It’s November, so Lizzy and Caroline have sent out their usual call for German Literature Month participants – and, as usual, I’m more than ready for a month of fun. The GLM bus has been serviced, and it’s time to tap the first coordinates into the sat-nav – but where are we heading for our first trip? Berlin? Vienna? Geneva? Erm, no. Pack your thermals – we’re off to Greenland, for an Austrian tale with a Korean twist…
Anna Kim’s Anatomie einer Nacht (Anatomy of a Night) was a GLM readalong choice a few years back, and while I only got around to it a few months after, I enjoyed Kim’s atmospheric tale of a night of literal and metaphorical darkness immensely. However, while the story was fictional, the background wasn’t; the writer had first-hand knowledge of the setting from a visit she made to Greenland in 2010, a place where (despite her obvious foreignness) she felt surprisingly at home.
This short stay on the world’s largest island (apparently, I live on a continent, not an island…), was the catalyst not just for Kim’s novel, but also an extended essay, Invasionen des Privaten (Invasions of the Private). Running to around a hundred pages, this record of the writer’s thoughts during her visit is divided into eight parts, each dealing with a different encounter while also allowing her to reflect on her own experiences. On arrival in Nuuk, Kim attempts to find her footing amongst the strange buildings dropped in the wilderness, and she first sketches out the historical background of the former Danish colony. The Danes liked to think of themselves as ‘good’ colonial masters, with their initial focus revolving around an equilibrium, wanting the locals to keep to their traditional way of life. The indigenous population was encouraged to stay in the wilderness and maintain their hunting skills (which had less to do with altruism than with the Danish need for the catch these expert hunters provided…).
As the writer slowly reveals, though, this isn’t the whole truth. The Dames were colonial masters like any other, and a change in policy in the 1950s saw a move to a two-language school system, facilitating the inexorable onward creep of the alien tongue. The younger native generations were confronted with a dilemma:
Dänisch zu sprechen wurde mit der Zeit mit Bedeutung aufgeladen, fließend die sprache der Erzieher zu sprechen, in ihrer Sprache zu denken und zu träumen, bedeutete, die Sphäre der Scham verlassen zu dürfen, sich gleichwertig fühlen zu können, zumindest theoretisch; praktisch konnte es nur bedeuten, die Scham ständig vor Augen gehalten zu bekommen und nur dann vergessen zu können, wenn die Augen vor der Geschichte und vor der Gegenwart verschlossen wurden, oder wenn tatsächlich Schuld zugewiesen wurde…
p.36 (Literaturverlag Droschl)
Over time, the act of speaking Danish became loaded with meaning, speaking the language of the educator fluently, thinking and dreaming in their tongue, meant being allowed to leave the sphere of shame, being able to feel equal, theoretically, at least; in practical terms, it could only ever mean having the shame constantly held in front of you and only being able to forget when your eyes were closed to both history and the present, or when blame actually was apportioned… *** (my translation)
The discussions Kim has with locals lends a more personal feel to this abstract issue. Julie has a Greenlandic mother and Danish father, but grew up only speaking the colonist’s language. Margarethe speaks both languages fluently, but tells her guest that some thoughts are only possible in one. She fears a barrier rising between herself and her daughter (who is much more confident in Danish), and her own childhood experiences show that these fears are certainly warranted.
This focus on the colonial past is unsurprising. Kim, born in South Korea, moved to Europe as a child, and throughout the book we catch glimpses of her own experiences, often similar to those of the people she interviews. She compares the cultures of the two collectivist societies, the coffee mornings here in Nuuk reminiscent of the large gatherings that took place at her home during her childhood. This connection with the Greenlanders is only strengthened when she is repeatedly mistaken for a local herself because of her appearance. She has the strange feeling of fitting in visually, which is not something that happens too often in Vienna.
Invasionen des Privaten does occasionally shift away from this central theme of the colonial issue, with the writer taking a break from her interviews in Nuuk to go sightseeing in the remote town of Kangerlussuaq. She ventures out onto the central ice plain, both by dog sled and on foot, blinded by the unbearable whiteness she finds there. Yet even here, she comes across stories of more colonial victims, telling us of the hunting natives forced to move because of the appropriation of their land for the construction of American military bases…
One of the saddest parts of the book concerns an event very familiar to Australians, a plan in the sixties and seventies to take bright local kids from their families (temporarily) and send them to Denmark. This trip would provide the chosen ones with a high-level education, improve their Danish language skills and set them on the path towards becoming the community leaders of the future – surely a great idea? Not for the children involved:
Sie nahmen die Besuche bei weitem weniger positiv wahr, als es die Lehrer, die diese überwachten, in ihren Endberichten darstellten. (p.64)
They regarded these stays far less positively than the teachers who watched over them made out in their final reports. ***
Once in Denmark, the Greenlandic children felt isolated and lonely, particularly given the ban on using their native tongue. What was worse, on their return they found themselves outsiders in their own country, struggling to reintegrate into their families.
Invasionen des Privaten is an absorbing read and an excellent introduction to the darker side of Greenland’s history. Kim’s style is what I’d describe as carefully confused; there are many facts here, but also a fair amount of emotion. She is often overwhelmed by the stories she hears, and when shown this mirror image of her own experiences, she is forced to think back to her own childhood. The language used reflects this, with long sentences full of comma splices – it’s as if she’s coming to terms with what she’s experiencing, organising ideas in her head.
Her last meeting is with a woman she notices while waiting to board a plane back to Denmark. In Copenhagen, Karen, a Greenlander who grew up in Denmark, approaches Kim to tell her the story of her life. Rejected for the most part in her new home, she returns to Nuuk, hoping to become a Greenlander once more. However, time after time she leaves defeated, unable to find a way back into the culture of her birth:
Sie lebt zwischen den Welten, im Niemandsland, nur hierher ist es ihr gestattet zu gehören, und auch in Kopenhagen, ihrer Heimat laut Resisepass, trifft sie sich ausschließlich mit Menschen fremder herkunft, Individuen mit zu großen Auffälligkeiten, als dass sie die Gesellschaft respektieren könnte, Personen, die wie sie im Niemandsland Zuflucht fanden, Ausgegrenzte, Gestrandete. (p.102)
She lives between two worlds, in no man’s land, only here does she have the right to belong, and even in Copenhagen, her home according to her passport, she associates exclusively with people with foreign roots, individuals who stand out too much for society to be able to respect them, people who, like her, have found sanctuary in this no man’s land, the borderless, the shipwrecked. ***
It’s the perfect post-script for what Kim has been telling us throughout the book.
For those who want it, Invasionen des Privaten does have northern lights and icy expanses, but the real focus is on the personal, rather than the natural. Kim’s extended essay is a skillful take on the way colonialism reaches inside you. You see, a true invasion doesn’t just conquer you from the outside; by taking your language it colonises your most private spaces too…
Anatomy of a Night (translated by Bradley Schmidt) is available as an ebook from Frisch & Co. – sadly, I’m not aware of any English-language translation of Invasionen des Privaten. Of course, if anyone fancies paying me to give it a go…😉