Rot (Hunger) [Red (Hunger)] is the title of the second book by author Senthuran Varatharajah. The text doubtlessly deserves all the attention it has been receiving – mainly in the German speaking area –, among other reasons because it has the courage to ask a lot of its readers, to challenge them, to risk shocking them, but also: to enthrall them.
Following Varatharajah’s debut novel Vor der Zunahme der Zeichen [Before the Accumulation of Signs], Rot (Hunger) – a text that reflects the intimate connection of love, desire, and cannibalism – was published by Fischer Verlag early in 2022. In November of that year Varatharajah read from the novel at the literature festival BuchBasel and talked to the author Ralph Tharayil, whose novel debut, Nimm die Alpen weg [Take the Alps Away], will be published this February. Taking Rot (Hunger) as a point of departure, the two authors discussed writing, music, as well as language and its limitations.
The following protocol of what Varatharajah and Tharayil had to ask/tell each other at BuchBasel was originally published in German in the print magazine Das Wetter, and is now translated into English for our ongoing focus theme Harm.
RALPH THARAYIL Senthuran, on 8 August 2020, almost three years ago, you sent me the beginning of Rot (Hunger) via email. Back then I didn’t know what I was about to open, what I would be holding in my hands. I didn’t know what depth of feeling, and of grief, you were capable of. I wasn’t doubtful; I just didn’t know. I should have known better. Now this text, this scripture Rot (Hunger), is out. You repeatedly write: “Through this language we must pass.” What language is this?
SENTHURAN VARATHARAJAH Between you and me there is not just a measurable distance, the distance of geometry, the arm’s length between these chairs, and the distance of anatomy that we call skin, that we call flesh, that we call bones, each one of our hairs collected, but also the distance of words. Of grammar. Of spaces. And of breath: held, slowed, paused. A distance begins with the certainty of two points. But if these two points no longer exist, then what connects us is the loneliness of distance. The loneliness of a language that has no mouth and finds no ears. A line in the sky. A fallen horizon. The language through which the novel passed is: a language without certitude. The loneliness of a language and its body. A language and a body without arrival. A language and a body that are always in the act of parting. Through this language and its body, through its sinews and fibers, through its veins and jugulars: we must pass.
RT You reveal this language by dissecting it. You present it by telling two stories, two love stories. One is a story of separation and one a story of unification. You write about the relationship between A and B, which is a cannibalistic relationship that German tabloids feasted on in 2001 … no pun intended. Growing up I watched a lot of RTL and RTL2 here in Switzerland too, but I never saw the images of this case as a young person. I also never googled them. I’m not interested in them. I have the feeling that you aren’t interest in them either. Why did you decide to tell this story as a love story?
SV The novel formally consists of two stories that are told in alternating chapters: one is the story of a year, 2019, a story after a separation; the other the story of a day, 9 March 2001, the story of a connection. Both stories were structured as two panels that each contain twelve chapters – panel A and B. A stands for Armin Meiwes, B for Bernd Brandes. These are their names in the novel, that is what they’re called. Armin Meiwes is the name of the man who was baptized the Cannibal of Rotenburg by the tabloids. Bernd Brandes was the name of the man who voluntarily asked to be killed, dismembered, and eaten by him. A and B, taken together, constitute an alphabet: a complete one, alpha beta, as well as an incomplete one – lacking 27 letters. And the novel speaks of the absence of a person we love, of everything that intimates and points to their absence and the impossibility of speaking to them: of the mourning of a distance for which we have no measure, no hour or hand. When I first heard about this case, on 10 December 2002, the year I came of age, I could not see a scandal or spectacle in what had happened that day. Nothing monstrous, but something human, all too human. A primordial desire voicing itself, and that was heard for once. We speak from a loneliness, and to this loneliness we return. We come from a loneliness, and to this loneliness we return. The novel tells of: the loneliness from which our hunger comes, and of the more terrible loneliness to which it returns. In the story of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Brandes I found a – you might even say exemplary – form of the speaking and promising, the cadences, motives, and symbols, the physical and metaphysical preconditions, of our common ideas of love and desire; their lasting mystery, its ability to devour, venerate, devastate, and also the mercy and mourning of its will. “A part of me will stay with you,” Bernd Brandes said to Armin Meiwes. “I will be wholly in you. I won’t leave you.”
RT The text also deals with a break-up. It’s the narrator himself who admits to leaving his girlfriend. In one of your talks about Rot (Hunger) you said: “Poetry is like annihilation. Things get so close together that at some point you can no longer tell them apart.” Did this also happen to the narrator and his girlfriend? Did they become so close that their edges began to blur? That it was impossible to tell them apart?
SV We know this feeling: to lie on the breast of a person we love; this person lies in our lap. And with the clarity of pain we feel this sudden distance, the knowledge of a boundary that we also always are: too much skin. Too much flesh. Too many bones. Our language articulates us. Our language of love and our language of desire are cannibalistic languages. We say: “I could gobble you up”; “I’m starved for your touch”; unrequited love can leave you feeling “gutted.” [Translator’s note: The German phrases are more intense than the English examples given here. Literally translated they mean: I love you so much I want to devour you; I’m starving to death for your love; I want to eat you with all your hair and skin.] In Turkish we say, “yerim seni,” which translates to English as “I want to eat you out,” which is “ta ha zemrën” in Albanian. The novel calls these phrases up as witnesses; it grounds itself in humanity’s experience, which solidified in us in the form of sedimented and mournful knowledge. But the images and metaphors we use to imagine sex and erotic love also dream of dissolution, the removal of our anatomical boundaries, which are defined but not definitive: of the annihilation of our bodies. We speak of “union,” of “connection,” of “melting into each other.” The person we love is the most absent person of all – because they can never be close enough; because they are always too far away. When we love someone, we no longer know where our body ends and where their body begins. When we tell someone that we love them, we ask them to open themselves to us; that they become our home; that they do not reject us; that they become our temple, our synagogue, our church and our mosque. When we love someone, we say what Moses said to God after God had called him by his name twice from the burning bush: hineini –“here I am.” This is how I stand before you now: with my doubts and my despair; I have passed through my fear and helplessness, through all my wounds and my unredeemedness. When we love someone, our bodies become this hunger. Our hands and our mouth, every vein points in one direction. We exist for that person, and only for them – to the point that they revise the reason, and also the reasons, of our birth: we were only born so that this person could find us. We are on this earth only for them. And that is why we are prepared to do anything: we devote ourselves; we abandon ourselves; we surrender to this person: we give what we do not have. We want to take them into us, to accept their body, to be taken in, accepted, and seen by them. This language of love and the hunger it expresses only has one purpose: to reduce the distance between us, to remove it. To remove all distance. But the novel does not only reflect different forms of hunger – the hunger of desire, the hunger of the narrator’s mother during the war, the hunger strike of a Tamil freedom fighter, the hunger of God, and the hunger of words – but also formal forms of separation and connection in different modulations and variations. When there is no grammar that tells us how we connect with a person, how we leave a person, how a person separates from us, then there must not be rules of word division in the book; the rules that tell us when, how, and where a word can be divided on the more reliable end of a line. Each word is divided at the random edge of the page, and this word has to tear itself apart across the distance of a line before it can become a word again, before it can receive another meaning; this word remains when it has found itself again, when it has returned to itself; injured; a wound. The novel is a poem, a prayer – a song. And like a poem that is a wound it splits open: in unexpected places. In its own time. This process allows the words to slow down, to make them self-conscious; to see them like in a verse: in their loneliness, and in their exposure; in their cluelessness and patience. We have to read them with trembling, tearing eyes; with eyes that are torn because they have already been torn. Through these words we must come, the way we came. When you go back twelve generations, that is, 400 years, there must have been 4094 people that came before us, that were necessary for us to be here right here and speak to each other; 4094 people – and more than just their number – their hopes, their suffering, their confidence and luck, their pain and sorrow, their life and death, are the conditions of our reality. When we love someone, we are prepared to follow them, to trace them back through all the generations of people whose names we do not know and whom we have to thank for the presence of this person, for the miracle that is every human being. We are prepared to follow this person, to accompany them, not only into the depth of their unfathomable past, of which neither we nor them know anything, but also into the uncertainty of a future: we agree to accompany them, to be their witness, to render ourselves onto them, this infinite and unmovable, unavailable stranger; to devote ourselves to them, to stay with them, through all transformations that are yet to come. To not turn them into an image or an allegory, into no mirror image or representation, but to free it from every pine and oak; that is the alchemical power of love. That we remain stranger to each other, the same way we encounter words in a poem as strange, alien words – different from the words we speak; different from the words of our daily life. In a poem we encounter them as if for the first and the last time. As we encounter the person we love. In the vocabulary of the cannibal there is a word: nullification. That is what Bernd Brandes wanted from Armin Meiwes: to be completely erased, annihilated. So that he could be resurrected in Armin Meiwes. Poetry means: to gather the entire world in one word. Love means: to concentrate the entire world in a person. But in this concentration: we annihilate everything else; everything outside of this word, outside of this person, by seeing everything only through them: to recognize another world in them and through them.
RT Earlier I saw you at the opening event of the festival, writing in this book. You were filling the gaps of this textual body with your marginalia, almost as if it wasn’t your book, almost as if you could change what has already happened. In a passage from Kafka’s diary that I don’t know because I can quote it, he writes: “When I’m asked if I write, I can only answer myself questioning: Do you write?” Who wrote this book, Senthuran?
SV A few days ago, when I was in Vienna, I remembered a song, a song from my childhood, which I had forgotten but which hadn’t forgotten me. “Close Every Door” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which tells the biblical story of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, and with it the transition of the father stories of Genesis to the history of Israel in Exodus. When I heard this song, there in Vienna, in the expectable cold while smoking in front of the hotel, everything came back: the crying of my mother in the kitchen. The sounds of my siblings from the room above me. The blue carpet in my childhood bedroom. The window fogged-up each November. This loneliness. All of this desire in a little body: to be somewhere else, someone else. “Close every door to me,/Hide all the world from me/Bar all the windows/And shut out the light… If my life were important I/Would ask will I live or die/But I know the answers lie/Far from this world.” This song – remembered me. This song – re-members me for myself. In this song was locked all my childhood, like in the folded hands of prayer. The person that is said to have written this book, this person that was necessary to write this book, has been lost and forgotten. But this book: re-members him for me. In this book, beneath its spaces and broken words, this person lies buried.
RT Senthuran, are we speaking this language? This German?
SV We have to bend this language; we have to push it towards its limits, where the homes for asylum seekers stand, at the city limits. We have to split open its grammar, the words; we have to split open the form so that something can be said in this language; something that has not yet been expressed in this language. That is a literary imperative. I believe that everything can be said in every language as long as we know how we have to arrange the words, so that the words can re-arrange us. We have to develop a sensibility and receptivity for the teeth of the language, for the claws of the words, for the knives of punctuation. Maybe this is the first poetic experience: that we are not broken by a hand, by a belt, by a cane, by a baseball bat, or by a foot, but by a word; just a word that breaks us, shatters us, splits us open, makes us split. The word “split” has a double-meaning that might be relevant for the poetics formulated in both my novels. On the one hand, to depart, to leave suddenly. We had to split. On the other, to crack something open, a thing that previously was locked. Split the body; split open the body of language. [Translator’s note: The German verb aufbrechen refers to a less urgent form of departure than split in English. It conveys the image of breaking up camp to get going. Split was chosen here to allow for the double-teaming of breaking/cracking open.] We write beneath this amnion of language. And underneath our amnion the language continues to write us. We have to be attentive and open to this: welcoming – to take the entire world into us, to allow it to break our bones. To be as vulnerable as a line of verse. This language has passed through our body. This language has changed our face and our shoulders. This language, this German that is spoken and that has always determined us, is not our language. We are not speaking in German, no; we are speaking the language that is pushed aside by German, the language that does not speak and remains unspoken and so makes German possible.
RT In Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze write about the “deterritorialization of the mouth” in reference to the German spoken by the Jewish people of Prague. Meyrink, Brod, Kafka. What Deleuze and Guattari mean is that mouth, tongue, and teeth belong to a new territory because they no longer serve their original purpose of eating and chewing. Is there any territory that our tongues, our mouths, our teeth could possibly belong to?
SV We have to leave behind the idea of territory and its associated metaphors and images; they are colonial metaphors and images. The “undiscovered” country. The “dark continent.” The “other side.” We Tamils do not have a country, and as things are at the moment, we will never find a place where we can live in dignity and self-determination, in freedom and in peace. Where we are someone else has died. Where we are: someone always dies. Death precedes us. Standing on this ground, I speak. This ground is the condition of possibility, the probability and reality of me speaking German, of me understanding German, of me reading in German and writing in German; of me being alive. Death was physically present, like a brother in the family, like a shadow that went before us and that remains with us, in us. Death has been accompanying me since I started thinking, since before I was able to think. Some authors write to overcome death. Some authors write because they are afraid of death. I write to experience the death I was spared through our flight: to truly die in words. If God is the word in the beginning because the word was with God and God was the word, then only a word can kill me. Tamil Eelam is no place, no territory, no land, but an extension of the imagination, a space of hopefulness, a future beyond all maps and seas. There has to be a language that shows nothing and hides nothing, that raises no claims, and that only speaks itself. A country beyond all countries, a language beyond language – that is what I dream of. This dream, it keeps me up at night. The song I spoke about, “Close Every Door,” ends with these lines: “For we have been promised/A land of our own.”
RT I’d like to talk to you about music. And as with that also about lyrics. When we’re at your place, in Wedding, we sometimes play guitar. Well, you play guitar; I once said that I’d bring mine but never did. Tanasgol and you, you sing Nirvana, you sing Rihanna, and sometimes Fabian sings with you. The narrator of this text quotes lyrics. The narrator quotes Radiohead, Bob Marley, Hozier, Nina Simone, but the text does something else: it becomes song itself. The reason for this is that you have worked through this text to the limit. You have textured it to the edge of the line, up to where the letter breaks off. And as we read, as we make the text make sense to us, these signs become, in the words of Ted Hughes, inner music. What is music to you?
SV What is a verse? A verse is a feature of poetry and song. The word “lyrical” already pronounces this fundamental connection: the poetry that belongs to the lyre, the antique string instrument. The word “verse” derives from the Latin versus, vertere: a turning, and turning around, or, as Paul Celan would say: the turning of breath. The language of our daily lives is a language of communication, of sharing; and to share we have to assimilate our experiences and sensations to this language, to translate them into this language for them to become comprehensible; to say what, and who, I am. We access this existing repertoire of sentences agreed on by the people who came before us, and we repeat it to be understood. For me literary work begins when we no longer speak in the phrases, in this language of the everyday, and retreat into the loneliness of our experiences and feelings, which can only be formulated in a lonelier, less comprehensible language that does not follow the law of sharing but the fact of our individual dividedness; when we speak in a language that seeks our muteness; when we begin to turn speech, to turn our breath; and when we recognize ourselves in what has been repressed, forgotten, disavowed, denied, unspoken, and delayed in words and express ourselves through it; when we gather behind their backs. But in the back of words, behind their repression, forgetting, and disavowal, behind what they repress, forget, and disavow, yet another backside awaits us. To devote yourself to this, this endless care and caring, to surrender to the words, to give up, to give them what we do not have, that is, for me, a condition of literature. In the novel I quote Herta Müller, who said in an Interview with the Paris Revue: “It’s the words that are hungry, I am not hungry for words. But they have a hunger, they have a hunger of their own. They want to consume what I have experienced. And I have to make sure, that they do that.” The novel talks about: giving yourself to a person the way we give ourselves to words when we write. Until their will be done: on earth, as it is in heaven. To write like this we have to reach a point of fragility. At this point: there is no return. We have to be as fragile as a verse: what is split; what is splitting; the split – fragility itself. When we sing, we open ourselves differently to a person; we open our mouths differently. When we sing the way we do at home in Wedding, we are less secure than in our speaking; we are afraid: to not hit the right note. To sing wrongly. To have sung in the wrong pitch. And yet: we gather all the courage we do not have and dare to confide our tongues to a melody, and us to one another. Rhythm is a form to cut up time; and that is why the novel exercises such caution in its use of punctuation marks, these different types of musical pauses, the distance between words and sentences where something else articulates itself; the muteness in and between the voice. Hölderlin says in his poem “Friedensfeier”: “But soon we will be song.” For me the nature of poetry, if I may put it like that, lies in this: that a poem is always in the process of splitting, lonely and moving, as Celan would say, towards becoming song – in the knowledge of never being able to be song in the total sensual richness of the word. The novel was written in a tone that comes from Catholic liturgy and is called recto tono, the straight tone. The tone in which a priest speaks to his congregation but actually sings; this tone, in which the priest sings to us but actually speaks. The tension of the novel is not created by a suspenseful plot but a tension and tensing of signs, spaces, and punctuation marks; by the formal arrangement of the novel to do justice to Sappho’s wish to write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bones, more resistant than tendons, and more sensitive than a nerve. When we open ourselves to someone, we are on our way to becoming song. On “Jesus to a Child” on his album Older from 1996, George Michael sings: “So the words you could not say, I’ll sing them for you.” That is not just a devastatingly beautiful paraphrase of “I love you,” but also the moment when the promise and the affinity of poem and song are articulated once again.
RT If this text is a score, which it is if the letters are notes that are varied into themes and motives, into choruses, which song will remain when the last note of this score has faded?
SV If this novel speaks from a silence, and remains in this silence, and returns to this silence, then what is meant to remain is only this: the loneliness of a line. A single note. The loneliness of language that has no mouth and finds no ears.
More content created in cooperation with Das Wetter