Roving thoughts and provocations

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My Novel, Their Culture

NDR/Thorsten Jander
Jan Fedder as Harry Cliewer in Stille, the German adaptation of Tim Parks’s novel Cleaver

How should a novelist feel on seeing his work translated, completely, not just into another medium, but also another culture?

Last night I opened a DVD package with the title Stille (Silence), put it into my computer, and sat down to watch. Actually, I received this DVD a month ago. It is an Austrian film production of my novel Cleaver. I did not look at it at once because I was in denial. I have been generously paid for the rights to film, I am delighted it has been made and grateful to the producer for pushing it through, but Cleaver was written in English and had an English hero from a specific milieu—a journalist and documentary film maker who, as the book opens, has carried out, for the BBC, a destructive interview of an American president easily recognizable as Bush.

It would have been nice (for me) to have had an English or American film adaptation of the book—or at least a version in the English language. But the DVD was sent to me in German with no subtitles, and my German isn’t great. That is my fault, of course, not the producer’s. It would make no sense for the Austrian production company to dub or subtitle the film, if they don’t have a potential English-language buyer. Their target market is German national TV.

The idea of the novel is simple: Harold Cleaver, sensual, in his fifties, an overweight womanizer, witty and worldly wise, at the top of his journalistic game, is profoundly shocked by a novelized family biography written by his son, Alex, which reveals him, Cleaver, as a bully, a megalomaniac, utterly insensitive to his partner, the boy’s mother, and largely responsible for the death of Angela, Alex’s talented rock-singer sister. Cleaver’s ire and dismay on reading this are partly responsible for the ferocity of his interview with the US president, but also his decision, immediately afterward, on the opening page of the novel, to abandon London, his family, journalism, everything he knows, and escape to a place where he, a great communicator, can’t speak to anyone and where no one will recognize him, the Italian South Tyrol.

Living in Verona, I am close South Tyrol, which has always been a holiday destination for me; after thirty years here I know it well. In the high Alpine valleys its sparse population speaks a German dialect that even many Germans and Austrians find hard to understand. On arrival Cleaver proceeds to look for a place, as he puts it, above the noise line, high up in the mountains, where there is no reception for his cell phone, no electricity, no means of communication at all. He wants to cut himself off, perhaps to die. Eventually, he rents a tiny hut, Rosenkrantzhof, high in the mountains, his only contact a peasant family with whom he has to communicate in sign language. Alone in the vast alpine emptiness, he discovers that the mind grows louder and more frightening when the world around is silent. As winter deepens and physical survival becomes an issue, Cleaver cannot free himself from an interminable, mentally exhausting quarrel with his son’s book, and a growing awareness of how completely his main life choices, indeed his entire consciousness, have been driven by the feverish media environment he lived in, a certain way of thinking, talking, and exhibiting oneself, with which we are all familiar.

NDR/Thorsten Jander
Jan Fedder and Iris Berben in Stille

In the film everything is rearranged. Rightly so. Film must use different tools to unpack the same can of worms. The opening image, as the titles go up, is a mountain swept by a blizzard. A figure emerges from a hut on an exposed ridge and trudges, staggers into snowdrifts, falls, and lies still. This scene anticipates the story’s climax when Cleaver almost perishes in the snow. A voiceover cuts in; it is the son narrating from his book. However, my eye was captured by the long list of German names appearing on the screen: Jan Feder, Iris Berben, Florian Bartholomäi, Anna Fischer. And then, very much the odd man out, Tim Parks. Gratifying, but displaced. I’m aware of course that it is the novel’s setting in a German-speaking world, in a territory that was once an Austrian possession, that has made it possible for the Austrian producer to raise the necessary funds to make the film. By lucky accident my setting fits certain Austrian, German, and European rules for obtaining public finance for filmmaking.

Cut to Cleaver as TV talk show host. He is a German Cleaver. German face—the jowls, the hairstyle—German suit, German body language, and behind him one of those urban backdrops they like to put behind TV announcers to suggest that they are in the center of urban bustle and not buried deep in the stale corridors of a TV studio. The backdrop is a broad canal, or waterway, at night, with handsome, brightly lit white buildings on either side, monuments, distant traffic, cafés. The German or Austrian viewer will doubtless know where this is. Vienna perhaps? Or Berlin? Or Hamburg? I just don’t know. But immediately I feel they have done the right thing, Germanizing everything. The German-speaking audience must recognize the media world that the German Cleaver operates in, the world they see on their news programs every night. But I realize that even if they do dub or subtitle the film, my own English friends will not have the same sense of immersion they would get if the backdrop were London, the people Londoners.

I wonder if this Cleaver has an Austrian accent. Surely not, if the Austrians are aiming at German TV. I put the actor’s name in Google and find he is from Hamburg. I wonder why they have kept the name Cleaver, pronounced exactly as in the English, but now spelt Cliewer, in line with German phonetics, and transformed into Harry Cliewer rather than the more sober, at least in English, Harold Cleaver. Though I chose it spontaneously, instinctively, the word/name Cleaver came to be important for me as I progressed with the novel for its antithetical semantic energies, the idea of cleaving to someone (in marriage, in oneness), and splitting something away from something else: Is Cleaver irreversibly attached to his family and milieu or can he really split away from them and become someone new and different? Is the mind free to leave the culture that formed it? Those were the thoughts going through my mind as I described his flight, then his disappointment that moving away has only intensified his mental belonging. The cover to the DVD shows Cliewer face-on raising an axe above his head, but the connection with his name—axe, cleaver—is lost, and anyway the German title is Stille, silence.

Five minutes in and here comes the big scene with George Bush, shortly before the 2004 election. (As I wrote the book I wasn’t sure whether Bush would be re-elected or not; nor was Cleaver as he escaped the Tyrol—it’s one of the things he thinks about in his isolation.) But no, the film doesn’t give us the American president. It would hardly be conceivable that the American president would submit to an interview on the German Harry Cliewer Show, as he might perhaps submit to the most senior BBC journalist on a program with the more serious name of Crossfire. Through the clanking of my rusty German I appreciate that this villain is a banker. The film has been updated and localized to bring us to the recent European banking crisis and the Euro emergency. This is very smart. German viewers will appreciate Cliewer’s kamikaze courage in taking on the head of the Bundesbank—is that who he is?—in what is to be his last interview. Cleaver—sorry, Cliewer (I have checked the name in German dictionary to see if it exists as a word, but there is no trace of it) throws down a handful of 500-euro notes on his desk and makes some insulting remark, at which the banker, who clearly expected an easier ride, stands up and stalks out in fury.

I am struck by this thought: had the movie been made by a British or American company and the original scenario—Cleaver versus Bush—been retained, or perhaps moved to an American rather than British setting, European viewers would have had no problem picking up a London or, say, Washington backdrop. They would immediately have recognized the American president and appreciated what was at stake. All over the world people have seen so many American and British movies that even the milieu would have been superficially familiar. Many of them would have had no problem watching the movie in English, and watching a movie in a foreign language always leaves one feeling pleased with oneself for having acquired that language. In other words, the simple fact that I’m British, from London, with a familiarity with that milieu—Cleaver himself is based on a London journalist I know well—gave my novel a more global potential. It could have worked in Germany without these changes.

NDR/Thorsten Jander
Jan Fedder in Stille

However, in order to get public funding, the Austrian film makers had to set the work in German-speaking Europe, indeed largely in the Tyrol (the Austrian, not the Italian Tyrol). And anyway they no doubt and very rightly feel far more at home making the work local and specific to their community, since as I have said it is to be broadcast on TV and not, so far as I know, released in cinemas around the world. As a result they have made a product that even if dubbed would not so easily appeal to an international market. My feeling is that the producers have done absolutely the right thing both aesthetically and given the production situation in which they must operate. But the megalomaniac Parks would have preferred his name in cinemas across the globe.

The strangest transformation, though, comes with the Tyrol. The protagonist of the novel is a man from a familiar, highly nuanced London setting, the center, as the British see it, of Anglo-Saxon news media—London interiors, London furniture, recognizably London banter. He is shifted to a place that is essentially, nowhere, a mountain waste, in late fall, people who are quite incomprehensible (the novel—a medium made up of words—has unexplained lines in South Tyrolese dialect); interiors that are generically antique, peasant, and Teutonic. Its so disconnected from everything Cleaver knows that he struggles to see it as anything but caricature, struggles to understand that the few people he meets are indeed real people with real lives who, despite not being at the center of the media world, deserve attention and respect.

Instead and inevitably, for German and Austrian viewers, the Alps, the Tyrol are very much part of their familiar world and mental landscape. Cliewer has no trouble understanding people there and indeed barely a day or two after his arrival a local newspaper has his photo on the front page, so everyone recognizes him. This introduces whole areas of reflection and perhaps significant German material that could not be in my book. This may make the film a richer experience for the German public, at least in this sense, though it entirely sacrifices the drama of Cleaver’s not only going somewhere very remote, but above all divesting himself of his main strength, his language.

I watch the film unfold with a mixture of admiration, bewilderment, and, for purely selfish and private reasons, disappointment. My potentially global work has been made local. It is now locked into Germanic culture. It portrays the German media world, a distinctly German sensuality, a concrete Tyrolese. Well, haven’t I written frequently in admiration of the artist happy to engage with his local community and ignore the global? Indeed I have. But this local is not my local. And of course, thanks to the complex laws of film rights and copyright, something else I have recently expressed a few opinions about, it will now not be easy for English or American producers to make their own version of the film. Like it or not, Cleaver, Cleaver, really has expatriated. He’s Cliewer now.

Today I hear that the same German producer and director have shown an interest in my new novel, The Server, or Sex ist verboten (Sex is Forbidden), as it is called in the German edition, a story set in a Buddhist meditation retreat and hence a very easily moveable feast. They would have no problem at all setting this film in the Black Forest or on the dunes of the Baltic coast. Perhaps it’s time I just stamped a big smile of acceptance on my face, did some serious work on my schoolboy German, and declared, Ich bin ein Berliner.

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