Why I write
All of my earlier books deal with war, the loss of a father, traumas and so on. These have been significant themes in my life but nota the only ones. I have been interesed in, and written about, much more besides. Without going through my entire Curriculum Vitae, it all began with a series of radio features, documentary compositions of voice, text and sound, which brought me international awards, the Prix Italia and Prix Futura among them, as well as eventual dismissal from my job. Without wanting to ignore my production of historical novels and similar works, let me just add this: next to everything I’ve written – not just about war but also about love and guilt – lies another huge compost heap, waiting, ever-growing and fermenting, namely my isolation, alienation or however it is you refer to it these days. The first time I experienced this was in Denmark. The most recent is my current expatriation, larger and more real than the first. I believe that exile and otherness are the key to everything I write. They are the points of energy, of pain, of happiness and so I want to explain a little of when I began to cut loose from my Danish roots. Berlin and me. I remember my first Winter in Berlin. It was shortly after darkness fell, heavy traffic and brightly lit streets. People crowded together in pubs and outside the air was liquid ice. Dry, cold, hard. A Siberian front had settled itself over Berlin. Drinkers froze their ears off on the way home. My nose was cold like a stone lain long in a deep freezer. Everything was lost to me: the mild Danish winter, the Danish language, my sense of self. With wet hair I finally went out to arrive later, white-haired, in the pub where my then Loreley was waiting for me. Until then I’d always imagined exile as the worst thing that could befall a man. Ovid on the Black Sea, P.A. Heiberg in Paris, Osman Caglar in Ishøj in Copenhagen. All of them had suffered and longed for home during their banishment abroad. All at once though, I began to be aware of the benefits. I had begun to hit aerial roots, the alien had become familiar and less intimidating. I was also getting tangled up with a new euphoric substance which could easily become addictive, that peculiar smell of war, pathos and tragedy that defined Berlin. My language changed too. I no longer lived in one language but rather between two: my Danish mother tongue which made feelings small, quiet and treacherous and a German in which you could speak of death and passion without seeming ridiculous. I noticed too how German gradually seeped into my Danish, making it stronger and more humane, slowly breaking apart my old Danish sense of self. All the delicate, cobweb threads of daily existence were torn away and I experienced everything anew, as if I had escaped life imprisonment for a crime I had not committed. It was a kind of cutting of the umbilical cord of my nationality and I had my head back, alive. Old dirt fell away from me. I was left unprotected and naked.
By that I mean I had exposed myself to everything without knowing what the consequences could be. I had to do it out of necessity. And it turned out to be a tremendous gain, especially now that the worst of it seems to be over. I should add that this exile was not that of a travel-loving student who knows, once he is back home, that a student loan and a steady job is waiting for him. That type of wanderlust gives you something too certainly but it lacks the final touch somehow. Outside of the occasional trip to Denmark, trips that invariably ended in disgust and departure, I have now stayed more than 25 years in Berlin. Now, just as before, I live without fixed income or unemployment benefits, not to mention in a great solitude that has forced me to concern myself with my own thoughts. It may sound pathetic but in reality it is an understatement. Solitude is a harsh mistress, inflexible, raw and unsentimental but it is also a great teacher. I believe that solitude is the most fruitful thing, and the hardest, that can befall a man. Anyone who wants to speak publicly should practice it for a few years. Then there would be less nonsense written. This at least was the background to my article about Holberg, Oehleschläger, Jensen and so on. Danish literature is in urgent need of an airing out even if I’m not at all sure that that is a job for me. Home reminds me too much of the story of Nasrudin, standing in front of his house, looking for something on the ground. A neighbour asks him „What are you looking for Nasrudin?“ „My keys,“ he answers. Both men start looking for the keys on their knees. After a while the neighbour asks, „Where did you have them last?“ „In my house,“ replies Nasrudin. „Then why are you looking for them out here?“ „Because it’s brighter out here…“ Right then, back to exile. This is the perspective I write from. This is where I think from, the place from which I talk about war, travel, religion, love, pain and melancholy. From here I’ve realised that real life has nothing to do with religion or ideas. The real revelation of life is the reality of the universe itself and its immense, floating fragility. Even more grotesque is speaking of above and below, of good and evil, of solid ground under our feet in a universe where the earth has maybe already slowly stopped turning. That’s just how it is. Everything else is illusion, dream, nonsense.