The power of narratives: Of literature and utopias

27 Jun 2023

An interview with LMU alumnus and author Ilija Trojanow, discussing the topics of diversity, belonging and the power of literature on the occasion of the initiative Together@LMU

Ilija Trojanow

As a youngster, Ilija Trojanow already knew that he wanted to become a writer.

He wrote his first novel in the evenings and at weekends between the ages of 18 and 28. | © Thomas Dorn

LMU alumnus Ilija Trojanow is a writer, publisher and translator, a globetrotter and a collector of stories. Born in Bulgaria, he grew up in Germany and Kenya. His books have been translated into 31 languages. Trojanow has won numerous prizes and accolades for his literary work and his sociopolitical engagement, including the Leipzig Book Fair Prize and the Heinrich Böll Prize.

You studied at LMU Munich in the 1980s. What were your interests at the time?

Ilija Trojanow: I knew early on that I wanted to become a writer, but no one told me how to get there. I initially studied philosophy and economics, because I thought we needed a new economy. After studying Slavic and Romance philology, I then enrolled for a law degree. But law was not what I had expected either. I was interested in the basic questions: What is law, what is justice?

I was already translating and writing at the time, and I had founded my own publishing house. Specializing in African literature, the Marino Verlag really got going during my studies of anthropology, to which I had switched in the meantime. My first book did well, too. “I have now found the way to the life of a writer,” I thought, so I left the university.

What was the most formative influence during your time in Munich?

Above all the yard behind Amalienstrasse 15, where I lived and had my publishing firm. That was real, traditional Schwabing. There was an architect’s office, an artist – Haralampi Oroschakoff – who also originated from Bulgaria, a sculptor, a retired doctor – Tibor Csato – with an incredible life story, having been an agent for the British secret service in World War II and later served as a doctor for London celebrities such as Graham Greene; and so on. It was a fascinating, vibrant artists’ quarter. The university and lots of bookstores and antique shops were only a few yards away. That was a good time.

Together@LMU: Meet Ilija Trojanow on 6 July 2023

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Where else do you feel at home? In Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Reisen (Instruction Manual for Travelling), you describe Bombay as one of the most exciting places in the world.

I feel really at ease in many places, one of them being Bombay. But I am very flexible on that score. I currently live in Vienna, where I am also very much at home. I was writer-in-residence in Mainz, which was another good place to be. For me, ‘home’ is more the people I love and the things that are important to me. It is not so much a particular locality. Today, I would miss my library more than any specific place.

You have lived in widely differing cultural contexts. What moved you to write the book Kampfabsage (Confluences), which takes American historian Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations ad absurdum?

I had realized that my perception of cultural history was not shared in any way by most of the authors and other people I met, but that there was generally a concept of homogeneous national traditions. That is especially absurd in India, but not only there. There came a point where I thought that the convergence of cultures needed to be described in its fluid complexity.

Life in India was the critical trigger point. When I moved to India in 1998, India was a cultural space that in no way lined up with notions of identity politics. It was a place of diversity, of intense togetherness, a place with a profound knowledge of the various expressions of culture and religion. Since my colleague and friend Ranjit Hoskote saw things in a very similar way, the obvious thing to do was write a book together.

In delving into topics such as Indian and Bulgarian history, do you feel that you are to some extent working through your own past?

No. I have only ever been interested in that which is my own as a tool and as a school of perception. Beyond that, I have little time for autopoiesis because I am curious about other things. I have used the fact of growing up with different languages and different perspectives as a tool for my research and my literature.

Your new novel is due out on 30 August 2023. Can you tell us a little about it?

Tausend und ein Morgen (One Thousand and One Mornings) is the audacious attempt to revive the almost extinct utopian genre. The only utopias we have seen for the last 40 years have been in the realms of science fiction. It is the attempt to write a utopia without a blueprint. The weakness of designs for utopias is often that you spell out a better world for the future in too much detail and too dogmatically. My idea was to open windows and doors on a plethora of possibilities without giving the reader chapter and verse on everything. Utopias are often designed in such a way that someone from our world goes there and is astonished at what they find. For me, it is the other way round: Because the utopia is at the center, it takes on a kind of matter-of-fact normality. A group of young people, the ‘chronauts’, travel back in time to histories that we know to change them for the better.

Ilija Trojanow

“That is the wonderful thing about stories: Stories always take shape in the form of dialogue,” Ilija Trojanow says. “They emerge in the form of dialogue even while you are writing, but it is only when you read and discuss them that they blossom and flourish. The principle of dialogue is ingrained in literature. Literature is shared experience.”

© Thomas Dorn

In the documentary Oasen der Freiheit (Oases of Freedom), you set out in search of utopian ideas on the peripheries of Europe in what is akin to a journey through time. What do we need in order to realize utopias in practice?

The cultural sciences have come up with the term ‘liminal space’. According to this narrative, border regions are not in the blind spot of history. On the contrary, they are crucial, in part because the rule of centralized powers is weaker in these places, and in part because they have spaces where much can be negotiated, where there is freedom to experiment, where there is room for doing things together, for new beginnings, for awakenings. More can develop where the dominant power has less powerful access. Aside from this consideration, the critical issue when realizing utopias is to develop a story, a narrative, a vision that sooner or later captures the imagination of enough people and speaks to their longings and aspirations. The abolition of slavery and equal rights for women were once utterly utopian ideas, but ideas that increasingly gained majority backing. Realization does not always need a majority, but it does need a certain critical mass of enthusiasts and committed supporters.

Do you feel that we are currently moving toward this kind of tipping point?

I am sure we are. It is clear to me that we cannot go on with this global capitalist system, with the exploitation of natural resources and unequal distribution. More and more people are waking up to this fact: I see it at events such as the Global Assembly and my series on the utopian space (Der utopische Raum). A growing number of people sense that we need a far-reaching transformation of society into something new. But it will obviously take time before this inkling takes on concrete form.

What part can literature play in this transformation process?

What we are as individuals and as society is to a large extent a consequence of stories. The way we look at ourselves and our life usually takes on a narrative form. Our social conventions, too, are deeply rooted in narratives. Germany’s Basic Law begins with the words, “Human dignity shall be inviolable”. This is a poetic-philosophical sentence that makes a completely fictitious assertion. There is no scientific basis for it. But it was said and repeated often enough until, after the unbelievable horrors of the Nazi era, people said, “Yes, it makes sense”. Seen from this angle, I know of nothing that is stronger than narratives.

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