Thursday, 10 July 2008

Ilija Trojanow and Wolfram von Eschenbach

Tuesday's taz features a gorgeous little piece by Ilija Trojanow, on a scene in Parzifal where two cultures meet. A knight comes across a noble heathen in a forest clearing, they fight, the knight's sword breaks and the heathen lays down his arms. The two sit down together and talk, whereupon it comes to light that they are brothers. The heathen, being the offspring of a white man and a black woman, is spotted black and white.

Now back in the not quite so distant past, I myself read this scene. Being an arrogant product of the twentieth century (and only about 20 at the time), I assumed that this was just medieval ignorance - ha ha, they didn't know back then what mixed-race kids look like. But no, Trojanow points out, Wolfram von Eschenbach was actually paying his respect to the Arab culture, alluding to its wisdom and conveying a picture of an individual who has taken on the best aspects of both worlds. What he realised, Trojanow says, is that what separates us is only a momentary difference - "the other" only becomes obvious when two cultures fight. "The only way I can tell the heathen from the Christian," Trojanow interprets Wolfram, "is that they approach each other as enemies."

Trojanow goes from the specific to the general, and then back to fine details. The music of the African slaves in North America, he writes, has subversively conquered white high culture out of the plantations and ghettos. Which took me to Trojanow's book Kampfabsage. Originally written (but apparently not published) in English together with one of his translators, the Indian poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskoté, the book calls for a new understanding of European history. I've only just started reading it, but it seems very good so far - a rallying battle cry against the myth of the "clash of the civilizations" and a long overdue reminder of just how many different influences have flown into modern Europe as we understand it.

I'm just hoping that his truly excellent Burton-inspired novel on a smiliar theme, The Collector of Worlds, released last month in the UK by Faber & Faber and translated by William Hobson, will be a hit and pave the way for Kampabsage. After all, as it was originally written in English that means no extra costs for translation.

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