Fawzi Boubia's "Mein West-Oestlicher Diwan"A tale of disappointed love
Boubia's novel is set on a Tuesday, the day the first-person narrator – the author's alter ego – is due to become a German citizen. The narrator is filled with joyful anticipation about the upcoming ceremony. However, while sitting in a cafe in the city of Heidelberg on the morning of his naturalisation, he reads about the arson attack in Solingen that killed five Turkish people.
His love for Germany suddenly dissipates. His much-longed-for naturalisation now seems to him like a "pact with the devil", so he decides not to attend the ceremony and instead goes for a walk through Heidelberg's Old Quarter. As he does, thoughts about the present, memories of his childhood in Morocco, and nightmarish visions run through his mind.
He doesn't romanticise his youth in Marrakesh in any way. Although the narrator was born into an open-minded Berber family, he was subjected to draconian punishment for being left-handed in the Koranic school he attended – an experience that has had a negative impact on his life to the present day. At his father's suggestion, he started learning German at school.
After a series of initial setbacks, his enthusiasm for the language developed into a "German fever" and he spent every free minute typing out German vocabulary. When this torture finally began to bear fruit (he comes top of the class in a German test) everything changed: "immeasurable hate turns into boundless love".
His years as a student in Heidelberg in the 1960s were shaped by an effusive enthusiasm and feelings of happiness, fuelled, among other things, by his relationship with a German female student. Together, they brought German Romanticism back to life, while visiting the historical sites associated with the city's Romantic period. When writing about this period of the narrator's life, Boubia's language becomes romantic and effusive; he speaks of the "intoxication of love" and refers to his "love nest".
The narrator's reverence for Eichendorff, Goethe and Heine is as strong as his staunch condemnation of Hegel, whom he dismisses as racist and xenophobic after his initially naive reading of Hegel's work, even calling for him to be removed from the contemporary syllabus. He is gratified to point out that the house Hegel lived in while in Heidelberg has had to make way for an underground carpark.
Other changes in the Heidelberg cityscape of the 1970s – such as the construction of large shopping centres, motorways, expressways and new university buildings – elicit strong feelings of revulsion in the narrator, robbing him of what remains of his Heidelberg-centred "founding myth". He is disturbed by the "unfettered consumerism" he sees around him and speaks of a "shopping hell".
From time to time, he takes his condemnation too far, for example, when he speaks disrespectfully and controversially about Asian tourists whose enthusiasm for Germany is reflected in their desire to take photos of what they see on their trips there. The sight of a "beer bike" full of people trundling through the city is the final straw, causing the narrator to declare: "This city is no longer my Heidelberg".
From this point on, the narrator slides into a growing number of "phantasmagoria" and nightmarish visions, working himself up into making sweeping generalisations about Heidelberg and Germany as being thoroughly contaminated by right-wing nationalists, evoking scenes of Nazi book burnings, hearing the raucous rowdiness of student fraternities bawling out "Heil Hitler", seeing the burning house in Solingen in his mind's eye, and later, in a mosque in Schwetzingen, imagining himself being beaten up by skinheads.
Goethe, lodestar of cultural reconciliation
Here too, the diametrically opposed extremes of the narrator's thoughts come to the fore: his excessive love turns into crushing hate. The only thing that saves the narrator from this devastating hatred is his romanticising recollection of the Germany of Goethe and Hoelderlin. He imagines Goethe going on a journey to the Orient, during which the narrator acts as the poet and playwright's interpreter. In the late Baroque castle park in Schwetzingen, he falls into a daydream in which he is Goethe's companion and "cup-bearer".
He then declares Goethe – creator of the West–Eastern Diwan and a keen reader of the Koran – to be the lodestar of a spirit of cultural reconciliation. This dream passage, which is related in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, reveals the narrator's ironic attitude. Indeed, this very irony helps tone down his anti-German rage and calls him to reason.
He realises that he is looking at the "threat" and the world, "through these dark Tuesday glasses" and comes to the conclusion that "Germany cannot be reduced to Hoyerswerda, Rostock, Moelln and Solingen. No, not even to Auschwitz". Nevertheless, at the end of the novel, the narrator seems to be toying with the idea of returning to the Maghreb.
Marked by strong emotions and polar opposites, this novel is certainly not an easy read; at times it makes the reader want to contradict the narrator. A somewhat more nuanced picture of contemporary Germany and its enlightened trends would have been preferable, especially as German society has changed since he produced his first version of the text in the late 1990s.
That said, the novel is bursting with original ideas, such as the fantastical journeys back in time to the great figures of intellectual history. Thankfully, meanwhile, the bitter, score-settling passages are repeatedly lightened by ironic refraction and the narrator's strong desire for reconciliation.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan