New Zealand is this year's guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Author Inka Parei spent five weeks traveling the country and writing about her experiences. Now she's back in Berlin, her main source of inspiration.
What enticed Inka Parei to accept the invitation from the Goethe-Institut to travel to New Zealand? Because no place on earth is further away from Germany, she said. Distance is an important source of creative inspiration for the 44-year-old author.
For five weeks in spring, she traveled through the country in a campervan. Her impressions of Aotearoa - the Maori name for New Zealand, the country they call the "Land of long white clouds," - were recorded in a blog and published on the Goethe-Institut's website. It was a challenge for Parei to produce texts so quickly and spontaneously.
Blogging from a campervan
In 11 years, Inka Parei has written three slender, yet extraordinarily densely packed novels, all of which have been highly praised and won numerous awards. With "What Darkness Was," Parei won the prestigious Bachmann Prize at the Kalgenfurt Festival of German-Language Literature in 2003.
Parei's books have been translated into 11 different languages. Her novel "The Shadowboxer" has also been translated into English. For contemporary literature from Germany, that is a real accolade. "The Cooling Station," published in German in 2011, will also soon be released in English.
Just back from New Zealand, Parei is still moved by the untouched landscapes, the sheer expansiveness and the emptiness she experienced in New Zealand. All the same, the Frankfurt native is happy to be back in Berlin, where she makes her home. For her writing, Parei thrives off the big city and its many layers. She is inspired by urban life, weaving together complex and cryptic novels.
Trauma and the search for solutions
In "What Darkness Was," her second novel, Parei skillfully interwove the small, individual life stories of a post office clerk with neuralgic moments in German history: The crimes of the Second World War and the so-called German Autumn of 1977, when the Red Army Faction shook the nation with its terrorist attacks.
As in this book, all of Parei's works center on the themes of remembrance, forgetting, suppression, guilt and trauma - and the search for a solution.
In Parei's debut novel, "The Shadowboxer," a young woman in post-reunification Berlin looks for her missing neighbor. During her search, shadows from the past come back to haunt her. The reader is taken back to the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the protagonist was raped during the May Day demonstrations in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
In painstaking, almost obsessive detail, Inka Parei maps the topography of a Berlin which no longer exists. Just how breathtakingly fast the capital changes, and how quickly the traces of the past disappear, is astounding even to the author herself.
In the cold chamber of history
The author anchors her protagonists and the storylines of her novels to places. In her most recent work, "The Cooling Station," the narrative is situated in an unfamiliar space: the refrigeration chamber in the print and publishing house of the socialist daily newspaper Neues Deutschland. This is where the printing presses were cooled.
Before the fall of the Wall, the paper functioned as one of the most powerful press organs in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As a labyrinthine twilight realm of toxic chemicals and claustrophobic concrete dungeons, Parei describes this cooling center as a monster of a machine which continues to run without anyone understanding why.
Some critics have read the piece as a metaphor for the ailing, crumbling state.
But this one-dimensional reading denies the book the complexity with which the author approached the subject matter. For a West German to write a novel about the GDR was until that point much frowned upon. But her distanced, outsider perspective made the narrative about a former technician in the cooling center an insightful journey into the past. Time and time again, the protagonist is forced to question his own sense of perception and memory.
What do we remember? And why is that which is remembered always new and always different? These are the questions which form the narrative threads of Inka Parei's work.
Her novels are no light reading. A lot of concentration is needed in order to follow the artfully interlaced leaps in time. But whoever takes the time to engage with these complex stories is rewarded with precise, multilayered and entirely unique prose.
Author: Ulrike Sommer / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen