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Despite its young age, New Zealand has experienced numerous immigration waves and has a history that was often marred by violence before it achieved independence in 1947. The capricious nature of history, as well as the blurred borders between identity and clan, are inscribed in the DNA of New Zealand’s citizens. This includes the writer Lloyd Jones, who was born in Lower Hutt near Wellington in 1955. While he seems to re-invent himself by using dramatically divergent subjects for his books, they all share an interest in a few main issues: who are we? What and who can determine the erratic and vaguely-drawn outlines of our identity? And how does a writer use the novel to contend with these issues? He became a writer after first working as a journalist. After studying political science at the Victoria University in Wellington, Jones traveled to Asia, Europe, and the USA as a reporter and foreign correspondent. His 1985 debut Gilmore’s Diary, a prose work teeming with black humor, portrays a young man’s conflicts with the traditions of his small New Zealand hometown. Since then, he has regularly published books that continue to offer surprising form and content, such as his 1988 volume of short stories Swimming to Australia, and his 1991 Biografi: An Albanian Quest, based on the author’s trip to Albania; although it is based on the research from his trip, it also doubles as a genuine fiction about the invented doppelganger of the overthrown dictator Enver Hoxha, who in this version of the tale is denied his own life story. The Book of Fame, a novel published in 2000, follows the New Zealand national rugby team “The Blacks” during their legendary series of history-making victories in Europe in 1905. Originally published in 2002, in Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance he directs his gaze towards the world of Argentinean tango: the novel ties together two love stories that unfold over time and across continents. The plot begins in New Zealand as the First World War is coming to a close. There, the young Louise Cunningham meets the piano tuner Paul Schmidt, who teaches her to tango. Because of his name, Schmidt soon comes under suspicion of being German and must flee. She then follows him to Buenos Aires. Years later, Schmidt’s granddaughter Rose, who is also an avid tango dancer, follows her grandfather’s footsteps and eventually falls in love through tango. Jones’s character does not ride into the sunset at the end of the novel, however, because Jones flatly rejects facile narrative solutions. This outright rejection is also evident in his award-winning novel Mister Pip (2006), which was his international breakthrough novel and is now considered the most successful New Zealand book of all time. Set during Papua New Guinea’s civil war in the 1990s, the novel takes place in the small village of Bougainville. Based on his first-hand experiences of the civil war as a journalist, Jones’s novel is a marvelous, heart-breaking tale, an insightful parable of humanity. The main character is Mr. Watts, the village’s last white inhabitant. With a little help from Charles Dickens, he teaches the village’s traumatized children values of humanity and empathy as well as literature’s power to create meaning. Soon, the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to blur, especially when Mr. Watts uses the Dickensian nom de guerre “Mr. Pip” as he is sought by soldiers for being a rebel; by the end, the character becomes a kind of masculine Scheherazade of the present day, a vehicle Jones uses to break out of the traditional framework of post-Colonial discourse. Jones also undermines the Manichean worldview and ways of thinking in Hand Me Down World (2012), originally published in English in 2010, in which he shows his mastery of the lyrical tone as well as a more plastic orality. The book recounts the story of a fictitious young African woman as she journeys from Tunisia to Germany without papers. There she searches for her son, who had been kidnapped by his father. Jones narrates the woman’s journeys in frightening scenes that are striking for their realism, detailing everything she must sell, including her body, to reach her goal. Based on the fact that she is black, a woman, and illegal, she is considered fair game by all. But the scenes also show others who come to her aid – only to be seemingly robbed and lied to in return. “Seemingly” is the key word, because Jones tells the woman’s story not only from a future vantage point, when the character is in an Italian jail accused of murder, but from a variety of perspectives: her story is first told by characters she encountered on her travels, including a truck driver, a group of hunters, a street artist, and a woman who makes documentary films; the character finally tells her side of the story at the very end of the novel. The effect of this narrative construction is disorienting: slowly but surely, the individual parts of the woman’s identity come together like a mosaic, and it soon becomes clear that the novel will not allow one valid version of the truth. Composed like a dossier, the novel’s structure offers an elegant symbol for the basic dilemma shared by illegal aliens – that is, that they are whoever we want to believe they are. In Jones’s novels, they are never merely victims or criminals, or simply good or evil. The child’s father, for example, is not a racist white man, but a black German who doesn’t feel at home in his own skin. The woman consciously objects to being a victim, just as she refuses the reader’s sympathy; she does not feel superior merely because she is a black and an African refugee. Thus, Jones’s novels make life both easy and difficult for the reader: easy, because of the powerful exuberance of his storytelling; but also difficult, because their complexity demands our full attention as readers.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
Translation into English: Amy Pradell
Camera/editing: Uli Aumüller, Sebastian Rausch


Print
Biografi: An Albanian Quest. A novel. Translated from English by Grete Osterwald. Hanser Verlag, München / Wien 1994. Mister Pip. Roman. Translated from English by Grete Osterwald. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2008. Hand Me Down World. A novel. Translated from English by Grete Osterwald. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2012. Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance. A novel. Translated from English by Grete Osterwald. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2014.
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„Geschichte der Stille: Eine Spurensuche in Neuseeland” und “Die Frau im blauen Mantel”. Moderation: Katharina Döbler

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