Vilenica Prize recipient 2018: Ilija Trojanow

Prepared by Kristina Sluga, the editor of Vilenica Almanac

Ilija Trojanow: Photo © personal archive

Ilija Trojanow was born in 1965 in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 1971, his family sought political asylum in Germany, and moved to Kenya a year later. With a three-year break, Trojanow lived in Nairobi up until 1984, when he returned to Europe to study law and ethnology in Munich; however, he quit his studies and turned to publishing. In 1989, he established Marino publishing house, specialized in publishing the African literature that he was translating. In this period he started travelling a lot, first in Africa, then in Asia, mostly India. He walked the distance from the source to the outlet of the Ganges river, he took part in Hajj (the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina), and he travelled on foot in Tanzania, following the paths of the eccentric English explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton. Trojanow most successful work, the novel Der Weltensammler (2006, The Collector of Worlds) is loosely based on his life.
His travelling is accompanied by writing, be it fiction, reportages, or essays, which he publishes in various newspapers and other periodicals. When not travelling, which is rare, he lives in Vienna, and is always a passionate reader. Sometimes he sets himself more peculiar goals; during the 2012 Summer Olympics, he decided to train all of the 80 Olympic disciplines and was at least half as good as the winners in London. He described his experience of crossing limits, of one’s relation to the body and mind, as well as to aging, in his work Meine Olympiade. Ein Amateur,­ vier Jahre, 80 Disziplinen (2016, My Olympics. An Amateur, Four Years, 80 Disciplines).
So far he has published 17 books and received many awards for them, among others, the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for The Collector of Worlds (2006) and the Heinrich-Böll-Preis in 2017. He is also a member of the German PEN Committee. His works have been translated into 30 languages, and three of his works have been published in Slovene as well: the collection of essays Der überflüssige Mensch (2013; in Slovene Odvečni človek, translated by Ana Jasmina Oseban, 2014), and the novels The Collector of Worlds (2015) and EisTau (2011; in Slovene Tajanje, translated by Mojca Kranjc, 2013). As readers, we travel in EisTau as well, this time to the Antarctic that we experience through the journal of a glaciologist. His latest work, Nach der Flucht (2017, After After Fleeing), focuses on the life of refugees after they have fled, on the life-long complexities, challenges and chances.
It is also important to mention his first novel, Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall (1996, The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner), the central theme of which is also a family escape from Bulgaria. Bulgarian film director Stefan Komandarev adapted the novel into a successful film of the same name in 2008, and Slovenia also took part in the production of the film.
Trojanow, a man torn between different languages and cultures since his childhood, is constantly trying to improve Europe’s attitudes towards the rest of the world, especially towards Africa and Asia. He believes that Europe and its attitudes have not changed much through history – Europe remains arrogant and unable to comprehend otherness. He is a fierce critic of contemporary capitalism and the increasing state control in the name of the fight against terrorism. Since he publicly criticized American espionage and wiretapping in Europe and elsewhere (both revealed by Edward Snowden) and was the initiator of the world petition Writers Against Mass Surveillance, signed by approximately 600 authors from 80 countries, Slovenia included, in 2013 he was denied entry into the United States. He is also very engaged in helping writers in exile. Ilija Trojanow is an eternal traveler and because of that maybe even the freest man in the world.

Translated by Petra Meterc

Prepared by Vesna Kondrič Horvat, member of the Vilenica Jury

Multilingualism as Coming to Know Fellow Human Beings

‘Alexandria hosted Greek philosophers, Jewish scholars and Indian yogis. It was there that Ptolemy mapped the world and that Euclid wrote his treatises on geometry,’ observes Ilija Trojanow. Born in Bulgaria, he has lived in Germany, Kenya, France, India … and now resides in Austria. One of the strongest literary voices of today’s global world, he joined the Vilenica laureates in 2018. With statements such as the above one, taken from his book Kampfabsage: Kulturen bekämpfen sich nicht – sie fließen zusammen (Refusal to Fight: Cultures Do Not Clash – They Merge, 2007), he is reminding the world, time and again, of what we should thank for what we have today – for a varied world, depicted and critically scrutinised by Trojanow through his own multilingual and multicultural experience. It is no coincidence that the best known novel (translated into more than thirty languages) by this open, culture-transcending author, who is at home in the many worlds encountered in his reportages, essays, novels or poems, should bear the title Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds).
Trojanow began to disseminate his transcultural experience at the very start of his literary career as a publisher and author of professional books. Since 1995, when he received the Bertelsmann Literature Prize at the eminent Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt, he has been publishing fiction as well, again expressing his transculturality. His writings are proving to be ever more topical, be it the story of his parents as political refugees in his début novel, Die Welt ist groß und die Rettung lauert überall (The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner, 1996), which formed the basis for the 2008 film, or the account of his reunion with his Bulgarian homeland, as well as its political and economic conditions, in the book Hundezeiten: Heimkehr in ein fremdes Land (Dog Days: Homecoming in a Foreign Land, 1999); the description of his pilgrimage to Mecca in the reportage Zu den Heiligen Quellen des Islam (Mumbai to Mecca: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Islam, 2004), the graphic presentation of ‘nature’s vulnerability and beauty’ in the novel EisTau (The Lamentations of Zeno), or an intensive immersion in the world of sport. Trojanow attempted to take part in all individual disciplines of the summer Olympic games after four years of training, a venture described in Meine Olympiade: Ein Amateur, vier Jahre, 80 Disziplinen (My Olympics: Amateur, Four Years, 80 Disciplines, 2016). His reflections on the limits of mind and body, inspired by this experience of extreme effort, cannot skirt the process of ageing: at the time of his experiment he was 47, and acted on the motto that winners could never be proud of their victory because they had bested an inferior competitor.
The very title of the book mentioned above, Kampfabsage: Kulturen bekämpfen sich nicht – sie fließen zusammen, which was published in collaboration with Indian poet and theorist Ranjit Hoskoté, expresses Trojanow’s view of the contemporary world. In his struggle against the either-them-or-us mentality, he seeks to conjure up ‘the vision of a culture which we are incessantly creating and changing together, here and now, a culture stemming from dynamic changes and the unpredictable intertwining or confluence of ideas and thoughts, values and techniques, as well as from the various predispositions and mental worlds which are shaping our society’. This concept is labelled by Trojanow and Hoskoté as a ‘culture of confluence’. The culture of confluence, or transculture, is what Trojanow strives for in his numerous fields of activity: as editor, publisher, translator, writer of professional texts, reportages, essays, and film scripts, or as lecturer or literary festival curator. In 2008 he was curator of the literary festival ‘RE ASIA–Avatar: Asiens Erzähler im Berliner Haus der Kulturen der Welt’, and since the same year he has edited the series ‘Buchreihe Weltlese: Lesereisen ins Unbekannte’, in which he has presented many overlooked authors as well as unusual and forgotten texts. In addition, Trojanow moderates the ‘Weltausstellung Prinzenstraße’ discussions at the Schauspiel Hannover theatre, to which he invites internationally acclaimed philosophers, journalists, scientists and artists.
Trojanow’s literary activity and commitment cannot be discussed separately from his colourful life, which usually provides the starting point for his writings. The year 1971 saw the journey of the Trojanow family, including six-year-old Ilija, from his native Bulgaria through Yugoslavia and Italy to Germany, where they were granted political asylum. In 1972 his father began working as an engineer in Nairobi, where Ilija lived until 1984 except for three years spent at a Bavarian boarding school. He moved to Paris in 1984 but spent the years 1985–1989 studying ethnology, law, and ‘disaster’ at the University of Munich. He interrupted his studies in 1989 to found two publishing houses specialising in African literature: Kyrill und Method Verlag in 1989 and Marino Verlag in 1992. After moving to Mumbai in 1999, he went on in 2003 to live in Cape Town and Mainz. Currently he is living and working in Vienna – except, of course, when he is busy travelling and collecting worlds.
Aiming to bring different worlds closer, Trojanow began his career as a professional literature writer and essayist – especially during his travels in Africa, when he published the first of his many travelogues, the book In Afrika: Mythos und Alltag Ostafrikas (In Africa: The Myth and Everyday Life of East Africa, 1993). Having moved to Mumbai in 1998, he supplied reportages and essays from India to such renowned German and Swiss newspapers as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and continued this practice even after his move to Cape Town in 2003. In addition to India, he is strongly attracted to Africa. The African continent felt foreign at first, but his interest soon supplanted the sense of foreignness with a feeling of belonging to his new home, Kenya, and with fascination. To share it with others, his two publishing houses began to print translations of African literature into German, complementing them with an anthology of African literature. Trojanow’s perception of the world likewise comes to the fore in his reportages on Africa, India, Asia and Bulgaria, collected in his book Der entfesselte Globus (The Unbound Globe, 2008). His deep and enduring interest in Africa is not expressed through books alone: in addition, Trojanow is presiding over the project Weltempfänger-Bestenliste, which he has initiated together with Litprom (Gesellschaft zur Förderung von Literatur aus Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika e.V.). His activities and involvements in various fields are well-nigh impossible to keep track of. Lately he has been increasingly drawn to poetry, and a poetic quality suffuses his reportages and essays as well.
His début novel from 1996, Die Welt ist groß und die Rettung lauert überall, was followed a year later by a science fiction novel, Autopol, originally conceived as an online novel, a novel in progress. Of his thirty-odd books, the widest response was elicited by his writings about India, including the collection of reportages An den inneren Ufern Indiens: Eine Reise entlang Ganges (Along the Ganges, 2003). The critics envied Trojanow, who had walked so far yet never lost his sense of wonder. For the purpose of this book he had begun his journey at a height of 4000 metres, on a glacier above the town of Gangotri, where ‘Mother Ganga’, as the Ganges is called in India, has its source. His real breakthrough, however, was the 2006 novel The Collector of Worlds, which won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
The novel, which had involved seven years of research and pursuit in the footsteps of the restless researcher and Orientalist, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), presents the protagonist at the three main stations of his life: in India, where he worked for the East India Company, in Arabia, where he was one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca and Medina in Muslim disguise or to take part in the Hajj, and in Central Africa, where he accompanied John Hanning Speke in search of the source of the Nile. In Part I, the story of a 21-year-old Burton is narrated by his servant Naukaram, who has commissioned a letter of recommendation from a lahiya, a public scribe. As in the following two parts, subjective narration blends with the information generally available on Burton. According to Naukaram, Burton is a young man of outstanding intellectual curiosity, learning Indian languages and exploring Indian culture. Studying Arabic and taking Sanskrit lessons with Brahman Upanishe, he encounters the Kama Sutra, which he translates into English. Moreover, Burton encounters and embraces Islam, leaves for Cairo, where he finds work as a doctor, and even sets out on the Hajj. In Part II he is portrayed through the eyes of witnesses who are to confirm that he was a fraud and a spy, and in Part III by the elderly Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who accompanied him to the source of the Nile. As a person open to different worlds, cultures and experiences, Burton is seen from different perspectives, which (in contrast to the protagonist) remain limited while criticising the Europeans’ inability or refusal to perceive their difference. In fact, even Burton’s attempts to approach other cultures often meet with failure. The book ends with the regrets of the priest who was persuaded by Burton’s wife before his death in Trieste to give him the last sacraments. Trojanow was spurred to write this book not only by Burton’s biography but especially by the – presumably enduring – ‘(in)ability to get into a foreign skin’. According to the Leipzig Book Fair jury, The Collector of Worlds ‘tells, with an Oriental-sensuous narrative pleasure and vividness, about the allure and adventure of the foreign, reflecting the topical issues of our time in the portrait of a fascinating historical personage’. And there is certainly something of Trojanow in Burton’s words, which are mulled over by the priest after the funeral in the concluding ‘Revelation’: we want to search but not to find. According to Burton, this is exactly what he has been doing his whole life. And in contrast to most people, he has searched everywhere.
The books by Ilija Trojanow, an intensely committed contemporary, often contain his political views. Together with Julie Zeh, he published the book Angriff auf die Freiheit (Attack on Freedom, 2009), criticising a state which responds to the violence of individuals by exercising violence itself, thus encroaching on the individual’s private sphere under the pretence of protection against terrorism. In an essay for the Austrian newspaper Standard, Trojanow writes: ‘A mere glance at the history of the previous century convinces anyone that state crime is a thousand times worse than any individual criminal act, and that the terror practised by individuals is not nearly as destructive as state terror. A simple principle holds true: in the long run, a politician who reduces citizens’ rights is more dangerous than a terrorist.’ His resonating work on neoliberal capitalist attitude, Der überflüssige Mensch (Redundant Man, 2013), poses the key question about the overpopulation on our planet: who is redundant, me or you? Neither of us, to be sure. Who is, then? By the murderous logic of late capitalism, the redundant one is ‘the one who neither produces nor consumes’. According to international elites, the biggest problem is the overpopulation on the planet. ‘But,’ argues Trojanow in a humanist note on man’s redundancy, ‘if the number of mankind is to decrease, which of us should disappear?’ His trenchant analyses link the disastrous consequences of climate change to the inexorability of the neoliberal labour force market and to the apocalypses which we, as seeming victors, eagerly follow in the mass media. But we are wrong: our lives are at stake, too. Everyone’s. Our lives are similarly at stake in his 2011 novel EisTau, in which many environmentalists are pointing out that time is running out, while others are still sticking their heads in the sand. EisTau is the log of a glaciologist, who has spent years studying a – now vanished – glacier in the Alps. He is currently working as the professional leader of an Antarctic expedition. At the same time, the book is an ironic description of those environmentalists who are using the destruction of the planet for their own promotion and are helpless against the predatory logic of capital. In 2002 Trojanow joined the German PEN Centre. According to the jury which bestowed on him the Heinrich Böll Prize in 2017, ‘no author residing here continues the political commitment of Heinrich Böll as consistently, as well as in a literary form, as does Ilija Trojanow’.
To voice his views, Trojanow employs various means and various forms. Most importantly, his works are always underpinned by comprehensive research into his subject-matter. For the purposes of his novel The Collector of Worlds, for instance, he spent three months walking in the footsteps of Sir Richard Francis Burton in Tanzania and even participated in the Hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, ‘which should be undertaken at least once in a lifetime by every adult Muslim who is in good health and has the means to afford it. Non-Muslims are forbidden to participate in the pilgrimage.’ Trojanow’s research for the novel, which followed Burton’s tracks in India, Arabia, Africa and North America, took seven years, and the year 2007 saw the publication of his book Nomade auf vier Kontinenten: Auf den Spuren von Sir Richard Francis Burton (A Nomad on Four Continents: Tracking Sir Richard Francis Burton). This depiction of Burton’s unconventional life is based on excerpts from Burton’s own works, which Trojanow connects with his own travel experiences, thus successfully linking past to present.
The past and the present are similarly connected in his novel Macht und Widerstand (Power and Resistance, 2015), which deals with life in Bulgaria. The novel is based on the oral and written testimonies by numerous former political prisoners and by several State Security officers of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Power and resistance are illustrated with the case of Konstantin and Metodi, who have always been friends but fierce opponents as well. While Metodi is a careerist, Konstantin remains a rebel and ploughs through the State Security archives in search of the truth. Even before this novel, Trojanow and photographer Christian Muhrbeck had depicted life in Bulgaria in the book Wo Orpheus begraben liegt (Where Orpheus Lies Buried, 2013). Although he had left Bulgaria as a six-year-old, Trojanow keeps returning to it. As early as 2007, when he was the Mainz city writer, he shot a documentary, Vorwärts und nie vergessen – Ballade über bulgarische Helden (Forward and Never Forgotten – A Ballad of Bulgarian Heroes), in which he interviewed former political prisoners and criticised the Communist dictatorship. His many conversations with refugees inspired his poetic essay, Nach der Flucht: Ein autobiographischer Essay (After Flight: An Autobiographical Essay, 2016), which – as suggested by the subtitle – includes his autobiographical experience as a refugee and migrant. Moreover, the essay voices the experience of many writers who are often asked, simply because of the different sound of their names, where they come from, how they acquired such good German, and ‘Why don’t you write in your mother tongue?’ Trojanow is thus branded by the first six years of his life rather than by the other 47 years, when he had settled into the German language. This is one of his favourite topics, since he is invited to many universities as a guest lecturer: in 2007 he delivered, together with Feridun Zaimoğlu, a series of lectures on poetics at Tübingen University, published as Ferne Nähe (Distant Closeness). His numerous awards include the 2000 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, bestowed on those German-writing authors whose mother tongue is not German.
As Trojanow observes in an interview, contemporary literature is heavily marked by multilingual authors, ‘language switchers’. Multilingualism offers the possibility of getting to know the world from the outside. To enter a language consciously is different from being born into it. With a new language, you have brought a new world into your own. Multilingualism is undoubtedly an important experience of today’s global world, teeming with migrations but, sadly, with xenophobia as well. With Ilija Trojanow we have acquired another Vilenica laureate with an exceptional critical and upright stance, which is convincingly rendered in his documentary writings and, above all, with an exquisite poetic quality in his essays, novels and poems.

Translated by Nada Grošelj