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“My rebellion is humour”: Jan Faktor on his novel, Trottel

Czech-German novelist Jan Faktor speaks about his acclaimed new novel, Trottel, his rebellious streak and why a moron makes the best narrator.

Photo: Joachim Gern

Jan Faktor has lived a remarkable life. After moving from Communist Prague to the dissident circles of East Berlin, he married Christa Wolf’s daughter, became a respected experimental poet, then turned to prose. He also lost his son – who had fought mental illness for many years – to suicide. All this would be enough for a bestselling conventional memoir – but Faktor, now 70, thinks differently.

His new novel Trottel (KiWi) covers all that autobiographical material and more with a work of fiction that is as cheeky as it is moving. The risk Faktor took by writing about his life – and its unavoidable central tragedy – in such irreverent style, including self-deprecating footnotes and long digressions on obscure topics, is already paying off handsomely: Trottel has won the prestigious Wilhelm-Raabe-Preis and been shortlisted for the Deutscher Buchpreis.

I’m a bit of a Trottel too! Chaotic, idiotic, like everyone.

Your first publications were experimental poems which you wrote in the heyday of 1980s Prenzlauer Berg. It’s surprising, now, to see you writing prose – and popular, award-winning prose!

This was a long, rocky road. Back when I was doing these experiments in poetry, we all used to look down on prose – we thought it was conventional, undesirable, an inferior genre. When I eventually tried to write some, though, I found it so difficult. I got rejected a lot. Even my first novel, ‘Schornstein’, was rejected by basically every publishing house and I nearly wrote it off. But suddenly I won the Döblin Prize – that changed everything. Since then, 2005, I’ve been a prose author. Before that I was a poet, or a ‘prose failure’.

What made you want to switch?

The experimentation just emptied out, it started feeling hollow. I had done everything that occurred to me, I’d milked the dictionary dry. And I noticed that the topicality, the public interest in this kind of destructive provocation was gone. Nobody cared anymore. So I had the feeling that it was time, not just to play, but also to express something directly, in the content.

Your new novel is called Trottel, a German word that means something like ‘moron’ or ‘dumbass’, which your narrator identifiesm with proudly. Why write as a Trottel?

Well, my favourite form is the first-person – I can’t and won’t do anything else. And I’d wanted for years to write a novel with a Trottel narrator. I made a few initial attempts, but they weren’t any good – they were plaintive, self-insulting, embarrassing – so I gave up and did other things. Then, in 2018, I was awarded a residency in Rheinsberg – five months alone in an apartment to write.

I set off with only a scrap of paper that had two sentences written on it, the sentences now on the book’s first page: “What’s the reason for my good mood? Simply everything.” Nonsense, but that’s where I started. Then it just started flowing. The Trottel has a lot of narrative freedom: he can talk nonsense, he can be ironic, he can poke fun and provoke – and then I can say, “That wasn’t me, it was the Trottel!” This freedom, this distance, meant a lot to me. And I’m a bit of a Trottel too! Chaotic, idiotic, like everyone.

Jan Faktor, Bert Papenfuß and Stefan Döhring (from left to right) (1984), copyright Jan Faktor, Courage: Connecting Collections

With such rich subject matter, you could have written a book that was less Trottelish and more heroic: East Berlin underground, triumph over trauma…

Oh, no. I mean, look – my son took his own life. And when I started the book, I knew I’d have to talk about that, I wouldn’t be able to leave it out. I began writing and it just came rising up into the text, like a magma bubble. My son’s suicide was already there in the first few pages. Without that deeper layer, the Trottel business would have been too silly. Ultimately the mix of playful and tragic elements worked out, I think. Although it was a problem for my wife. She couldn’t read the manuscript, because she felt the tone was wrong.

I haven’t had to leave my life as an experimental poet behind; instead I’ve transformed it into prose.

The different layers of the text collide in surprising, haphazard ways. You describe Prenzlauer Berg then veer into talking about your son; you start explaining your writerly origins then shift into, like, 30 pages on Rammstein. Did you plan this, or did it just happen?

It wasn’t planned at all. The chaos in the novel is real; I didn’t assemble it retrospectively. It came to me like that. The Trottel says he wrote it on a typewriter so he can’t change the order: that’s rubbish, of course, I wrote this on a computer, so I did go back to edit. But the structure, the order and the topics that come up – that’s exactly how I first drafted it. I wanted to preserve the associative chaos of how it came to me. It’s a way of indirectly characterising the narrator, too. Outside all this, I’m quite an orderly person – but in this book, I decided, there would be no ruling order!

You bring so much detail – about Rammstein, the number of pubs on Oranienburger Straße, the biology of smell – into this book. Is that a literary device?

No, it’s a provocation. These are things that have no place in a novel. We have certain rules: novels should be beautiful, they should be nicely narrated, they should have people and feelings and so on. But I’ve always wanted to write differently than other people. So I cram some total nonsense about technical details in there, stuff that will probably bore people… but for me, it is a counterpoint, an alternative vision, to the conventional novel. I haven’t had to leave my life as an experimental poet behind; instead I’ve transformed it into prose.

Why is it so important to come up with alternatives to the conventional novel form?

I’ve got a rebellious streak, I don’t know why. I always wanted to get out of Prague – coming to the GDR, where we also had Western radio and television, opened up the world to me. My rebellion against that narrow, provincial Prague was always inside me, and I’m sure it’s carried on into the book. But my rebellion is not so serious: it’s playful, it’s ironic. I’m not frothing at the mouth, you know? I’m not some violent looney. Instead, my rebellion is humour.