Itamar Even-Zohar. “Laws of Literary Interference.” Poetics Today 11.1 (1990): 53–72. 62.
The most notable aspect of Snow is the discrepancy Pamuk creates between the
claims of the characters, who define themselves in one-dimensional extremes and
through their differences, and the multi-dimensionality of interlinkings and
similarities created through intertextuality, to which the characters in the novel
themselves are not privy. […] The parody in Snow resides in this sad humour.
As Erol suggests, the characters in the novel Snow—including Ka—recite and uphold
exclusively national personae, despite the transnational affiliations that both undermine
and underwrite those identities. Especially among Snow’s bureaucrats, activists, political
leaders, and artists, any conspicuous bonds to Germany and Western Europe that might
compromise one’s public image as a devoted Turkish national are comically
suppressed—and often in vain. In this sense, the novel and its characters perform what
Elisa Marti-Lopez describes as the “preoccupation with autochthony.”
I will argue that Ka is in the kind of double-bind between autochthony and
transgression that awaits anyone who is “commissioned” to give a report about
contemporary Turkey. As such, he retraces the footsteps of Kafka’s K. toward the castle
of Count Westwest, toward what might be considered, following Spivak, “the semiotic as
such.” On this concept, Spivak writes:
Given the rupture between the many languages of Aboriginality and the waves of
migration and colonial adventure clustered around the Industrial Revolution
narrative, […] all we have is bilingualism, bilateral arrangements between idioms
understood as essentially or historically private, on the one side, and English on the
other, understood as the semiotic as such. This is the political violence of translation
Sibel Erol. “Reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow as Parody: Difference as Sameness.” Comparative Critical
Studies 4 (2007): 403–432. 413.
Elisa Martí-López. Borrowed Words: Translation, Imitation, and the Making of the Nineteenth-Century
Novel in Spain. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002.
as transcoding, of the contemporary translation industry about which many of us
Though Spivak is speaking here (in English) about adverse multilingual positionalities as
they results from global English, her conception may well be extended to other sites of
the “Industrial Revolution narrative,” namely the language of post-War West Germany in
its intensive relationship to contemporary Turkish society. In his macroscopic study of
“the global-language system,” Words of the World, Abram de Swaan classified world
languages according to their relative social value in a global lattice of multilingual
Ranking English as “hypercentral,” and German as “supercentral,” de Swaan
locates Turkish as a subordinate or “central” language, which gravitates towards
translatability with the super- and hypercentral languages that govern international trade
and press traffic. I will claim that Pamuk’s novel—which is assumed to reference Turkish
national space—is preoccupied with the political workings of such a global language
system, as instantiated in how contemporary discourses about Turkey are inevitably
routed through the supercentral language of German.
We will remember how, from an immeasurable distance, Kafka’s K. took in the
outermost turret of the castle of Count Westwest:
There was something quite mad about this—ending in a kind of terrace, whose
battlements, uncertain, irregular, brittle, as though drawn by the anxious or careless
hand of a child, zigzagged into the blue sky. It was as if some gloomy resident, who
Gayatri C. Spivak. “Translation as Culture.” Translation: Reﬂections, Refractions, Transformations. Eds
Paul St-Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar. Delhi: Pencraft International. 2005, 238–50. 241.
de Swaan 2001.
should have rightly remained locked up in the most out-of-the-way room in the
house, had broken through the roof and risen to reveal himself to the world.
Composed in the era of EU-Turkey membership negotiations—in which the West’s
Eastern border is “uncertain, irregular, brittle”—Snow leaves behind the charismatic I–
Thou moment of encounter between Turkey and Europe that had propelled the syncretic
lyricism of The White Castle. The novel also omits the sustained meditations on the
emblematic bi-continental space of Istanbul that have been Pamuk’s poetic signature in
other texts—including The White Castle, The Black Book and the literary-historical
memoir "stanbul. As the traditional hub of East-West connections—and what Emily
Apter refers to as the birthplace of comparative literature
—the megalopolis of Istanbul
is little more than a pit-stop in the novel, a text that prefers instead to investigate the more
“out-of-the-way rooms” of the West.
In relocating K. to this limit case of Westernness, the city of Kars, Pamuk’s novel is
concerned with the precarious stakes under which subjects in the “out-of-the-way rooms”
of Europe recognize and are recognized by “the West,” and how their own claims on or
against Westernness are monitored—or repudiated—over time. The complex spatio-
temporal redistribution of symbolic Westernness undermines the doppelgänger
encounters and mirror-imagery so vividly portrayed in The White Castle. Instead, Snow
brings another kind of uncanny relationship to bear in his figural project. Instead of
shepherding two strangers into a symbolic intercultural epiphany, the novel’s binding
Kafka 1998, 8. Kafka 1982, 19. “Etwas Irrsinniges hatte das—und einem söllerartigen Abschluss, dessen
Mauerzinnen unsicher, unregelmäßig, brüchig, wie von ängstlicher oder nachlässiger Kinderhand
gezeichnet, sich in den blauen Himmel zackten. Es war, wie wenn ein trübseliger Hausbewohner, der
gerechterweise im entlegensten Zimmer des Hauses sich hätte eingesperrt halten sollen, das Dach
durchbrochen und sich erhoben hätte, um sich der Welt zu zeigen.”
Apter 1995, 86–86.
intimacies lie beyond the threshold of the text, in the symbolic, dominant monolingualism
of the Other.
In surreptitiously evoking Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle becomes for
Snow an always deniable hypotext, or figural “secret sharer.” Pamuk is thus able to
dramatize a particular subaltern space, shot through with symbolic traces of the (German)
West. Yet in so doing, Pamuk’s novel—somewhat counterintuitively—shares in the
project of “resisting the thinking of comparability […] as a kind of paralyzing condition
of derivation from Europe—a way of thinking […] latent even in our best efforts to
broaden the discipline of comparatism today.”
Snow resists any comparative impulse to
read the two novels as equidistant, comparable mirror-images. In lieu of such a “parallel
project,” Snow “unknowingly” emulates Kafka’s unfinishable text, reanimating the forces
of interpellation and desire that compel Kafka’s abbreviated hero K. through the snowy
streets below the castle.
A Moveable East
The world republic of letters has its own mode of
operation; its own economy, which produces
hierarchies and various forms of violence, and
above all, its own history, which, long obscured by
the quasi-systematic national (and therefore
political) appropriation of literary stature, has
never really been chronicled.
—Pascal Casanova, The World Republic of Letters
When Kafka’s K. takes a closer look at the bricoleur nature of the castle, he sees not a
union but a horizontal multitude of dispersed constructions:
Ertürk 2008, 43.
Casanova 2004, 12
On the whole the Castle, as it appeared from this distance, corresponded to K.’s
expectations. It was neither an old knight’s fortress nor a magnificent new edifice,
but a large complex, made up of a few two-story buildings and many lower, tightly
packed ones; had one not known that this was a castle, one could have taken it for a
small town. K. saw only one tower, whether it belonged to a dwelling or a church
was impossible to tell.
A more elegant description of today’s European Union in a moment of expansion fatigue
and discord between its religious and secular roots is hardly imaginable. Often referred to
as Fortress Europe by its political detractors, the European Union plays a complex intra-
and extratextual role in Snow. The novel itself was the result of sweeping pro-EU
political reforms in Turkey in the early 2000s that dismantled censorship statutes to the
extent that Orhan Pamuk could publish a political novel about contemporary Turkey,
which highlights—if not always by name—the Armenian genocide, the ongoing war in
Kurdistan, domestic phone-tapping, the Turkish secret police bureaucracy, and Islamist
fomentation in Germany. (Pamuk sought legal counsel in examining the manuscript line
by line to ensure the novel would pass muster with this new, liberalized censor.) Thus the
resulting text is, to a great extent, itself an artifact of post-Schengen European integration,
despite the perennial stumbling blocks between Turkey and EU membership. For most
characters within the novel, the protracted negotiations with Brussels for EU membership
evoke a vague feeling of a broken promise, of something that no longer seems worth
Kafka 1998, 8. Kafka 1982, 18. “Im ganzen entsprach das Schloß, wie es sich hier von der Ferne zeigte,
K.s Erwartungen. Es war weder eine alte Ritterburg noch ein neuer Prunkbau, sondern eine ausgedehnte
Anlage, die aus wenigen zweistöckigen, aber aus vielen eng aneinander stehenden niedrigen Bauten
bestand; hätte man nicht gewußt, daß es ein Schloß sei, hätte man es für ein Städtchen halten können.
Nur einen Turm sah K., ob er zu einem Wohngebäude oder einer Kirche gehörte, war nicht zu
One of the many ex-Communist politicos in Kars, Turgut Bey, resigned himself to
“But we all know what Europe has come to mean,” Turgut Bey continued. “Europe
is our future, and the future of our humanity. So if this gentleman”—here he
pointed at [the Islamist organizer] Blue—“thinks we should say all humanity instead
of Europe, we might as well change our statement accordingly.”
“Europe’s not my future,” said Blue with a smile.” As long as I live I shall never
imitate them or hate myself for being unlike them.”
More than any of the two author’s other novels, Snow and The Castle are both compelled
and confounded by East-West questions, which are no less existential for either than it is
political. In contrast to the high-finance metropolis of The Trial, the snowy domain of
The Castle has a peculiarly pre-urban feel that flouts K.’s Enlightenment predilection for
rational justice and communicative transparency. The repetition in Count Westwest’s
name is both a tautology and a paradox: though cardinal binaries (East-West and North-
South) and intercardinal bearings (northwest, southeast, etc.) have self-evident meanings,
K.’s hyper-cardinal bearing, westwest, has no cartographical referent. Neither a location
nor orientation, westwest is rather a directive—(“West, West!”)— a compulsion to
exemplify a hyperbolically Western manner of civic subjectivity.
Upon returning from Frankfurt after 12 years, Pamuk’s Ka beholds an Istanbul so
incommensurable with his childhood memories that he pushes further east, hoping to re-
discover there the consoling post-imperial melancholy of the 1950s. The cross-country
bus drops him off in Kars, a northeastern Turkish-Armenian-Georgian border city on
decommissioned trade routes with the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungary, a city that
experienced a golden age of Westernization in the first decades of the twentieth century,
gaining fame as one of the most “Western” cities in West Asia. In the early Turkish
Republican period, however, the border with Armenia was permanently closed and the
city became subsumed in the mythical Anatolian East—a region now primarily iterable in
Western European press coverage for state military incursions against Kurdish freedom-
fighters, inveterate structural unemployment, and populist Islamic fomentation.
Once an affluent city in the early twentieth century, Kars impresses upon the
newcomer Ka a skeletal, post-imperial melancholy. Traces of Slavic design and
architecture reinforce a sense of transnational connectivity, in keeping with Kafka’s
imagined provincial cities in such parables as “An Old Document.” Although Ka
eventually takes notice of the city’s crumbling Seljuk castle—topped with the star-and-
crescent flag of Republican Turkey—his attention is first drawn to the poorest of Kars’
municipal districts, the shantytown called Kaleiçi, or “within the castle.” After a brisk
morning walk through its snowy streets, Ka senses that:
It wasn’t the poverty or the helplessness [in Kaleiçi (“within the castle”)] that
disturbed him, it was the thing he would see again and again during the days to
come […] in the crowded teahouses where the city’s unemployed passed the time
playing cards. […] It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten,
as if it were snowing at the end of the world.
As if to console himself, Ka remembers that the city had experienced a golden age of
Westernization before the fall of the Russian and Ottoman empires. Czar Alexander had
ordered the construction of five parallel avenues “like never before seen in the East,” and
the city’s thriving middle class enjoyed the spoils of a trade route linking two
Deniz Göktürk. “Schwarzes Buch in Weißer Festung: Entschwindende Erzähler auf postmodernen
Pfaden in der türkischen Literatur.” Der Deutschunterricht 5 (1993): 32–45. Erika Greber. “Ost-
Westliche Spiegelungen: Der Doppelgänger als kulturkritische Metapher.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift
für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. 66.3 (1993): 539–94.
Westernizing powers. Yet since the beginning of the Turkish Republican period in the
1920s, Kars had gradually lost its autonomy and affluence, and its 500 year-old castle
effectively ceased to signal local power and hierarchy. To Ka’s eyes, the castle building
above Kaleiçi is a semiotic ruin—ostentatious, marginal, and evacuated. Kars thus saw its
Westernness discursively rescinded amid the downfall of three empires—the Hapsburgs,
the Ottomans, and the Romanovs—and the rise of programmatic nationalization.
In the last years of his life, as he was working on the manuscript for The Castle,
Kafka also beheld a momentous geopolitical shift from multinational empire to national
sovereignty, as Prague became the capital of a newly Eastern European Czechoslovak
Republic. The Castle was singular among his longer prose works for being entirely
composed after the fall of the Hapsburg’s multinational, multilingual empire, and the
founding of a newly “eastern” array of Central European nation-states. Thus, both novels
were composed in transitional periods of acute geopolitical reconstitution, where the
delineation of East and West remained both elusive and illusory.
The rub of the issue is their resemblance, two
figures for the same thing, sameness being the
order of correspondence, for comically faulty
—Hokenson and Munson, The Bilingual Text
Critics have been as quick to notice “parallels” between Pamuk’s Snow and Kafka’s The
Castle as they have been reluctant to analyze them. In the May 12, 2005 edition of The
New York Review of Books, Christian Caryl mentioned an “echo or two of Kafka’s hero
K.,” pointing out that Snow’s protagonist sheds his given name as a teenager to take on
the acronymic nickname Ka, “even if it meant conflict with teachers and government
officials.” Though the novel’s epigraphs—from Browning, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, and
Conrad—have emboldened reviewers in their long-held hunches about Pamuk’s
aspirations in world literature, Snow is assiduously silent about its textual partnership
with The Castle.
But both Kafka’s K. and Pamuk’s Ka arrive in their snowed-in provincial cities as
It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay under deep snow. There was no
sign of the Castle hill, fog and darkness surrounded it, not even the faintest gleam of
light suggested the large Castle. K. stood a long time on the wooden bridge that
This subtitle is a reference to Zafer Senocak’s novel Dangerous Affinities [Gefährliche Verwandschaft],
itself a citation of Goethe’s 1809 novel Elective Affinities [Die Wahlverwandtschaften]. Senocak’s
novel shares in Pamuk’s pursuit of a submerged history of transnational relationships between Turkey,
Germany, and Eastern Europe. Zafer Senocak. Gefährliche Verwandtschaft. Munich: Babel, 1998.
Hokenson and Munson 2007, 12.
leads from the main road to the village, gazing upward into the seeming emptiness.
Then he went looking for a night’s lodging.
And from Snow:
When, at ten o’clock at night, three hours behind schedule, the bus began its crawl
through the snow-covered streets of Kars, Ka couldn’t recognize the city at all. He
couldn’t even see the railroad station, where he’d arrived twenty years earlier by
steam engine, nor could he see any sign of the hotel to which his driver had taken
him that day (following a full tour of the city): the Hotel Republic, “a telephone in
every room.” It was as if everything had been erased, lost beneath the snow.
Both Snow and The Castle thus open with the absence of a discernible castle as the hero
arrives, late at night. In both cases, only snow is visible: Kafka’s K. is certain that he will
eventually re-discover “the” castle despite the restricted visibility. Pamuk’s Ka is,
however, indifferent at first to Kars’ city castle. Instead, Ka appears shaken by the
absence of the city’s memorable sites from his previous visit decades hence: the train
station and the Snow Palace Hotel [Kar Palas Oteli]. He recalls that hotel had been
owned and renovated by a Western-leaning professor in the early twentieth century.
Both protagonists are greeted as long-anticipated VIP emissaries and meddlesome
interlopers with bad manners. Each sees himself as destined to pursue a recalcitrant
political cabal and an insider logic that represents the “hereness” of Kars, and of the text
itself. But unannounced escorts and unlikely detours aggravate both their searches, as if
Kafka 1998, 1. Kafka 1982. 8. “Es war spät abend als K. ankam. Das Dorf lag in tiefem Schnee. Vom
Schlossberg war nichts zu sehen, Nebel und Finsternis umgaben ihn, auch nicht der schwächste
Lichtschein deutete das große Schloss an. Lange stand K. auf der Holzbrücke die von der Landstraße
zum Dorf führt und blickte in die scheinbare Leere empor. Dann gieng er ein Nachtlager suchen.”
Pamuk 2002, 12. Pamuk 2004, 6. “Otobüs karlar altındaki Kars sokaklarına saat onda, üç saat gecikmi¸
olarak girdiginde Ka ¸ehrin hiç tanıyamadı. Yirmi yil once buraya buharlı trenle geldigi bahar gününde
kar¸ısına çıkan istasyon binasının da, arabacının onu bütün ¸ehri dola¸tırdıktan sonra götürdügü her
odası telefonlu Cumuriyet Oteli’nin de nerede oldugunu çıkaramadı. Karın altında her ¸ey silinmi¸,
according to a deliberate design. This cascade of preordained events presents K. and Ka
with a dizzying social landscape of prescription and panopticism. In Snow, Ka is nearly
as often admonished for taking meetings as he is entreated to accept new ones. Such is
the case when he voluntarily meets with Islamist sympathizers, for which the local
newspaper editor takes him comically to task:
“After you left us, you had meetings with the wrong people, and those people told
you the wrong things about our border city,” said Serdar Bey.
“How could you know where I’ve been?” asked Ka
“Naturally, the police were following you,” said the newspaperman. “And for
professional reasons, we listen in on police communication with this transistor
radio. Ninety percent of the news we print comes from the office of the governor
and the Kars police headquarters.”
Ka begins to suspect that the inscrutable object of his pursuit changes its orientation at
every step. Upon receiving a friendly invitation to join a local sheik for a tête-à-tête, his
patience for all this ceremonious hospitality dissolves: “Am I supposed to pay my
respects to every lunatic in Kars?”
The interlocking synchronization of institutional functionaries, scheduled and
surveiled interviews, and (mis)guided tours through the snow reanimates K.’s round-
robin antics with the accidental spokespersons of Kafka’s castle. Barnabus, Gerstäcker,
and Klamm’s village superintendent Monus accompany and evade, console and rebuke
K. in his pursuit of an ultimate audience with Westwest. The charismatic leader of the
city’s headscarf-wearing movement, the young Kadife—herself once a leftist Istanbul
intellectual—enlightens Ka as to the social life of the city: “In Kars everyone always
knows about everything that’s going on.” Here Ka’s journalistic resolve begins to falter,
as he confronts the prescriptive nature of social knowledge in this strange city.
Surveying the Land
I also pose the question of my credibility and reliability, as I—a
“Westernized” observer from $stanbul—disseminate a judgment about a
place in my country that is so troubled and oppressed.
Just back from twelve years of political exile in Frankfurt am Main, Pamuk’s newcomer
Ka depends on institutional auspices to guarantee his status as a commissioned, outside
expert in Kars. In order to be guaranteed access and an audience with prominent local
figures, he arrives with a phony press credential as a reporter for a secularist daily
newspaper based in Istanbul. When asked, Ka explains that he has been dispatched to
cover local elections and a suicide epidemic among “covered”—headscarf-wearing—
teenage girls in Kars.
The liberal-Kemalist newspaper Cumhuriyet [The Republic] sponsoring his
investigative venture to the other end of the land began publishing in 1924, one year after
the Treaty of Lausanne recognized post-imperial Turkey as a sovereign state. In name
and in spirit, this newspaper is co-terminus with the Turkish Republic’s aggressive
Westernization program and its archetype, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as well as with the
struggling laicist Republican People’s Party [Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi]. In view of
Kemalism’s violent suppression of public Islam since the founding of the Turkish
Orhan Pamuk and Hubert Spiegel. “Ich werde sehr sorgfältig über meine Worte nachdenken.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 6 Jul. 2005. “Ich stelle ja auch die Frage nach meiner Zuverlässigkeit
und Glaubwürdigkeit, wenn ich, ein „verwestlichter” Beobachter von Istanbul, ein Urteil über einen
derart aufgewühlten und geschundenen Ort meines Landes verbreite.”
Republic, the symbolism of Ka’s arrival to Kars as a reporter for The Republic comes into
He needn’t even speak to me, I’ll be sufficiently
gratified on seeing the effect my words have on
him, and if they have none, or if he doesn’t hear a
word I say, I will still have gained something from
the chance to speak frankly to a person with
—K., The Castle
Though he claims to be in Kars on assignment, Ka’s covert motivation for his visit is to
find and marry Ipek, his old friend from leftist student circles in Istanbul, thereby
rescuing her from the throes of activist Islam and bringing her back to her Kemalist roots.
Ka’s hubris of “uncovering” the story of the “covered” girls—an ambivalent mix of
sanctioned journalistic ambition and clandestine romantic conquest—recalls Frantz
Fanon’s writings on Algeria during the 1950s. For Fanon, the French desire to uncover
Algerian women exhibited the “crystallization of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind
of violence.... Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret,
breaking her resistance. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to
make her a possible object of possession.”
Ka’s somewhat disingenuous self-designation as a reporter for Cumhuriyet
profoundly pre-structures his itinerary. Upon his arrival, he is promptly whisked into a
Franz Kafka. The Castle. Trans. Mark Harman. New York: Schocken Books, 1998. 50. Franz Kafka.
Kritische Kafka-Ausgabe: Das Schloß. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1982. 83. “Es [ist] gar nicht nötig,
dass er mit mir spricht, es genügt mir, wenn ich den Eindruck sehe, den meine Worte auf ihn machen,
und machen sie keinen oder hört er sie gar nicht, habe ich doch den Gewinn, frei vor einem Mächtigen
gesprochen zu haben.”
Frantz Fanon. “Algeria Unveiled.” Trans. Haakon Chevalier. Decolonization: Perspectives from Now
and Then. Ed. Prasenjit Duara. London: Routledge, 2003. 48.
series of meetings—with the police chief, the newspaper editor, the mayor, and
eventually the rebel ringleader Lacivert. A young religious student, Necip, is tasked with
arranging this clandestine meeting with Lacivert, about which he informs Ka, “My
instructions are such that I cannot give you the name of the person you need to meet
unless you first agree to meet him.”
One of the targets of Ka’s reportage in Snow, the philandering terrorist Lacivert
(Blue), gives Ka some unwanted career counseling as follows: “The Turkish press is
interested in its country’s troubles only if the Western press takes an interest first. […]
Otherwise it’s offensive to discuss poverty and suicide; they talk about these things as if
they happen in a land beyond the civilized world. Which means that you too will be
forced to publish your article in Europe.” Here Lacivert sketches out for Ka how
knowledge about Turkey must first be solicited from the West European press before it
can be widely disseminated among a domestic readership.
The Islamist cabal nonetheless perceives Ka as a direct conduit to the European
press—by way of a (comically named) German reporter Hans Hansen, who is said to
work for the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. Ka is thus invited to sit in on a
clandestine summit at the Hotel Asia, where religious agitators intend to produce a press
release explaining their position on the unrest and attempted coup in Kars. This attempt at
collective enunciation, however, falters from the start: “At first no one spoke, so sure
were they that the room was bugged and that there were several informers present.” Not
even the opening brainstorm question “If a big German newspaper gave you personally
two lines of space, what would you say to the West?” generates usable ideas, and the
meeting aborts amid this stalemate of representation.
Like so many “reporters” in Kafka’s works, Pamuk’s Ka never completes the written
report he insists he has been chosen to compose—neither the article for The Republic nor
the Islamist rebels’ proposed press release “to the people of Europe” in the Frankfurter
Rundschau. Still Ka retains his singularity as the chosen expert outsider. As K. remarks
in The Castle:
“Of course,” said K., “one should not judge too soon. For now all I know about the
Castle is that one understands how to pick out the right landsurveyor there.”
Although K. entitles himself to an audience with the castle in his capacity as
landsurveyor, this may also turn out to be a designation that threatens “audacity and
hubris (Vermessenheit) and, most importantly, the possibility of making a mistake while
measuring (sich vermessen).”
John Zilcosky’s suspicion that the word “vermessen” (to
measure falsely) lies at the heart of K.’s grand task as self-appointed landsurveyor in The
Castle—an ambition that Walter Sokel referred to as a great fraud perpetuated against the
reader—is potently reiterated in Pamuk’s novel.
Along with the drooling man who expels the narrator Orhan from the German hall of
belles lettres with his “tongue/language,” another character compounds the insult by
condemning his attempts to write a novel about modern Turkey at all. Fazıl, a former
student of Kars’ Islamist academy and one of Ka’s most pensive informants, reproaches
the author and his land-surveying hubris:
Kafka 1982, 15. “Freilich,” sagte K., “man soll nicht verfrüht urteilen. Vorläufig weiß ich ja vom Schloss
nichts weiter, als daß man es dort versteht, sich den richtigen Landvermesser auszusuchen.”
Zilcosky 2003, 49.
Walter Herbert Sokel. The Myth of Power and the Self: Essays on Franz Kafka. Detroit, Mich: Wayne
State University Press, 2002. 59.
“I can tell from your face that you want to tell the people who read your novel how
poor we are and how different we are from them. I don’t want you to put me in a
novel like that.”
“Because you don’t even know me, that’s why! Even if you got to know me and
describe me as I am, your Western readers would be so caught up in pitying me for
being poor that they wouldn’t have a chance to see my life. For example, if you said
I was writing an Islamist science-fiction novel, they’d just laugh.”
This exchange is an instance of what Edward Said described as a self-reflexive “way of
describing the author’s position in a text with regard to the Oriental material he writes
Fazıl finally demands that “his author” Orhan Pamuk—who Azade Seyhan calls
“the unofficial interpreter of Islam for the American public”—inform readers that nothing
said about Kars in the novel is true.
Snow thus closes with one character’s antagonistic
rebuke about the author’s hubris of “writing outside the nation,” a charge echoing those
of Pamuk’s domestic critics who view his work as pandering to Western cultural
Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 20.
Azade Seyhan. “Is Orientalism in Retreat or in for a New Treat? Halide Edip Adivar and Emine Sevgi
Özdamar Write Back.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 41.3 (2005): 209–225. 216.
Azade Seyhan. Writing Outside the Nation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. On domestic
critiques of Orhan Pamuk, see for instance Demirta% Ceyhun. “Nobel Orhan Pamuk'a verilmi% bir
ücrettir.” Türksolu 11 Jun. 2006.
The Implanted Author
When we meet someone in a novel who reminds
us of ourselves, our first wish is for that character
to explain to us who we are. […] If I woke up one
morning to find that I had turned into an
enormous cockroach, what would become of me?
[…] What I need to ponder most is this: who is
this ‘other’ we so need to imagine? This creature
who is nothing like us addresses our most
primitive hates, fears, and anxieties.
—Orhan Pamuk, “In Kars and Frankfurt”
Kafka’s K. comes to a less violent—though no less abrupt—end than Pamuk’s K. In
September 1922, Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod, “I did not have a happy time of it
this week, since it appears that I have had to give up the castle story for good.”
Brod’s redacted edition the text of the The Castle trails off in mid sentence:
The room in Gerstäcker’s cottage was only dimly illuminated by the fire in the
hearth and by a candle stump in the light of which someone deep inside an alcove
sat bent under the crooked protruding beam, reading a book. It was Gerstäcker’s
mother. She held out her trembling hand to K. and had him sit down beside her, she
spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said
No closer to the castle of Westwest than when he first crossed into the snowy village,
K. and his pursuit expire during this encounter with an old woman reading silently from
an unidentified book. Though The Castle manuscript remained unfinished at the time of
Kafka’s own death, the Frankfurt City Library, where Pamuk’s Ka sits reading eighty
Franz Kafka, Erich Heller, Joachim Beug, eds. Franz Kafka. Munich: Heimeran, 1969. 101. “Diese
Woche habe ich nicht sehr lustig verbracht, denn ich habe die Schlossgeschichte offenbar für immer
liegen lassen müssen.”
Kafka 1998, 316. Kafka 1992, 495. “Die Stube in Gerstäckers Hütte war nur vom Herdfeuer matt
beleuchtet und von einem Kerzenstumpf, bei dessen Licht jemand in einer Nische gebeugt unter den
dort vortretenden schiefen Dachbalken in einem Buche las. Es war Gerstäckers Mutter. Sie reichte
K. die zitternde Hand und ließ ihn neben sich niedersetzen, mühselig sprach sie, man hatte Mühe sie zu
verstehen, aber was sie sagte”.
years later, holds thirteen copies of the novel, including Kamuran Sipal’s Turkish
translation—from the series Classics of the Twentieth Century.
While K. in The Castle had been the sole aperture of narrative authority in the text,
Snow is frame-narrated by Orhan Pamuk, a diegetic double of the author, who relates
most of what he knows about the German-Anatolian travels of his high school friend, a
secular middle-class poet from Istanbul’s affluent Ni¸anta¸ı neighborhood. Neither a
disinterested frame narrator nor an apologist, Orhan follows the itinerary of his recently
assassinated friend—from their shared hometown of Istanbul, to Frankfurt am Main, and
on to the Eastern border city of Kars. Recounting Ka’s experiences with a degree of
interiority and affect that far exceeds his corroborating sources, Orhan traces his friend’s
steps so faithfully that the local grocer in Kars begins to confuse the two men. “I almost
felt I was Ka,” admits Orhan, wondering, as do his readers, “How much of this was
coincidence, how much was just my imagining?”
This narrator Orhan recalls how his friendship with Ka began in their teenage years,
when the two boys were engrossed in European literature. Whether the homophonic
equivalence between Kerim’s newly chosen nickname and Kafka’s archetype was
deliberate or significant for the two friends remains undisclosed throughout Snow. Yet
the two ethnically unmarked abbreviations K. and Ka—pronounced identically whether
in Turkish or German—are subject to an indissoluble différance despite their perpetual
missed encounter. Telling the two names “apart” from one another would be possible
only in the context of writing or reading.
Franz Kafka. $ato. Trans. Kamuran Sipal. Istanbul: Cem Yayınları 2000.
Pamuk 2002, 413. Pamuk 2004. 411.
But Ka does not like being mistaken for anyone else, least of all a character in
somebody else’s novel. Unwittingly calling attention to the irresolvable ambiguity
between himself and K., Ka vainly admonishes the editor of Kars’ Border City Gazette
for misprinting his name:
“My name is printed wrong,” said Ka. “The A should be lowercase.” He regretted
saying this. “But it looks good,” he added, as if to make up for his bad manners.
“My dear sir, it was because we weren’t sure of your name that we tried to get in
touch with you,” said Serdar Bey. “Son, look here, you printed our poet’s name
wrong.” But as he scolded the boy there was no surprise in his voice. Ka guessed
that he was not the first to have noticed that the name had been misprinted. “Fix it
Ka’s compulsion to correct the spelling of his own name (after the paper has already gone
to press), along with the newspaperman’s relative indifference underscores the parody of
identity politics that is underway. Ka is obsessed with being unprecedented, while
everyone he meets insists that they already know his story.
Insisting on Différance
In The Castle, though some interlocutors in the village come up with documents that
seem to certify K.’s existence, he remains an unknown quantity of sorts, and readers of
The Castle learn less and less about who K. is over the course of the novel. Most of his
“attributes” are produced through self-euphemization—a stance toward the castle that
Eric Santner termed “nomotropic.”
The narrative alleges that K. is a foreigner/stranger,
that he has no prior acquaintances in the castle village, and that he has made no
(successful) arrangements for house and gainful employment. A few childhood memories
Eric L. Santner. “Freud’s “Moses” and the Ethics of Nomotropic Desire.” October 88 (1999): 3–41.
surface—for instance, a halcyon image of K. as a young boy, climbing over the wall of
his hometown cemetery, clutching a flag in his teeth. The “fourth-person” narrator
sometimes muses about the difficulties of being “so far away from wife and child,” but
such rhetorical gestures never amount to personal attributes.
Avital Ronell has stressed how Kafka’s K. functions less as an embodied subject with
an interior emotional life of his own than as a “mark of incompletion,” an abbreviated
icon standing for a generic position. The recalcitrant, absent castle itself “requires K. to
produce an identity. In front of anyone… who claims to be a representative of the
Castle.” In the absence of any salient documentation—passport, letter of invitation,
credentials as landsurveyor—K.’s existence as a civic subject is not a matter of public or
imperial record. Where Kafka’s K. had stood “for a long time on the wooden bridge”
before entering the revier of the castle, no equivalent long-durée period of marginality
before the state applies in Ka’s personal history.
In Snow, the first-person frame narrator sees to it that his friend Ka is far more than a
“mark of incompletion.” Ka is a Turkish national, and it is because the Turkish state
already has his various (authentic and falsified) home addresses on file that he is forced
to seek political exile in West Germany, where his twelve-year residence is equally well
documented at the Bureau of Asylum. Unlike K. then, Ka’s status as a denizen of (both
German and Turkish) governance is multiple, verifiable, and uncontested. As a
consequence, Ka is doubly foreign—known as a Turkish poet when in Germany and a
German journalist when in Turkey. Despite this double-bind of deterritorialization, he has
deliberately avoided learning the German language—in hopes of “preserving his soul.”
(We will remember how forthcoming Kafka’s K. was in speaking French with the village
Because he is an always-already governed “national,” Ka is unable to maintain a
seamless, self-fashioned persona as K. had done, unable to perpetuate the “colossal
fraud” on his readers that Sokel accused him of.
Orhan—Ka’s friend and champion in
the text—plays narrative tricks on Ka—or, more precisely, on the monopolization of
perspective that Friedrich Beißner described in Kafka as “uni-directionality”
[Einsinnigkeit], and Joseph Vogel reconceptualized as “fourth person narrative.”
K. in The Castle is asleep, no narrative detail is provided about him or his surroundings.
The non-omniscient narrative is restricted to the protagonist’s own range of perceptions.
In Snow, Orhan—though not omniscient—sneaks biographical information into the text
while the protagonist is sleeping, against the latter’s wishes. When Ka falls asleep on his
neighbor’s shoulder during the snowy busride to Kars, Orhan intrudes in a tone that
borders on gossip: “Let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical
It is during this furtive, hasty interlude that the reader accesses the sort of
data—ethnic, biographical, civic—that Kafka’s texts tend to abrogate.
In the post-Imperial era of the nation-state, Pamuk thus reintroduces Kafka’s K. not
as an abbreviation pursuing a legitimating audience with the West, but as the post-
modern heir to that generic position: a mobile, middle-class intellectual who no longer
Sokel 2002. 59.
“Kafka’s peculiar use of indirect discourse, generating seemingly smooth transitions between first- and
third-person narration, between I and He, tends to present a self only at the moment when it has already
become an other, disappearing into a plurality of voices that Joseph Vogl has termed the impersonal ‘it’
of a “fourth person.” Bianca Theisen. “A Natural History of Destruction: W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of
Saturn.” MLN 121.3 (2006): 563–581. 573. Joseph Vogl. “Vierte Person. Kafkas Erzählstimme,”
Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift 68 (1994): 745–756. 754.
Pamuk 2002,10. Pamuk 2004, 4. “Uyumasından yararlanıp onun hakkında sessizce biraz bilgi verelim.”
needs nor seeks legitimating from the classic elites of state power. His “castle” lies
elsewhere, fractured and multiple on the trade routes of symbolic capital between Turkey
The Castle in Ruins
We don’t need a surveyor. There wouldn’t be the
least bit of work for a person like that. The
boundaries of our small holdings have been
marked out, everything has been duly registered,
the properties themselves rarely change hands,
and whatever small boundary disputes arise, we
settle ourselves. So why should we have any need
for a surveyor?
—Momus the Chairman to K., The Castle
Kafka’s castle, which K. perceived as territorially bound, towering “free and light” above
the village, always seemed close enough to guarantee ultimate access; its consoling
presence on the horizon convinced him to tolerate the drifts of snow and circuitous
pathways for one more hour:
K. kept expecting the street to turn at last toward the Castle and it was only in this
expectation that he kept going; no doubt out of weariness he was reluctant to leave
this street, what amazed him, too, was the length of this village, which wouldn’t end,
again and again those tiny little houses and the frost-covered windowpanes and the
snow and not a living soul.
Given the baffling length (and yet deictic unity) of the village, it is no wonder that Snow
transposes the “atopia” of Westwest’s domain across a transnational landscape stretching
Kafka 1982, 95. Kafka 1998, 59. “Wir brauchen keinen Landvermesser. Es wäre nicht die geringste
Arbeit für ihn da. Die Grenzen unserer kleinen Wirtschaften sind abgesteckt, alles ist ordentlich
eingetragen. Besitzwechsel kommt kaum vor und kleine Grenzstreitigkeiten regeln wir selbst. Was soll
uns also ein Landvermesser?”
Kafka 1982, 21. Kafka 1998, 10. “Immer erwartete K., daß nun endlich die Straße zum Schloß einlenken
müsse und nur, weil er es erwartete, ging er weiter; offenbar infolge seiner Müdigkeit zögerte er, die
Straße zu verlassen, auch staunte er über die Länge des Dorfes, das kein Ende nahm, immer wieder die
kleinen Häuschen und vereisten Fensterscheiben und Schnee und Menschenleere.”
from Kars to Frankfurt. Over the course of his investigation, Ka discovers how the
privileged status that both he and the terrorist ringleader Lacivert enjoy in Kars relies on
the symbolic and infrastructural capital of their “German connections.” In fact, all of
Kars’ Islamist organizers—Muhtar, Kadife, Lacivert, and Necip—were once active in the
student movements at universities in Germany or Istanbul. The local Islamist cabal that
Ka intended to uncover in Kars is thus neither autochthonous nor anti-modern, it relies on
transnational, secularist, and urban power. In fact, little political capital in Kars derives
from local—or even national—institutions. Ka himself enjoys a privileged status among
Kars’ Islamist rebels because he is connected to a prominent German press agent from
the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, Hans Hansen, who might publish on their behalf
“An Open Letter to the People of Europe Regarding the Events in Kars.”
Ka also notices that the Kars Border Gazette is printed on a hand-me-down press
from Hamburg, and that the surveillance equipment that government intelligence agents
use to catch Islamists on tape are manufactured by Grundig, an emblem of the West
German Economic Miracle [Wirtschaftswunder]. Compounding these traces of German
manufacture are the very letters on the novel’s page. (Mustafa) Kemal Atatürk, whose
initials Ka shares, is reported to have first entertained the idea of converting written
Turkish from the Arabo-Persian to Latin upon leafing through Julius Németh’s 1916
Türkische Grammatik, printed in Leipzig.
Thus the means for reproducing meaning in
the novel (press, alphabet, recording devices) all trace back to German manufacture.
Like the headscarf-wearing girls he has come to cover in Kars, Ka is also enveloped
in a conspicuous garment himself: an overcoat he bought at the Kaufhof department store
A. Dilaçar. Devlet dili olarak Türkçe. Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Basımevi, 1962. 41.
during his exile in Frankfurt am Main. This ostentatiously European accessory figures at
the very beginning of the novel as follows: “We should note straightaway that this soft
downy beauty of a coat would cause him shame and disquiet during the days he was to
spend in Kars, while also furnishing a sense of security.”
At their first meeting, the
Islamist organizer Lacivert praises Ka’s coat and tries to prevent him from taking it off—
in a kind of counter-gesture to the secular impulse to sartorially liberate devout women:
“Please don’t take off your coat until the room has warmed up… It’s a beautiful
coat. Where did you buy it?”
“Frankfurt…. Frankfurt,” Blue murmured, and he lifted his eyes to the ceiling and
lost himself in thought. Then he explained that “some time ago” he had been found
guilty under Article 163 of promoting the establishment of a state based on religious
principles and had for this reason escaped to Germany.
Like Dorothy returning to Oz, Ka finds that the castle is not the sovereign arbiter of
meaning it once had been for K. In the post-imperial city of Kars, remnants of the castle
include the evacuated shell of the Seljuk castle-ruin, as well as the impoverished district
of Kaleiçi, or “within the Castle,” which is mirrored by the interior of the Frankfurt city
library. For Ka, Kars’ sites of memory [lieux de memoire] are rather the transit hub and
hotel, the latter of which conjoins the titles of both novels [Snow Palace Hotel]—the
transient non-places of supermodernity.
This suggests that authority in modern Kars is
defined not through the local accumulation and exercise of power, but through arrivals
Pamuk 2002, 76. Pamuk 2004, 73. “‘Paltonuzu soba odayı ısıtana kadar çıkarmayın…Güzel palto.
Nerede aldınız?’ / ‘Frankfurt’tan.’ / ‘Frankfurt… Frankfurt,’ dedi Lacivert ve gözünü tavana dikip
dü¸üncelere daldı. / Dine dayalı bir devlet düzeni kurulması fikrini yaydıgı için ‘bir zamanlar’ 163.
maddeden mahküm oldugunu, bu yüzden Almanya’ya kaçtıgını söyledi.”
Marc Augé. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe.
London: Verso, 1995.
and departures. (There are no such guest accommodations in Kafka’s village, not even a
pension or hostel for K. to sleep in.) Thus, as the two heroes arrive in their respective
villages, the initial absence of the castle’s absence in Snow supplants the presence of the
castle’s absence in Kafka’s novel. This intertextual substitution on the novel’s opening
pages indicates that a redistribution of institutional power, reaching beyond local
relationships and circumstances, underlies Kars’ recent history.
The last segment of the castle, as reconstituted and refigured in Snow, is to be found
back in Frankfurt in the form of the city library, where Ka was assassinated. A mirror
image of the neighborhood Kaleiçi “within the castle” in Kars, this library is populated
by the subaltern heirs of German Enlightenment, Westernization’s internal Others. Like
the dystopic, “insane” [irrsinnig] close-up of the castle, the Frankfurt library repels
Snow’s narrator Orhan. In addition to being the flagship city for a host of multinational
conglomerates and lending institutions, its non-citizen population hovers at
approximately 27 percent. As the seat of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels,
and the location of former West Germany’s single comprehensive repository of German-
language books and periodicals, Frankfurt am Main embodies for Ka the site where
textual representations of Turkey are housed, redacted, and reproduced—reconstituting
Turkishness in the European imagination.
Meaning in the Snow
As I was gazing out at the enormous snowflakes
bouncing softly against the walls of the castle
before sinking into the dark waters of the river,
Fazıl innocently asked why I’d come to Kars.
The thing that saved me was not learning German.
In Kafka’s novel, snow is a ubiquitous, equalizing substance that obscures and transforms
the signifying power of all objects, except the castle.
Now he saw the Castle above, sharply outlined in the clear air and made even
sharper by the snow, which traced each shape and lay everywhere in a thin layer.
Besides, there seemed to be a great deal less snow up on the hill than here in the
village, where it was no less difficult for K. to make headway than it had been
yesterday on the main road. Here the snow rose to the cottage windows only to
weigh down on the low roofs, whereas on the hill everything soared up, free and
light, or at least seemed to from here.
The distant castle hill, towering free and light above, gains its singularity because all
other forms are covered in a layer of blinding white. Kafka’s snow is at times negative
semiotic potential, at others a medium of translation, imitation, or emulation; snow
silently arbitrates distinction between what is covered and what is exposed. The sheer
mass of snow deters and enervates K. in his pursuit of an audience with Count Westwest.
Pamuk 2002, 411. Pamuk 2004, 409. “Ben kaleye ve Kars çayına büyük tanelerle agır agır yagan kara
bakarken Fazıl iyiniyetle Kars’a niye geldigimi sor[du].”
Pamuk 2002, 38. Pamuk 2004, 33. “Beni koruyan ¸ey Almanca ögrenememem oldu.”
Kafka 1982, 16-17. Kafka 1998, 7. “Nun sah er oben das Schloss deutlich umrissen in der klaren Luft
und noch verdeutlicht durch den alle Formen nachbildenden, in dünner Schicht überall liegenden
Schnee. Übrigens schien oben auf dem Berg viel weniger Schnee zu sein als hier im Dorf, wo sich
K. nicht weniger mühsam vorwärts brachte als gestern auf der Landstraße. Hier reichte der Schnee bis
zu den Fenstern der Hütten und lastete gleich wieder auf dem niedrigen Dach, aber oben auf dem Berg
ragte alles frei und leicht empor, wenigstens schien es so von hier aus.”
Often K. has to clutch Barnabus by the arm in order not to get “stuck” in the endless
drifts of white; snow is a barrier between K. and meaning.
Pamuk translates snow—Kafka’s disfigural medium—from the semiotic to the socio-
political. As his alibi for coming to the city was to complete a report about covered young
women, the metonymy throughout the novel between covering and snow might suggest
that snow is an emblem for the headscarf, or covering [örtü]. Yet Ka discovers gradually
how the opposite seems to be the case. The entire city subsists invisibly amid the traffic
in knowledge about Turkey; it is only the scandal of suicide that puts Kars “on the map”
for discussion in the international (and therefore subsequently in the Turkish) press. Thus
snow—also the prohibitive agent that allows the local rebels to stage an uprising during a
three-day blizzard—is an emblem of epistemic absence, of that which is kept
unknowable. Thus Pamuk’s text advances a corollary claim to Said’s axiom on the
West’s intellectual imperialism over “the Orient.” If, for Said, Orientalism was “a library
or archive of information, commonly, and in some of its aspects, unanimously held,”
snow is the epistemic absences that such a library produces in the course of an uneven
incorporation into a global literary and journalistic circuit of translation.
Without Ka’s approval, the Border City Gazette, a daily newspaper with a three-
figure circulation (a quarter of which is mailed to ex-residents of Kars now living in
Istanbul), festively announces that the visiting journalist will soon be reading his new
poem “Snow” before a public audience. Ka retorts:
“I don’t have a poem called ‘Snow,’ and I’m not going to the theater this evening.
Your newspaper will look like it’s made a mistake.”
Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 41.
“Don’t be so sure. There are those who despise us for writing the news before it
happens. They fear us not because we are journalists, but because we can predict the
future; you should see how amazed they are when things turn out exactly as we’ve
written them. This is what modern journalism is all about. I know you won’t want to
stand in the way of our being modern—you don’t want to break our hearts.”
This farce of writerly sovereignty, the pre- and overdetermined nature of what Ka will
and must write, highlights the symbolic role of involuntarily representative authors: in
Kafka’s case, a self-hating Jewish patient (Gilman), a nomad (Deleuze and Guattari), an
antifascist (Kertesz), a recalcitrant son (Brod); in Pamuk’s case an intercultural diplomat,
presumptive Nobel Laureate and would-be “state artist” of the Turkish Republic, a
position which Pamuk rejected in 1998.
Despite Ka’s desire not to be mistaken for someone else, a relay of call-and-response
possibilities echoes throughout the novel. Even without considering plot and action, one
notices at least four mirroring relationships: 1) the homophonic protagonists K. and Ka,
2) the frame narrator Orhan Pamuk, who feels like he “almost was” his friend Ka, 3) the
authorial Orhan Pamuk and his homonymic narrator-double within the novel, and 4) the
extratextual authors Pamuk and Kafka. In each case the subject of the doubling remains
naive of his respective shadow-subject. Unlike in The White Castle, no moment of
revelation takes place.
Pamuk 2002, 34. Pamuk 2004, 29. “‘Kar adlı bir ¸iirim yok, ak¸am da tiyatroya gitmeyecegim. Haberiniz
yanlı¸ çıkacak.’ / ‘O kadar emin olmayın. Daha olaylar gerçekle¸meden haberini yazdıgınız için bizi
küçümseyen, yaptıgımızın gazetecilik degil, kehanet oldugunu dü¸ünen pek çok ki¸i daha sonra olyların
tamı tamına bizim yazdıgımız gibi geli¸mesi üzerine hayretlerini gizleyememi¸tir. Pek çok olay sırf biz
önceden haberini yaptıgımız için gerçekle¸mi¸tir. Modern gazetecilik de budur. Siz de bizim Kars’ta
modern olma hakkımızı elimimizden almamak, kalbimizi kırmamak [istemiyorsunuz.]’”
In contrast to Pamuk’s earlier novels, Snow’s spectral partners lie beyond, and
beneath, the text. A figural mise en abyme arching from the authorial Pamuk—through
his own fictional doubles in the novel, toward K. and Kafka—dramatizes the imbrications
and intimacies in the transnational landscape of Turkish Germany. This incites telling
uncertainties about the contemporary production of knowledge on “Turkey and the
West.” In lieu of a dyadic doppelgänger structure indexing East–West or Ottoman–
European relations, Snow assembles a series of ontological envelopes that vanish within
one another. Thus while most explicit political dialogue in the novel invokes (or rails
against) the stable binary East/West, the text is designed around a series of mutual
imbrications, of nesting terms that outline the “hereness” of the novel’s narrative:
Kars: Turkey’s easternmost border, $stanbul’s provincial other, the forgotten “out of
the way room” of Europe, divested of its Westernness over the course of twentieth-
century Turkish nation-building
Kar: Turkish for “snow”; indicates covering, non-distinction, invisibility, the
inchoate, the economy of translatability and translatedness.
Ka: Pamuk’s secular $stanbullite poet and journalist, who “enjoys a small, enigmatic
fame” under this name Ka;
K: Kafka’s self-appointed civic petitioner before castle Westwest. (“Civic” in the
sense of civis and civitas.]
At the “center” of this structure of envelopes within envelopes:
Kars > Kar > Ka > K. < Ka < Kar < Kars
is a fictional figure of Westernization: K., standing at an ambiguous, immeasurable
distance from “the semiotic as such.”
In stark contrast to the binary terms of the “East-West question” [Batı-do!u meselesi]
invoked in debates about Turkish–European cultural relations, the terms in the chain
above (location, translation, postnational subjectivity, civic interpellation) do not act as
counter-definitions to one another. Each term both inheres in and constitutes each of the
As Erol suggests in another sense, Pamuk places ostensibly disparate modes
of discourse in a “relationship of encapsulation.”
In placing this threshold of emulation
and encapsulation not within the story itself, as in the White Castle, but on the threshold
between text and Kafka’s hypotext, Snow restages K.’s pursuit of enunciation before
Count Westwest in the age of EU candidacy states, “privileged partnerships,” and
Schengen Treaty borders, where the illusion of consolidated power and state sovereignty
has ultimately lost its traction.
Roman Jakobson’s discussion of the US Presidential campaign slogan “I like Ike” explores such poetic
imbrications as follows: “Both cola of the trisyllabic formula ‘I like /Ike’ rhyme with each other, and
the second of the two rhyming words is fully included in the first one (echo rhyme), /layk/ — /ayk/, a
paronomastic image of a feeling which totally envelops its object. Both cola alliterate with each other,
and the first of the two alliterating words is included in the second: /ay/–/ayk/, a paronomastic image of
the loving subject enveloped by the beloved object. The secondary, poetic function of this electional
catch phrase reinforces its impressiveness and efficacy.” Roman Jakobson. Selected Writings. Trans.
Stephen Rudy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1962. 26
Erol 2007, 404.
The Furnace in the National Theater
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the
dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is
repeated over and over again; finally it can be
calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the
During one of the Snow’s pivotal scenes, a revival performance of the 1940s morality
play My Country or My Headscarf at Kars’ National Theater quickly descends into
bloodshed, as the soldier-actors on stage open fire on Islamist hecklers in the audience.
It was only with the third volley that some in the audience realized that the soldiers
were firing live rounds; they could tell, just as one could on those evenings when
soldiers rounded up terrorists in the streets, because these shots can be heard in
one’s stomach as well as in one’s ears. A strange noise came from the huge German-
manufactured Bohemian stove that had been heating the hall for forty-four years,
the stovepipe had been pierced and was now spewing smoke like an angry teapot at
The sudden hiss from this huge German-manufactured Bohemian stove [Alman malı iri
bohem soba] signals Kafka’s “heating” intrusian in this novel as a cipher of world
literature interrupting nationalist theatrics. But it is the actual bullets shot from the guns
of the play soldiers—the violence of statist pageantry run amok—that rouse this furnace
to alarm. Silent in the “national theater” for the forty-four years preceding this crisis, the
furnace would have been installed in the late 1950s, in the midst of two disparate
developments: 1) the birth of the West German guest-worker program, which would
bring four Turkish generations into constant traffic with Germany and its institutions, and
2) the publication of Kafka’s works in Turkish, amid the first broadly successful
Kafka 1992, 117. “Leoparden brechen in den Tempel ein und saufen die Opferkrüge leer; das wiederholt
sich immer wieder; schließlich kann man es vorausberechnen, und es wird ein Teil der Zeremonie.”
transatlantic attempts to canonize him as a German representative of world literature and
as a cosmopolitan artist of culturally transcendent value. The melee at Kars’ National
Theater in Snow calls these ostensibly disparate historical developments into a befitting
caucauphonous clash: mass foreign labor recruitment in the wake of World War II,
secular Turkish nationalism through Westernization after the fall of Empire, the
appropriation of Eastern authors for world-literary canonization, the importing of German
commodities and cultural goods to modern Turkey, and the local backlash against each of
these, in the form of Kars’ anti-secular rebellion.
As a metaliterary reflection, Snow thus dramatizes the irreconcilability of world
literature, national literature, and local political history. For David Damrosch, a literary
text fulfills three criteria if it is to become a work of world literature. 1) World literature
is an elliptical refraction of national literatures, 2) writing that gains in translation, 3) not
a set canon of texts but a mode of reading: a form of detached engagement with worlds
beyond our own place and time.
He continues on to say that:
Works become world literature by being received into the space of a foreign culture,
a space defined in many ways by the host culture’s national tradition and the present
needs of its own writers. The receiving culture can use the foreign material in all
sorts of ways: as a positive model for the future development of its own tradition; as
a negative case of a primitive or decadent strand that must be avoided or rooted out
at home or, more neutrally, as an image of radical otherness against which the home
tradition can more clearly be defined.
What might be evident by this point is how oddly angled such novels as Snow and
Caravanserai are toward this tripartite vision of world literature. The categories
Damrosch 2003, 281.
Damrosch 2003, 283.
Damrosch proposes for describing world-literary exchange—“host culture,” “receiving
culture,” “foreign material,” and “home tradition”—speak of mythical entities that these
texts actively work to disarticulate.
Under the provocative title What’s Left of Theory, Butler et al. reviewed what
poststructural thought had meant for the reading of literature. The volume held that the
bond between politics and textuality was, in fact, dyed in the wool of deconstruction—
not tangential or adverse to it. While the authors invigorated this claim with essays on
privacy, secularism, pleasure, and “extreme criticism,” their recuperative gaze at the
legacy of deconstruction did not see fit to touch on the problem of linguistic multiplicity
and monolingual foreclosure. Yet this seems a profoundly likely answer to the questions
they pose: “What is our access to [the literary]? Upon what presuppositions about
language does literature and its criticism draw?”
Yet the dilemma of multilingualism was one of the founding political impulses in the
advent of poststructural inquiry. Long before his memoir-essay Monolingualism of the
Other, Derrida had introduced his 1989 lecture on “The Force of Law” with a concern for
the relation between monolingualism and justice:
C’est ici un devoir, je dois m’adresser à vous en anglais. This is an obligation, I must
address myself to you in English. The title of this colloquium and the problem that
it requires me, as you say transitively in your language, to address, have had me
musing for months. […] Je dois speak English (how does one translate this “dois”
this “devoir? I must? I should, I ought to, I have to?)” because it has been imposed
Judith Butler, John Guillroy, and Randall Thomas, Eds. What’s Left of Theory? New Work on the Politics
of Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 2000, x.
on me as a sort of obligation or condition by a sort of symbolic force or law in a
situation I do not control.
In another context, Derrida wrote more explicitly about the kinship between
multilingualism and the post-structural project:
I think [deconstruction] consists only of transference, and of a thinking through of
transference, in all the senses that this word acquires in more than one language, and
first of all that of the transference between languages. If I had to risk a single
definition of deconstruction, one as brief, elliptical, and economical as a password, I
would say simply and without overstatement: plus d’une langue—more than one
language, no more of one language.
Yet, over the course of the 1990s, as scholarly exchanges on ethics and justice in a
Derridian mode unfurled, the dilemma of cross-lingual address and monolingual mandate
was afforded a primarily allegorical valence. Derrida’s introductory concern about
“having to speak English” at Yeshiva University, for instance, was understood as
meaning something else, something more articulable to intellectual history’s canonical
preoccupations. Thus one problem that is still “left of theory” is to reexamine this
specific relation between monolingualism and logocentrism, between everyday
multilingualism and the ethics of deconstruction.
Jacques Derrida. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation’ of Authority.” Trans. Mary Quaintance.
Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. New York: Cardozo Law Review, 1990.
Derrida 1986, 14–15.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all
together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the
blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and
filled the whole house where they were sitting.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that
separated and came to rest on each of them. All of
them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to
speak in other tongues
as the Spirit enabled them.
When you translate, you are part of the traffic.
Is it barking up the wrong tree—or worse yet, foul play—to look for multilinguality in
literature? Could it be that literary texts are, after all, better suited to give reprieve from
Babel’s curse than to represent it? In gathering readers from the most disparate of
circumstances into “one house,” in coming toward them with “a sound like the blowing
of a violent wind,” the monolingual text offers its deliberate and sculpted
comprehensibility: whether in the original or by way of Demetrio Túpac Yupanqui’s
Quechua translation of Don Quixote, Ute Birgit-Knellessen’s German translations of
Sabahattin Ali, or Qasim San'avi’s Persian translation of The Second Sex. In defiance of
all manner of cross-cultural and cross-lingual distances, the point—and the voice that
bears it—often manages to get across.
Indeed, it is nothing but this lattice of translators, translated texts, and everyday
multilinguals that gave modernity that cultural artifact we call “the world.” A global web
of air traffic controllers, code-breakers, snack-stand workers, actuaries, war
correspondents, and schoolkids turn the cube of their own multilingual subjectivity—
Probal Dasgupta. “Trafﬁcking in Words: Languages, Missionaries and Translators.” Translation:
Reﬂections, Refractions, Transformations. Paul St- Pierre and Prafulla C. Kar. Eds. Delhi: Pencraft
International, 2005. 42–56, 42.
sometimes at great personal peril—to allow for what scholarly research now understands
as “global cultural flows.” The thousands of undercover multilinguals who translate for
journalists and officers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—even when doing so puts
their own extended families at daily risk—refreshes one’s sense for the volatile and
critical nature of multilingual position-taking. As Abram de Swaan writes at the outset of
his ambitious treatment of “the world language system,”
It is multilingulism that has kept humanity, separated by so many languages,
together. The multilingual connections between language groups do not occur
haphazardly, but, on the contrary, they constitute a surprisingly strong and efficient
network that ties together—directly or indirectly—the six billion inhabitants of the
Yet this ancient and invisible fellowship of language traffickers—from Ibn Rushd and
Maimonides to Borat and Ingrid Bettancourt—faces a new adversary in the free-trade
agendas of neoliberalism, where language “barriers” are as taboo as tariffs and trade
sanctions. Private sector translation assembly lines are now beginning to outpace both
academic research and international diplomacy in recognizing the voluble interstices
between particular languages—usually with an eye for deriving untapped capital gain
The emergence of GILT (Globalization, Internationalization, Localization,
Translation) as an industry represents a collaboration, and not a confrontation, with
In strategizing to customize cultural products to dovetail
with ambient national trends and local meanings, the GILT industry is out to soften the
de Swaan 2000, 1.
blow of global multilingualism. In repackaging products and services so that they might
glisten with autochthony. GILT signals an industrial offensive against the Benjaminian
legacy of translation, in which the urgency of indexing difference outweighed the
temptation to domesticate signs and meanings.
There is a stark resemblance between the industrialization of translating for allegedly
monolingual publics on the one hand and the “cosmopolitan monolingualism” of
immigration policy discussed in the introductory chapter of this dissertation—a culture of
civic patriotism in which fealty to the national language certifies one’s willingness to
participate in a culturally diverse, constitutionally-anchored society—and vice-versa. In
the first instance, GILT’s localization strategies presume preexisting and uniform
meanings in a given domestic market, euphemizing foreign products—film dialogue,
food ingredients, internet commerce—toward those imagined norms. In the second
instance, the ius linguarum of naturalization preemptively screens out variant and
unincorporable ways of speaking from the language of public life. One process begets the
other in making global capital exchange and flexible labor motility feel like an intimate,
down-home affair. (Aihwa Ong points out how, in their “quest to accumulate capital and
social prestige in the global arena, subjects emphasize, and are regulated by, practices
favoring flexibility, mobility, and repositioning in relation to markets, governments and
It is in the intersection of these two potent institutional streams that a “fear of a
multilingual planet” is amply in evidence. Yet both GILT and the ius linguarum also
Aihwa Ong. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke University
Press, 1999. 9.
implicitly recognize—indeed it is their prime operating principle—that dominant
languages are always already languages-in-translation. That is, they are routinely used,
trafficked and altered in anational and transnational ways—leading apparently
autochthonous meanings in wide elliptical arcs “through other continents” and back to the
signifying locations they were presumed never to have left in the first place.
On what he has termed “given culture,” Pheng Cheah writes:
Culture is supposed to be the realm of human freedom from the given. However,
because human beings are finite natural creatures, the becoming-objective of culture
as the realm of human purposiveness and freedom depends on forces that are
radically other and beyond human control. Culture is given out of these forces.
As a corpus of philosophical fictions, the texts I have discussed in these chapters explore
what might be called the “given language” beyond monolingualism—that is, the
helplessness—or perhaps Unmündigkeit—of institutions and individuals in achieving
dominion over the ecologies of global language traffic, in attempting to compel the world
to turn monolingually. A critical vision of “given language” would recognize, and teach
to, this precious finitude of the human speaker amid a universe of languages in
translation, traffic, and flight.
Alestair Pennycook. “English as a Language always in Translation.” European Journal of English
Studies. 12.2 (2008). Wai Chi Dimock. Through Other Continents: American Literature Through Deep
Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Cheah 1997, 157–197.
Abate, Carmine. Zwischen Fabrik und Bahnhof. Bremen: CON Medien- und
Ackermann, Irmgard and Harald Weinrich, eds. Eine nicht nur deutsche Literatur: zur
Standortbestimmung der Ausländerliteratur. Munich: Piper, 1986. 248–251.
Adelson, Leslie A. “Opposing Oppositions: Turkish-German Questions in Contemporary
German Studies.” German Studies Review 17.2 (1994): 305–330.
———. “Touching Tales of Turks, Germans, and Jews: Cultural Alterity, Historical
Narrative, and Literary Riddles for the 1990s.” New German Critique 80 (2000): 93–
———. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical
Grammar of Migration. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
Adolphi, Roland. Grundlegung für eine kritische Darstellugn der deutschen auswärtigen
Kulturpolitik in den Jahren 1919–1933. Hamburg: Hamburg Philosophische Fakultät,
Adorno, Theodor. ‘‘Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft.’’ Prismen. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1955.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-
Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Akçam, Dursun. Deutsches Heim—Glück allein. Wie Türken Deutsche sehen. Göttingen:
Althusser, Louis and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1971(a).
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New
York: Monthly Review Press, 1971(b).
Anders, Günther. Kafka: Pro & Contra. Munich: Beck, 1951.
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