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Heide Kunzelmann is the Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture (IBC) at the IMLR.

5-hk-broken-german-cover-100_v-gseapremiumxlThis term, a student of mine decided to write her dissertation on the topic of language change prompted by mass migration and, having spent her Year Abroad in Germany, she opted to look at the impact of the migrants’ languages on the German language. Her research, which will be as linguistically oriented as it is culturally, is underway and I look forward to her observations on one text in particular. It is Israeli author Tomer Gardi’s novel “Broken German” (Graz: Droschl, 2016 ), the story of Radili, a young immigrant of Jewish-Romanian descent in an unnamed German-speaking city. We follow Radili on his visit to said city years after he’d spent his youth there, trying to consolidate his memories of growing up as fair game for Neo-Nazi thugs and, at the same time, as an adolescent having the same dreams and problems as every other teenager in the world. “Broken German” presents an interesting take on German-Jewish history with elements of crime – and a coming-of-age novel intertwined with aspects of an urban novel – all of it positioned off the beaten track of Eurocentric, realist writing.

What makes Gardi’s novel so interesting is his language. He uses a style that emulates the ‘broken’, grammatically incorrect yet understandable German of migrants who live in Germany or Austria and only use the basics of language in order to get by, to communicate and to survive. Most of these men, women and children, who have often been coerced to leave their home country by political or economic crises or war, don’t seem to be, and should not have to be, principally concerned with mastering the intricacies of elaborate stylistic embellishments or, indeed, the often counter-intuitive German spelling and case-endings – at least not for the purpose of engaging with the German-speaking world around them. That said, everyone who agrees with the common Western European and particularly German understanding of literature which, in its reliance on the written word, subscribes to an aesthetics of ‘Sprachkunst’ (linguistic artistry) and ‘Sprachgewalt’ (eloquence, but in German associated with power and violence –‘Gewalt’), is bound to take issue with a literature that puts more emphasis on basic communication than on the ideal of linguistic accuracy.

“Das ist kein Deutsch!” (“This isn’t German!”), Gardi lets the Nazi-thugs who chase Radili and his friends around the block shout. But it is German – the kind of German that has established itself alongside the norm of a linguistic standard which, itself, has always been subject to change and fluidity.

What Tomer Gardi’s novel “Broken German” does, is to challenge the notion of language standards in its grammatical brokenness beyond the measure of avant-gardist writing, as it is commonly known and often showcased in literary competitions such as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most prestigious and long-running literary competitions in the German-speaking world.

The Austrian Bachmann prize event provides the stage annually for a competition between often rather conventional texts in contrast to texts and reading performances that truly challenge the audience (such as Rainald Goetz’s literally bloody reading in 1983, or Urs Allemann’s very controversial literary account of a pedophile’s thoughts in 1991). The event takes place in the southern Austrian town of Klagenfurt– Ingeborg Bachmann’s birthplace (hence the name) – at the shores of Lake Wörth, and is regarded as a seismographic measure instrument of what is rocking or about to rock the German literary sphere. At this year’s Bachmann Prize the jury made a point in highlighting a new literary paradigm in the making – the so-called migrant writer. They awarded the prestigious main prize to British-Ghanaian writer Sharon Dodue Otoo, who lives in Germany and writes in English and German, and they labelled Tomer Gardi’s text “***”, a text without a title , an  “aesthetic landmine” in the discussion, much to the delight of Klaus Kastberger, the jury member who had suggested Gardi.

That Gardi’s entry, a dialogue between mother and son in said ‘broken German’ that Otoo, for example, does not use at all, centres on the ‘babylonian’ aspect of language. “Wir sind babylonisch.” – “We are babylonian”, his character says and represents this stance in the way he speaks and programmatically hurts the minds of all of us who are so used to be bound and directed by the rules of language. What makes Gardi’s writing eminently political and very effective is the simplicity of his approach: it’s not only the characters’ stories that show the brokenness and fragmentary nature of their existence, it is their language too, that breaks and is mended in the wrong places. No one has a ‘mother tongue’ anymore, Gardi lets the son in his nameless story say: “Meine Muttersprache ist nicht die Muttersprache meiner Mutter. Die Muttersprache meiner Mutter ist nicht die Muttersprache ihre Mutter. Die Muttersprache ihre Mutter ist nicht die Muttersprache und so weiter. Und So viel viel weiter. (“My mother tongue is not my mother’s mother tongue. My mother’s mother tongue isn’t her mother’s mother tongue. Her mother’s mother tongue is not the mother tongue of and so on. And on and on and on.”)

Comparatists and literary scholars in the field of Modern Languages have long taken note of the reality of this category of writing that thematically centres on the lived experience of migration or bi-lingual upbringing, cultural displacement . The existence of a poetics of ‘migrant writing’ is currently being debated and new terrain is being explored. What has become clear in the past ten to fifteen years, is that there is a great number of authors whose work is the literary representation of a linguistic process of change and adaptation. It is a change that is very real and that concerns us all, because language is central to our existence and, in its ever fluid state, bears a lot of surprises. Who would have once thought that linguistic hybrids, spoken by minorities at first and by many later, such as all the cross-overs of English with the regiolects, dialects or socioloects of non-European countries would find their way into the literary canon – look at celebrated pidgin Youruba-English writing by Amos Tutuola (Palm Wine Drinkard, 1952) for example? Who would have thought that a novel in ‘broken English’, that simulates the English language learning process of a Chinese native speaker within the narrative framework of a love story – I am thinking of Xiaoli Guo’s success from 2008, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary of Love – would sell very well and prompt critics, albeit reluctantly, to grapple with linguistic problems to get to the heart of a good-quality love story?

The world is changing, and so is Europe. And the literary establishment’s flinching at linguistically more radical writing by authors who let us participate in their migratory experience, is symptomatic for a declinist discourse that seems to stand in the way of finding the cultural and political tools to adapt to the situation of a world in which 240 million people are on the move . The discussion around Tomer Gardi’s text in the German-speaking media  shows that there is a need to demonstrate willingness to engage with societal change on various levels – also, and especially on the level of language – before we become able to successfully respond collectively and individually to the challenge. Once more, literature is the field that invites and provokes us to cross it with an open mind, dodging the mines, bullets and pitfalls of populism, fear and short-sightedness. Without ignoring the importance of continuity and the preservation of tradition, Gardi, Guo invite us to engage with what is transient, fragmentary and looking for stability in our human condition.

On 1-2 September 2017, a 2-day conference entitled “Austria in Transit: Displacement and the Nation State ”, also supported by the IBC, will be taking place at King’s College London.


Dr Heide Kunzelmann, Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature, IMLR