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Words Without Borders

Why I Speak German Rather Well

When the time comes for Q & A after a reading in Germany, one of the unavoidable questions seems to be, “How come you speak German so well?” I don’t believe anybody in France would ask, “How come you speak French so well?” I don’t speak French that well, by the way.
But this is not about an inferiority complex among the Germans.
This is about my answer to that question. “Once upon a time, my parents were German. Both were born in Berlin. Then history kicked in.” To be honest, most of the time I just say, “My parents were born in Berlin.” Only one night I answered, “What do you think, yourself?” But I was stressed out that night.
What followed after this answer was a slightly uncomfortable silence and then quickly we moved on to the next issue--“You were kicked out of high school, weren’t you?” The same thing happened at a Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt.
My parents seem to make both Gentiles and Jews in Germany uncomfortable.
Part of the problem is, I believe, that the book I was presenting was not about the history of my parents. Actually it had nothing to do with the Holocaust. It takes place in Peru, and as far as I know, there are no Jews in this novel.
When the audience in Germany is prepared for a Jew and the past and guilt, et cetera, et cetera, everything is fine. But when a Jew is there, suddenly, without advance notice, there is always an awkward moment. The audience chose to ignore my answer in order to not spoil the evening. Fair enough. I don’t blame them.
Which is to say, even in 2006, the war has not ended in Germany.
A young bookseller in Koblenz told me that after Günter Grass published his memoirs, people came in to the bookstore just to comment on it. Well, not so much to comment on the book, but to comment on the revelations by Mr. Grass on his past.
“So when do you think this will end?” I asked.
“Not in the foreseeable future,” the bookseller answered.
Which is why I am preparing to write a short piece in German, “Why I Speak German Rather Well, and Why This Doesn’t Have To Make You Uncomfortable.” After finishing this piece, I would like to add a footnote: on rare occasions, speaking German can be sexy.


(Words Without Borders, November 1, 2006)