Authors Dov Alfon and Friedrich Ani on populism and what crime novels reveal about the world | Books | DW | 10.09.2019
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Authors Dov Alfon and Friedrich Ani on populism and what crime novels reveal about the world

After a joint talk at the German-Israeli literature festival, authors Ani and Alfon told DW how they see their role as novelists and why they believe fiction explains the world better than newspapers.

Deutsche Welle: Is there something particular about an Israeli and a German author getting together for a discussion? Would it be different if you'd be meeting with a French writer, for instance?

Dov Alfon: In the case of my encounter with Friedrich Ani, I was especially interested in his family background, which of course is part of German history — but a part that is not very well known in Israel. But even if it's a background story that has been told a thousand times, there is always a way to tell it for the thousand-and-first time. So yes, my answer will be that when Israeli and German writers meet, it's especially interesting and full of unexpected moments.

Friedrich Ani: This meeting with Dov Alfon is exceptional for me, because it's the first time I get to meet an Israeli author in person — let alone one who's a crime writer!

The motto of this year's  German-Israeli literature festival —"Louder, ever louder?" — was a reaction to growing populism. Are we facing two competing models of society today, one that is intertwined with populism and nationalism and that is rather undemocratic, and the other that aims to create a multi-ethnic, post-migrant society?

Alfon: I don't accept this vision of one side that is right and humanistic, and the other that is nationalistic and new. There is nothing new about these problems. Immigration has been part of Europe since the times of the Vikings.

I think that there is a real anger in all those countries. It is an anger that the state must confront. The solution is the humanistic approach, to understand the other, and maybe even to love him. To understand the migrants, but also those who are angry, terribly angry, and feel that their protest should include voting for populist leaders. These are serious problems. But being a serious nation, Germany must confront these demons and problems, and understand them. And not simplify the debate into right and wrong.

Ani: Populism is just as old as the migrant society. The term "post-migrant" suggests that the process is already complete, but we all know that there will always be more migration. This type of dualism will not help us make any progress. We've always had populism, and it has always been a big part of populism.

Author Friedrich Ani (picture alliance/dpa/U. Zucchi)

Friedrich Ani was born in Bavaria; his father was a doctor from Syria and his mother had fled Silesia after World War II

What can writers do to counteract growing populism?

Alfon: It is not the job of writers to confront a situation. This is a question that I get asked a lot, but I resent it because I feel that writers simply want to tell a story. And generally this story explains the world we live in. This is the mission, really. And then, if you understand the world we live in, you may understand how to confront a difficult situation, or how to judge yourself and others a bit in a different way. Reading a book should immerse you in a world with human beings you haven't thought of before. This is really what writers should stick to. We should continue to write our universe, because our fictive universe explains the world a little better than newspapers do.

Could we say that, in a way, your novel Unit 8200 describes the situation in Israel, and the corruption of Benjamin Netanyahu's government?

Heinrich Böll wrote in reference to his novel The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum: "If this newspaper [in the book] resembles too much the [actual German newspaper] Bild, it's not my fault." It's a bit like that. If the fictive prime minister in my book resembles Netanyahu too much, it is certainly not my fault. My take on it is simply to explain how the world works. And in my case it is how a ruthless politician in Israel works. How do these politics work? How do they influence the public? How do they influence world events? Indeed I hope it is very clear that every protagonist in the book has a reason to do what he does. And that includes a corrupt prime minister.

Dov Alfon at the German-Israeli Literature Festival — beside a novel by Friedrich Ani (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

Dov Alfon at the German-Israeli Literature Festival — beside a novel by Friedrich Ani

Mr. Ani, do you feel called upon to react to the electoral success of the AfD?

Ani: As a writer, I see myself as a chronicler from the sidelines. I watch, I listen and try to tell a story, which hopefully turns out to be entertaining or, even better, an exciting crime novel. I have my own position from which I very concretely look at the world and the present, but I am not here to teach or to judge. I simply try to reflect something that is taking place, and my characters try to cope with this given reality.

When I take part in a demonstration or try to defend my city against the far right or against stupidity and racism, I do it as a citizen and not because of my job as a writer.

Why did you pick crimes novels as a genre?

Don Alfon: Unit 8200

Don Alfon's 'Unit 8200'

Alfon: Before I became a journalist I was a spy. I was an intelligence officer of the Israeli armed forces, in a very secret unit, called "Unit 8200," exactly like the book. Therefore I didn't choose the crime novel, the crime novel chose me. Since I wanted the truth to vibrate through the book, it was much more logical to write about what I know than to go and invent another fictive universe.

How much truth should a crime novel contain?

Alfon: The truth in crime novels rings not from the plot but from the characters' motivations, love, hate and conduct. Of course the results of this conduct should be understood by the reader. It is very important for a crime novel to have the message of morality. For that, I would say that a crime novel should be one hundred percent true, because it has truth in it: in its characters, its protagonists and in their motivations to do what they do. This should really be a golden rule.

Buchcover l All die unbewohnten Zimmer von Friedrich Ani (Suhrcamp Verlag)

Friedrich Ani's latest book, "All the unoccupied rooms"

Ani: I believe the truth in a novel only comes from the characters. A good crime novel is no different from general fiction. Truth in a novel does not mean depicting a reality that one defines as true, because that would mean that a writer knows what the truth is. 

You, Mr Alfon, were born in Tunisia and spent part of your childhood in Paris before your family emigrated with you to Israel when you were 11. Now you live in the French capital again. Does your background play a role in your writing?

Alfon: I suppose it is important in my life, so it is important in my writing. They say that no Jewish person ever said on his deathbed, "I regret having had so many passports." In the end, the story of migration is very much part of an anxiety that I understand. I have no way to fight it. So I must accept and embrace it and make the most of it. Of course it influenced my life to have changed countries every few years. And it influences my writing, which tends to be connected to a view of the world that is more global than hyper-local writing.

How do your Syrian-Silesian roots matter in your work, Mr. Ani?

I never learned Syrian-Arabic because my dad did not speak much, except perhaps with his patients — he was a very popular country doctor. I believe that this background — my mother who escaped from Silesia and my father, who had voluntarily gone to study in a very remote country — meant that I wasn't a local. My father's world was restricted to me; my mother's world was to adapt and integrate into a village. I did not feel that I belonged. Neither of my parents ever really arrived either. That's maybe how I absorbed the fact that I am at home nowhere.

I think that's the case with my characters, too. They all tend to wander about, searching, even as they get older — searching for their own room.


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