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Berlin Futur

Anne Fleig (2018)

Keynote. Berlin Polylingual. Parataxe Symposium IV, 23. November 2018

Martin Jankowski asked me to contemplate literary multilingualism und multilingual literatures and to thereby, draft something not unlike a Berlin future tense. I will happily comply this request and want to express my sincere thanks for the invitation to this wonderful symposium. I think and write as a literary scientist who engages with German-speaking literature as well as the interplay of multilingualism and the sense of belonging, especially with a focus on Berlin. When I say multilingualism what I mean, generally speaking, is literary multilingualism; it’s worth contending, in relation to this, in what sense literature is always multilingual. No language exists in a vacuum, there would be no literature if it were so.

Future tense refers grammatically to the conjugation of verbs – it less concerned with multilingualism but rather with speaking itself, thus with future Berlin speech. The spoken word is bound to its social surrounding, manifests itself as speech diversity in everyday life and in written form, it knows different speech genres (Bakhtin) and always refers to more than one language. These conditions are important for my understanding of multilingualism as speaking and writing are part of it, they refer to one another, are in a dialogue with one another and thereby aim at a concept of multilingualism, which can be thought of as polyphony. Multilingual texts do not just connect different languages but can also make the difference between spoken and written word audible, they give different voices space and therefore blaze a trail through the city. This is particularly noteworthy in the case of Berlin literature, as the history of German division, has not just left its mark on the German language but in the understanding of other languages and literatures. In addition, German separation brought people from various countries of origin and for various reasons into different places in Berlin, which to this day is evidenced in Berlin and characterises its literature accordingly.

Everyday speech is closely bound to its surrounding and is influenced by it, this applies to the Berlin cityscape or concrete places and buildings as well as the various languages that fill this cityscape. Berlin literature means literature which thematises Berlin or whose production is linked to Berlin. The name of the magazine “stadtsprachen” underscores this relation, it references the plurality of people, languages and affiliations in the transcultural city space. But not just in Berlin everyday life, but in science the realisation that it is multilingualism which is the historical norm and not monolingualism begins to assert itself.

Through its dialogue of speaking and writing, multilingualism is a continual movement, which is open to the future and outlines new forms particularly through literary texts. In this sense too, writing is a tense, a tense that cannot be unfastened from the past even in its future. In “Engel sprechen russisch” (en. Angels speak Russian) Mitja Vachedin captures this association in an image of colourful tooth paste layers, which accompany speech.

The literary science of multilingual research is deeply concerned with the norm of monolingualism, and the so-called monolingual paradigm, a term made popular by Yasemin Yildiz. It takes aim of the concept of a mother tongue as a sort-of offering and ‘natural possession’ of each human being, a possession mirrored in the author’s grasp of writing, so that mother tongue and literary language become one. This discourse became especially efficacious in the German-speaking region in the 19th century and characterises the national philology, but also the further literary public until today. Speech competence is therefore not only one of the most important prerequisites for the participation in German society but also the condition for the recognition as a German-speaking author.

In her Büchner price speech Terézia Mora reflected only recently, that it still must be mentioned that is both female and foreign, and so the participation which should be self-evident is by no means given. Tomer Gardi, who wo we will hear read later this evening, also tackles the tension between monolingualism and multilingualism and its consequences for the literary industry, in his novel “broken german”. The title breaks literally the presentation of the natural and pure German, which sounds ex negativo in broken German.

He translates it into English and thereby turns broken German into the eponymous occurrence, but also assigns it to the past. Does this make multilingualism the norm, if English should be celebrated as the new lingua franca, or if this is the case of an intentional commingling of the languages, perhaps even a new artificial language stands to discussion. IN each case the title is monolingual, viz English, and multilingual at once, because its context is German-speaking, and the title is a reference to it, not just because of the ‘german’. Only through this reference the title displays its full, multilingual effect.

Terézia Mora and Tomer Gardi supply two examples of a form of writing, which I would like to denote as post-monolingual in accordance to Yildiz. This term makes it clear that multilingual writing is also related to the norm of monolingualism, but in this reference it is also open for the future. This entails that we cannot easily detach ourselves from national history, especially in Berlin, which is embedded in the language and perception of the city. Jenny Erpenbeck emphasizes this connection with her title “Gehen, ging, gegangen” (“Walking, walked, have walked”), which conjugates the forms of time from different perspectives of flight and expulsion and thus contributes to the literary dialogue in transcultural Berlin.

With the change of migration and political flight during the political developments after 1989/90, the city changes and the languages that become particularly audible in it change as well. While the fall of the Wall and the Iron Curtain opened Berlin to the East, as Nellja Veremej postulated, the refugees from Yugoslavia, for example, brought new languages and new stories. In this context, the transcultural confrontation with National Socialism is particularly noteworthy, for today it is part of a transnational memory that on the one hand allows right-wing extremist attacks of any kind to be rejected, and on the other offers possibilities for connecting experiences in exile in the current literature of fugitives.

Looking back, various West Berlin texts on migration – for example by Aras Ören, Zafer Şenocak or Emine Sevgi Özdamar – show that the historical, social and cultural transformation of the city and the transformation of literature go hand in hand. Up to the turn of the millennium, two intertwined movements were emerging: on the one hand, an increasing appropriation of urban space, which for a long time was only perspectivized by the Kreuzberg Wall margin, and on the other, the appropriation of the German language as a literary language. The appropriation of the city after the fall of the Berlin Wall is accompanied by an examination of its history; a movement from the periphery to the centre that takes the new character of the capital into account. At the same time, this status does not remain unquestioned, because the tension between periphery and centre returns in narratives of exclusion and participation, belonging and non-belonging.

In recent years, new flight movements on the one hand, but also intensified globalization, i.e. the influx of international students, artists, or start-up founders, have created new challenges for multilingual Berlin. In a way, they are the two sides of the same coin, but once again they pose the question of who is native, who immigrated and what is a Berliner.

A chronicler of this development is Terézia Mora, whose novels not only tell stories of flight and migration, but also take account of rapid social change through the continuous development of her polyphonic processes. In terms of multilingualism, there is an opposite movement to the Berlin-Istanbul trilogy by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. Özdamar’s attempt to arrive in Germany and inscribe himself in German literary history goes hand in hand with the literary evidence of increasingly unbroken German, which turns her trilogy into an educational novel. Ten years later, Mora, in contrast, demonstrates that she tends to focus primarily on multilingualism as part of her personal history, but also as part of her novels. The first two books of the Darius Kopp trilogy are explicitly multilingual, both reflecting on hierarchies between languages, firstly in relation to the importance of business English for the East German Darius, which is taken for granted, and secondly in relation to the hierarchy between German and Hungarian, which is even marked by a black line in “Das Ungeheuer” (en. The Monster). The fact that Mora has just received the Büchner Prize not only confirms her polyphonic procedure, but also opens the monolingual horizon of the German literary scene.

Additionally, Mora is a good example of the fact that in future it will not be a question of idealising multilingualism or simply contrasting concepts of monolingualism and multilingualism. Their texts clearly show that more languages by no means contribute to more understanding. In addition, there are very different reasons and motivations for the processes of changing your language or language blending, which can carry such existential gravity that a ‘praise of multilingualism’ is out of the question. This applies to the experience of exile, but it also applies to the many other, not least social reasons that prevent language acquisition or standardized, correct language use. Just as it is not a question of favouring multilingualism per se, it is also not a question of simply rejecting monolingualism or linguistic norms, for these always precede playful variation and literary reflection. Norms are by no means exclusive; they create the basis for equal, democratic coexistence.

What does future Berlin speaking and writing look like? How does it sound? How does it show affiliation and non-affiliation? If I now try to determine trends for the future development of polyphonic, post-monolingual writing in Berlin, I would say that three factors are decisive: (1) First of all, the influence of different languages on everyday speaking and writing is certainly to be mentioned; it is important which languages they are, what historical and literal baggage they possess, and why they came to Berlin. (2) It is also important how Berlin is perceived through the gaze of other places and cities. It is no coincidence that many Berlin novels can also be read as novels about Istanbul, Baku or St. Petersburg. They contribute in large measure to the situating of Berlin. For the polylingual Berlin, it is not irrelevant whether it appears as a German, a European, a global, a Western or possibly an eastern city. (3) And third: Berlin literature is not bound to the German language. Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been texts about Berlin that have contributed to Berlin’s literary life and that today are also part of a cultural memory that cannot be thought of solely in national terms. This also applies to concrete places, e.g. the Russian Charlottenburg, which today once again forms a reference point for belonging. One should also think of the Berlin prose by Aras Ören, for example, which is written in Turkish.

I therefore don’t think that an indiscriminate language mix determines the Berlin future tense, but that polyphony as a process can represent and reflect the plurality of Berlin life. This plurality must be acknowledged, not least as a plural coexistence of languages and very different personal stories. Multilingualism has many faces. In this respect, the most important question is who the subjects of future Berlin speaking will be. Because verbs alone cannot form a sentence.


Translated from the German by Joey Bahlsen

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