About crocodiles, alligators and frogs
When I arrive at the place of the reading, a little late, a small group of rather old folks already sits in the front rows and watches me warily as I make my way to the last row, gliding into the outermost corner like a forgotten tile at the board game “Connect Four”. These people, as I am told later, are members of the Munich Esperanto Language Club who have unanimously gathered for a lecture on the obscure Esperanto poet William Auld. Whereas I have gathered my muscles and dragged myself through the rain to see the lecturer himself: my favourite author Clemens Setz.
Actually, I would not have expected to see him again this year. Just three months before, in March, I had managed to catch him after an interview at the Leipziger Buchmesse, where he squeezed a quick, faint autograph out of my notoriously non-functioning pen. Only by chance, I had gotten word that he was to show up at the Lyrikkabinett near Munich university within the framework of the reading series “Zwiegespräche” – “dialogues” or “tête-a-têtes”.
I place my cardigan on the chair next to me, deliberately creating space between me and the other listeners, ready to curl up into myself and lose myself in William Auld`s poems and Clemens Setz` soothing, delicate voice – when all at once, I hear an unpersonal “Hello” next to me which seems to be directed at no one really. The guy who has emitted it is sitting up straight like a tower, already looking towards the stage next to which a hesitant Clemens Setz is waiting for his “performance”. It`s F., a guy I have been studying with, at one point we had also attended the same writing class; he is known for his reduced, absurdist prose. I automatically grab my cardigan from the chair next to me and budge up to him. Seems like I won`t be able to go into my mentally curled-up position today; he will want to do some catching up.
Eventually, Clemens Setz takes the stage. He is even smaller than I have in memory – maybe the size of his body is shrinking proportionally to the expansion of his body of work. He has the body of an adolescent and the face of an old man – a weird combination of Benjamin Button and Leo Tolstoi. Though his beard seems rather artificial, like a plant he has cultivated on his balcony and then fixed it to his face with duct tape.
His whole appearance fits the subject of his lecture perfectly – Esperanto, the now old, outdated constructed language which still has the inherent potential to become a world-unifying tongue. A never-ending promise for a perfect future. Maybe this was the reason why Setz has fallen for that language, I muse. Or was it the fact that Esperanto is at once as detached from and as connected to everything as Setz` prose is? Much like the AI neural networks that fascinate him.
Of course, the language bears the potential of wonderful and slightly “off” metaphors of the sort Clemens Setz likes. He talks about the Esperanto speaker Kazimierz Bein who left the community and got therefore immortalized by his furious former language colleagues: they coined the term “kabei”, meaning “to fervently and successfully participate in Esperanto, then suddenly and silently drop out”. “He got encapsulated into the language like in a Horcrux”, Setz says.
Another one of his favourites: There is a word for the situation when two or more Esperanto speakers who share the same mother tongue come together and one of them is talking in his mother tongue instead of in Esperanto: “krokodili” – “crocodiling”. Wikipedia offers, among others, the following explanation: “From the fact that crocodiles’ extremely large mouths make an apt comparison for carelessly flapping one’s jaws without consideration.” If two or more Esperanto speakers come together and one of them is even using a language that is only his mother tongue, but no one else`s (though they can maybe speak it), this is called “alligatoring”. (I am notoriously known for performing the latter amongst the company of Chinese friends.)
As the evening wears on, I get sucked in more and more into Setz` funny Esperanto world. Till at one point, I ask myself the question: Do I have to like everything my favourite author likes? After all, my heart is still barely invested Haruki Murakami`s work – an author that Setz holds in high regard and even has held a laudatory speech for at the awarding of the ZEIT Literaturpreis. I had only gotten through the first 100 pages of Kafka On The Shore – the permanent focus on details of the outside world without a feedback to the inner state of mind, the often stale metaphors had made it unrewarding for me to continue reading.
And yet, when I read Setz` laudatory speech on the Internet, the way he describes Murakami`s fictional world, I could not help but feel a certain fascination for the Japanese author. Setz depicts Hard-Boiled Wonderland as a fantastic realm, where Black Mirror and fairytales including unicorns and dark shadows coalesce. Even the way he interprets Kafka On The Shore – the whole narrative is, according to his interpretation, playing inside of Ms Saeki`s song who “projects her memories like a foil over reality” – should be bound to make me crave for that novel. Hell, everything seems to be there: A bit of exoticism, a bit of fucking with the consciousness and a whole lot of Twin Peaks-obliqueness.
However, as soon as I open up the book and see all of this spread out over 400 pages, I am suddenly disillusioned. It is as if I only like the idea of a Murakami novel, what it could be. The same way I liked the small vignettes of unusual and creepy events and stories Setz included in his last novel (Die Stunde zwischen Frau und Gitarre): a whole array of possible directions and plots the novel could pursue, and yet it always stayed on this comparably tame narrative path. The supernatural and uncanny almost always works only as a metaphor for Setz. The creepiness is inside of the words, not inside of the plot.
Clemens Setz loves them, words, in all forms and sizes. That is why he seems to more and more pursue the path of a translator. In 2010, he has translated the novel Entering Hades about the serial killer Jack Unterweger – whose “career” fittingly is an illustration of the power of language (he basically was freed from prison because of the success of his novel, only to kill again). And now, Setz is responsible for the first German translation of William Auld´s epic poem La infana raso. His attitude towards translating seems to be similar to mine: Only just in the first months of learning Esperanto, he is very optimistic about coming to terms with this surely difficult piece of work. “Fake it till you make it”, he says when I ask him whether he is planning on translating more Esperanto fiction.
As to the topic of writing another novel, however, he does not really give an answer. A few minutes before, I had talked to my former study colleague about that, who, as I recall, wanted to have his first novel finished by his 23th birthday a few years before. “Oh well”, he says, “at some point, the narrative lines drifted apart, frayed. Also happened to a few other projects after that.” Seemed that in these days, everyone was starting stories and never finishing them. Reminded me of something I had read in a book about modern relationships: As so many people ended their relationships before anything serious could develop, constantly starting over, maybe this would soon reflect in fiction, at least in romantic fiction. Imagine a novel full of beginnings, only beginnings… Writers would suddenly stop typing because another possible life had come to their mind. Pagebreak, new page.
“Don´t you feel frustrated when you think of that unfinished novel?” F. takes a bite of the garlic bread in his hand. “Well, the work is not lost. I can always go back to it.” “But don`t you have the feeling that it might not be the right time anymore then?” “Maybe it will be just the right time.” “Hmm, true”, I concede. Yet somehow I know that it might never be the right time for him again.
And then, suddenly, I am only inches away from Clemens Setz. He has joined our little conversation circle, a pair of sneakers dangling on his left arm. Apparently, these had quite suffered the heavy downpour; Setz plans to blow dry them later with the hairdryer in his hotel room. Immediately, I get into “fangirl” mode, imagining my face turning into a giant WhatsApp smiley. Whereas I stare at my favourite author in awe, my former study colleague moves a few steps back, crosses his arms and throws in some critical remarks. Maybe I appear completely nuts to F., I think. On the other hand, how dare he criticize my favourite author, never having accomplished to finish one novel?
A few minutes later, we are standing outside, just the three of us: me, Clemens Setz, and F. Again, I notice the pair of shoes in his hands, the loose shoelaces dangling to the ground. Maybe the seemingly perfect Clemens Setz has a few loose ends in his life, too, I suddenly think to myself. After all – as he tells us – he has never really reached the level of Japanese he had strived for. And he has never become a video game designer like he had wanted to in his youth. And now, he has put himself into these wholly new translator`s shoes, even thinking about giving up writing. As I see him standing there in the dribbling rain, under his green umbrella that reminds me of Murakami`s Super Frog Saves Tokyo (apparently Setz` favourite story), slightly lost in this unfamiliar city, I realize that he knows just as little as we where to go next. He is no Super Frog that will save the world, rather an Esperanto alligator that is boldly flapping its jaws in a world of people that barely understand his mother tongue. Hoping something will stick with the people. And trying not to get encapsulated into his own creations.
For me, however, it feels as if today – having a fellow writer on the same “level” and my favourite author together in one room – some loose ends somehow came together, though I`m not sure how exactly. A similar feeling you are getting when you bring together characters in a novel that haven`t met before. You know that this meeting serves a purpose, but you are not yet sure exactly what purpose. Maybe, for the time being, it´s just so that the story can continue. Without a pagebreak. And possibly into a perfect narrative future.