Do 15 maart 2012

Interview met Arnon Grunberg in Polen

Arnon Grunberg werd tijdens zijn residentie in Lublin door verschillende locale kranten geïnterviewd. Partnerorganisatie TEK vertaalde de interviews naar het Engels.

Ook Witold Szabłowski en Andrzej Stasiuk werden geïnterviewd over hun citybooks. Lees de vertaalde interviews hier.

De originele Poolse artikelen staan op de website van TEK:


GAZETA interview GrunbergTwo Debuts of One Author. Arnon Grunberg Talking to Justyna Górniak on His Visit to Lublin.

I think after my visit to Lublin I will write something melancholic. Melancholy will really convey the atmosphere of the city, says Arnon Grunberg after his two-week stay in Lublin as part of the citybooks project. Perhaps the reason for his perception of Lublin as a melancholic city is the gloomy weather he experienced for almost the entire stay.

Justyna Górniak: Your career started with writing letters.

- Arnon Grunberg: I’d never considered becoming a writer. I had a go at being an actor, then I took up playwriting, but I never thought of writing a book. I opened my own publishing house, which, unfortunately, went bankrupt. That wasn’t the best time in my life. I started writing letters to my friends. I’ve always preferred letters to phone calls and, in fact, it stayed this way until today, only now instead of writing letters, I write e-mails or text messages. The letters were becoming longer and longer and one day a Dutch publisher asked me to write a book based on the stories I described in my letters. That was the origin of my debut novel “Blue Mondays” that I wrote when I was twenty-three. The book won the award for best debut in the Netherlands.

How did it happen that your next book, published a couple of years later, also received an award for best debut?

- A couple of years after publishing “Blue Mondays” I wrote “The Story of My Baldness” under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt. I wanted to find out how the readers would react to a novel without knowing who the author was. What is more, I wanted to collaborate with one editor whom I’d always admired, but he was working for another publishing house at that time. I thought: “If I use another name my publisher would never find out.” Plus creating a non-existent author was an interesting game I got to play with my readers. The book won the award for best debut novel. Of course, there was a big scandal when everyone realised that Marek van der Jagt didn’t exist. I was even accused of publishing the book under the pseudonym just to earn money for the prize, which is pure nonsense.

Did the pseudonym you used have anything to do with the Polish writer Marek Hłasko?

- It did. His works had a great influence on me. I read my first book by Hłasko when I was 17 or 18. That was the time when I met two Polish girls who had moved to the Netherlands. One of them was a sculptor, Ewa Mehl and the other a choreographer, Jolanta Zalewska. They told me about Hłasko, he wasn’t at all popular in the Netherlands. Van Jagt, on the other hand, is the name of a girl, my school love. So the pseudonym combined two important figures from my life. Apart from novels you’ve also written several plays. Is there a chance we will see “Our Pope” onstage in Poland? I wrote “Our Pope” in 2007. The play was commissioned by Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław, but it was never put onstage. First of all, the translation of the play into Polish wasn’t the best, plus, I think, that the final play wasn’t something the director of the theatre expected at that time. I received a letter informing me that the play would not be staged in Wrocław and that was it. The play had its premiere at the Wunderbaum Theatre in Belgium in October 2011. After my arrival in Lublin I met with Witold Mazurkiewicz, a theatre director, who told me about his plans to stage the play here. We’ve only had one meeting so far, but he seems to be determined to do it, which makes me happy. If everything goes well, you will be able to see “Our Pope” in Lublin already in October.

Critics describe “Our Pope” as a comedy written in Kafka’s style.

- The protagonist Wilhelm van Rompuy is a teacher from Flanders having difficulties finding a job. His mother persuades him to look for work abroad, so he comes to Poland with his girlfriend and starts teaching at the University of Wrocław. I spent a month in Wrocław before writing the play, so I had some time to look closely at Polish society. The play describes my observations. I noticed that while Polish people are happy to use all of the benefits of capitalism, they still feel sentimental about the times of communism. The play touches also the problem of nationalism rooted in your society. I think “Our Pope” is funny, but it is also quite bitter. As a foreigner I cannot foresee how it will be received by the Polish audience, if we manage to present it onstage. It will arise some controversy, that’s for sure.

Is two weeks enough to get inspired by a city?

- The idea of the citybooks project is that the artists spend only two weeks in a given city and after this time they publish a work inspired by that place online. I must admit that my time in Lublin passed very quickly and I feel like two weeks is a bit to short. I wish I could stay a bit longer, meet more people. I had no idea what to expect when I was coming to Lublin. There is something really charming about this city. Wrocław is also very beautiful, but I would say it is more aware of it. I visited most “must-see” places from the guide, I went to the Museum at Majdanek twice. I tried to find the Hangman’s House to no avail, unfortunately. Buildings, architecture, the landscape, all this is very interesting, but to me the most interesting aspect of a place are the people who live there. They inspire me, the way they look, talk and behave. I have been posting my impressions from Lublin on by blog. I think that after my visit I will create something melancholic. Yes, melancholy conveys the atmosphere of this city really well.

Arnon Grunberg visited Lublin as part of the citybooks project coordinated by the Flemish institution Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren which aim is to promote small towns with cultural potential.

Bron: Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin, 29.02.2012,

Dziennik Wschodni interview Grunberg Erotic waitresses, trolleybuses and our Pope

Interview with Arnon Grunberg, Dutch writer living in New York, who came to Lublin invited by the citybooks project.

How did you get yourself expelled from secondary school?

- I wanted to become an actor and I decided that I didn’t need school. I just dropped out. I was a complicated teenager.

What do you mean by that?

- I wanted to be smarter than my teachers. I knew everything better.

How did you get interested in becoming an actor?

- My father took me to see a lot of Chaplin movies. I was fascinated by the kind of acting you can see in silent movies. I tried to get into an acting school but I failed.

And you became a clerk?

- I worked at the Yellow Pages publishing house and opened my own publishing house after some time. I kept experimenting with different jobs. Finally, I took up scriptwriting.

You also started writing books. What is “Blue Mondays” about? And why are Mondays blue?

- A blue Monday is a day when you can’t finish what you started. On a blue Monday you have the right to leaving your work undone, to some flash in the pan. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen too often. It can’t happen too often. If you have too many blue Mondays it means you’re letting your life slip through your fingers.

“Blue Mondays” was a great success. Why did you decide to publish the next novel under a pseudonym?

- I did it with my fourth book. I was already an established writer and I wanted to see if people would buy my book if it were written under a different name.

To what result?

- Great. It was a bestseller and I won an award for best debut novel. I had to reveal my real name in the end.

What is the book about?

- It is about a student of philosophy who believes that he is the owner of the world smallest penis.

Your play “Our Pope” is quite notorious in Poland.

- In 2007 I visited Krystyna Meissner, the director of Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław. I was offered to write a play for them. I spent a month in Wrocław, spoke to many people and a lot of them talked about the pope, even though I’d never asked about him. I wrote the play. However, the theatre decided not to put it on stage. They did not like it. I wrote a play about how the Poles perceive the pope and faith. I was in Wrocław two years after his death. They were telling me about his illness, his suffering, how he died. I did not want to write a play about the pope, I wanted to write a play about Poland.

Did Krystyna Meissner tell you why she refused to put it onstage?

- She did. I got an official letter from her. She wrote that the beginning is really good, but the ending is full of stereotypes through which I make fun of Polish people’s faith.

How does the play end?

- It ends in prison. There is a scene with an insane prisoner who believes that he is the new pope. On your blog you mention there are plans to stage this controversial play.

Who decided to take up the challenge?

- I’ve spoken to Witold Mazurkiewicz from Kompania Teatr. We are discussing it at the moment and I am waiting for their final decision. The play is ready. If we carry this project out, the premiere will take place in October.

You are in Lublin as part of the citybooks project. Had you heard of our city before you got invited?

- No, nothing. I got off a plane in Warsaw, took a taxi to the station, caught a train. It was getting darker and darker.

Your first day in Lublin?

- I checked into my hotel. It was late. I decided to go out and have something to eat. I went to the Old Town and entered a restaurant called Magia. I was the only guest, which was quite uncomfortable because I felt that the staff could have gone home earlier if it wasn’t for me. I ordered a steak. Then I walked around a bit. The city was completely empty. I thought I’ve ended up on some desert. It got much better in daylight. Finally there are some people around.

On your blog you write that you have a thing for waitresses. Where does that come from?

- When I enter a restaurant in a new city, the waitress is the first person I talk to. There is something very erotic about them. Maybe it’s a combination of the uniform and the good food they serve you. I’m also intrigued by waiters; they behave as if they were in charge and you were serving them.

So would I find a number to one of Lublin waitresses in your notebook?

- I wish I could say yes. I have a girlfriend, so I didn’t have the courage to ask for any numbers.

I've heard that the Hangman’s House intrigued you?

- Yes, because I was looking for some unusual places. I went to Długosza Street, but no one was able to direct me to the house. It’s a pity. I liked the bugler who plays from the top of the Town Hall. I visited the castle, where I saw more guards and employees than visitors. I was really impressed by the Chapel with the Byzantine frescoes. I took a ride with a trolleybus on wheels.

You took a trolleybus to go to Majdanek. What did you make of it?

- It was also quite empty. The most shocking part of the experience was that you are on the buss passing some housing estates and suddenly the space opens into a square on which so many Jewish people were killed. With the barracks, keepsakes, documents. I like the fact that they did not try to change too much there. They preserved the place as it was. To help us remember.

Majdanek is visited by people from around the world including young people from Israel. Sometimes their behaviour can be quite shocking. They visit the barracks in solemn silence only to go back to their hotel and trash their rooms. Is there anyway to explain that?

- I can only compare it to the vandalism of the football fans.

And what do you have to say about the anti- Semitism in Lublin. A dummy bomb at the doorstep of Tomasz Pietrasiewicz, the director of the Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre Centre, drawings of a hanged Star of David that can be found around Lublin, Internet full of anti-Semitic comments. Where does all the hatred towards Jewish people come from?

- I’m very surprised to hear all that. I really don’t know what to say about that.

What will you remember from your visit?

- I will keep Lublin in my heart. I think I could live here for a while.

Bron: interview met Arnon Grunberg door Waldemar Sulisz, Dziennik Wschodni, 11.03.2012

kurier lubelski interview grunbergA Serious Thing. Interview with Arnon Grunberg

Arnon Grunberg, the writer often called the child prodigy of Dutch literature visited Lublin. He will write about our city for the literary project called citybooks. We can already read about his first impressions of our city on his blog.

You’ve written that the question you are most frequently asked after moving to New York is the one about the most typical American thing. Have you already found the most typical thing about Lublin?

- I’d say that it’s a specific type of melancholy. I noticed similar kind of melancholy in Czech people, but yours is a bit different… I think I sense it because I’m a foreigner. It might be related to your history and historicity. It makes you aware of the limits of life.

It sounds awfully serious…

- Because Polish people are very serious. I don’t mean that you don’t have any sense of humour. It’s just an observation.

Why don’t you like talking to the media?

- Because I like being the one who asks questions. When I’m on the other side it feels like being interrogated by the police or on a therapy session… For many reasons asking questions is much more comfortable and safe than answering them. I haven’t had many occasions to talk to people in Lublin. There is the language problem, plus I didn’t feel entirely comfortable to talk to strangers in the street. That was the reason I didn’t manage to find the Hangman’s House. I was too embarrassed to ask kids who were going to school at Długosza street: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the Hangman’s House?” I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. But now I know how to get there and I think I will try once more. I have a threepage list of must-see places, mainly churches, museums and little cafés… In the morning I work on my new book and I go for a walk in the afternoon. That’s my routine in Lublin.

I heard that when you went to Majdanek you felt embarrassed about saying: “To Majdanek, please” to the taxi driver. Why was that?

- Instead I said: “to the Museum at Majdanek”. I was wondering why it was an issue for me. Maybe because around the world the name “Majdanek” is associated with the name of the concentration camp. I’m not sure. I didn’t want to be tactless and I wanted to avoid any misunderstandings. Then I saw the sign “Majdanek” on a bus and realised that everyone uses this name. It’s simply a name of a place. At first it felt bizarre, to me Majdanek always was the concentration camp, but now, I also say “Majdanek”.

Cultural differences are one of the themes of your play “Our Pope” which is set in Poland. I heard that there are plans to show it in Lublin.

- That’s true. Witold Mazurkiewicz is interested in showing “Our Pope” in Lublin together with his Kompania Teatr. It’s possible that this will happen in October. I’m very happy because I wrote this play especially for Polish theatre and Polish audience. It was supposed to be staged in Wrocław, but I got a letter informing me that I sustain many negative stereotypes about Poles and that the theatre which commissioned me to write it is no longer interested in showing it. I was surprised because at that time the play hadn’t even been translated into Polish yet.

What is the play about?

- It’s about a Belgian university teacher, who moves to Wrocław to work, but he is not entirely aware of some very delicate issues in the consciousness of the Poles. We observe his awkwardness and get to see Poland through his eyes. He’s an anti-hero, he blunders all the time, he is not Don Quixote, but he makes all the mistakes he can possibly make and he still believes his intentions are good. He hadn’t thought it through what it means to be a foreigner in a country and he makes a lot of unfortunate comments about religion or the relations at the university.

Why did you give it the title “Our Pope”?

- While I was writing the play I got the impression everyone is talking about the late pope. When I asked people in Wrocław what was important to them as Poles, ninety per cent of them would give the same answer: “our pope”. That’s why for me the pope became in a way the symbol of contemporary Polish identity.

You mention Marek Hłasko as one of the writers who inspires you.

- When as a teenager I got expelled from school, I met two Polish women who helped me a lot. One of them told me: “You should read Hłasko”. Even though he wrote about the 50s in Poland and I read him in the 80s in the Netherlands, reading him was a real revelation. He was called the James Dean of Polish literature, but I simply thought he was a great author. I was fascinated with his style, his dark sense of humour and the energy that radiated from his words. I virtually devoured “Killing the Second Dog”, “The Eight Day of the Week”, “Next Stop – Paradise” or the short story “I Will Tell You about Ester”. I also like Polish poetry. I read a lot of Miłosz, Herbert, Różewicz and Zagajewski.

Bron: interview door Sylwia Hejno, Kurier Lubelski, 09.03.20


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