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Senthuran Varatharajah's debut novel : Each letter has its price

When you enter Senthuran Varatharajah's apartment in Schöneberg, you are surrounded by pictures and books. The volumes of Western literature and philosophy are piled up to the ceiling. On the wall are sneakers in all colors, from black to light pink. In the middle, right by the window, is an old wooden desk with a Spongebob mug and a laptop on it. Behind it, on the heater, there are more books. Mountains.

Varatharajah smiles, looks rested, although the journalists are hand in hand with him. Two newspapers today, television yesterday. The PhD student in philosophy was also invited to the Leipzig Book Fair to discuss asylum policy and language. A lot has happened since his first, brief appearance in the world of literature.

Klagenfurt, 2014, suddenly he is on stage at the Bachmann Competition, although he has not published anything and hardly anyone has heard from him before. The juror Meike Feßmann has invited him, she promises in her laudation: Varatharajah will shape German-language literature in a unique way. He's still amazed today that he always said to his girlfriend that he couldn't understand how people can do that to themselves voluntarily. “Travel to Klagenfurt, expose yourself to this humiliation in public.” Then he sits there himself. The text he is reading is a Facebook conversation between two refugees, a modern reply to the letter novel. It contains thoughtful sentences, beautiful sentences like: "The objects that we touch touch us back in places where we are deaf to them."

The text becomes a novel

He's clasped his hands on the table, his face paused in silent tension as he awaits the judges' verdict. Exuberant praise and criticism alternate. His text is emphasized as a sensitive, linguistically masterful symbol theory of the asylum, and put down as an artificial, inflated demeanor. One of the jurors says: It sounds like he learned German from Hegel on a lonely island. Nevertheless, the literary nobody is considered a secret favorite from then on. In the end he wins the 3-Sat award.

From the twenty pages he read at the time, Varatharajah wrote a 250-page novel entitled “Before the Increase in Signs”, which is now being published by Fischer Verlag. It's a quiet work that requires patience, vigilance, bulky in a way that makes it all the more rewarding. The two protagonists, Tamile Senthil Vasuthevan and Kosovar Valmira Surroi, accidentally start writing to each other on Facebook. At first they wonder how they could know each other. Soon they'll just tell.

Speaking and writing under the conditions of asylum

Senthil writes Valmira about sitting at home as a little boy, watching television and hearing the German words “Tamil refugees” and “Sri Lanka” for the first time. He sees pictures of the genocide in which the Sinhalese army is massacring Tamils. Swollen dead bodies thrown into the river.

Valmira writes to him how she sees a report about a refugee family in the “Tagesschau”. The reporter says they have no papers. Valmira draws her uncle's attention to the fact that there is enough paper in Germany. She had seen it on her first day of school: lined, checkered, also empty, with large, small borders. She wants to give the refugees her notebooks. “I didn't know that paper and paper didn't mean the same thing,” she says. And then: "Every letter has its price."

Anecdotes like this condense, speaking and writing under the conditions of asylum, the experience of death and flight, is questioned. This focus also distinguishes the novel existentially from other current novels on the subject of escape, such as "Slap in the Face", the current book by Abbas Khider, or "It's quiet at night in Tehran", the debut by Shida Bazyar.

A prose novel like a poem

“I wanted to write a novel,” says Varatharajah, “which looks like prose, but works with poetry. I wanted to ask about the basics: our relationship to language as a medium of knowledge. ”In the novel, he calls it going to the edge of language, which is also meant literally. "The asylum centers are mostly on the edge of the place, in the broader sense of society."

The novel and the life of the 32-year-old author have many parallels. Varatharajah's family also fled Sri Lanka to Germany in the 1980s. They were housed in various asylum centers in Bavaria and are also Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Bible and television shape Varatharajah's language acquisition. The mother tells the children to look at the “wheel of fortune” to learn German. Because there is no Tamil community, Varatharajah forgets his parents' language. He has long thought Tamil is a secret language they invented. The language has a lot of overlap with English. "When I was in fifth grade, I only noticed that words like" car "or" table "didn't even come from Tamil," says Varatharajah. Today he can only speak fragments, with his parents he speaks in gibberish from English, German and Tamil. This loss of language is also an important topic in the novel. An uncle tells Senthil's father that his children are the end, the revenge on their language.

A quiet novel in a loud debate

The lifeworlds of the generations are moving away - in the novel as in life. The children learn the language by watching TV, the parents persist in the past by looking into the distance, as Varatharajah puts it. "In the beginning it was always said, when you are finished with school, we go back." Later: "When you are finished with studies, we go back." Now: "When you have married, we go back." He describes this in the novel: “But they stayed, they stay and they will have stayed until the end. I think they knew it from the start. "

What makes his novel so strong is that it plays with his very personal approach to language in a bold as well as reflective way. With the unnoticed differences, the unconscious gaps, which words occupy associatively and imaginatively, sometimes also decompose. While reading, one cannot avoid reflecting on the populist tone that has now determined the way people speak and discuss migration in public. In which words like refugee wave, refugee catastrophe, or as von Schäuble, refugee avalanche are used all too lightly. In which people shout at refugees with the slogan “We are the people!”. The families of refugees will hardly associate this sentence with what it stood for for a long time. Tearing down walls, a symbol of unity. For them it is an expression of hatred and violence.

Senthuran Varatharajah: Before the increase in signs. Novel. S. Fischer, 250 p., € 19.99. The book premiere with the author is on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Akademie der Künste on Pariser Platz.

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