Michael Klevenhaus – West Port Book Festival 2010

Perhaps the most bizarre book to be featured in the West Port Book Festival programme was Der Schädel von Damien Hirst / An Claigeann aig Damien Hirst, the world’s first bilingual German/Gaelic collection of short stories. The book is published by Ur-Sgeul, a Gaelic Books Council funded organisation with a remit to promote contemporary Gaelic prose for adults. All seven of the short stories were originally written in Gaelic then translated into German. Two further short story collections are planned and are currently awaiting translation.

A Book Written in Gaelic and German

I was fascinated by Der Schädel von Damien Hirst, which has given me a way to access writing from my country that I wouldn’t normally be able to read, but I wondered how there could be a market for Gaelic language fiction outside of Scotland. During a talk at the West Port Book Festival, Michael Klevenhaus, the German editor of the collection and author of one of the stories, explained that Germany has a long tradition of studying Celtic languages. Even in the present day, interest in these languages persists and in 2009 around 60 students enrolled in Gaelic courses at the German Centre for Gaelic Language and Culture in Bonn, which Klevenhaus founded and where he currently teaches. He hopes that by publishing Gaelic short stories side by side with their German translations, readers will be able to compare both languages and expand their knowledge of the one they are less familiar with.

A Dying Language

He himself speaks fluent Gaelic although as far as he is aware he has no Scottish roots. He told the West Port Book Festival audience that his interest in Gaelic began when he was eight years old. He heard a programme on the radio about languages that were dying out and wondered what he would do if that happened to German. How would he talk to his mother? She reassured him that it was only less widely spoken languages like Gaelic that were in danger of being lost. That was the first time he had heard of the language and he felt sorry for the poor little Gaelic boys who wouldn’t be able to speak to their own mothers anymore! Later, when he was 15, he heard a Gaelic speaking band in concert and that convinced him that he wanted to study the language. It was another 20 years, however, until he booked a place on a Gaelic course in Scotland. As soon as he heard Gaelic being spoken, he knew immediately that he had done the right thing. “I love the sound of Gaelic; it just opened a door for me. I wasn’t very good in school but Gaelic was a different story. The grammar of Gaelic is an absolutely logical system for me. I like systems. Maybe I’m very German!”

Stories in Der Schädel von Damien Hirst – Contemporary Themes and Controversial Issues

Klevenhaus read to the audience from three of the short stories in Der Schädel von Damien Hirst, switching between the Gaelic and German prose. First he read from GPS (Das Navi) by Pàdraig MacAoidh, his favourite story in the collection, about a broken-hearted man driving home with the aid of a highly sophisticated satellite navigation system. He went on to read from my personal favourite, An Caraid (Der Freund) by Mona Claudia Striewe. This moving story, which partly takes place in an online computer game, was the only other story in the collection aside from Klevenhaus’s to have been written by a native German speaker.

From the internet and computer games to intelligent GPS and space ships, many of the stories in the collection had an extremely contemporary or even futuristic bent which might seem surprisingly non-traditional in Gaelic language prose. In his introduction to the book, Klevenhaus commented that not only is the vocabulary of Gaelic sufficient to discuss these themes, there is also enough creative freedom in the language to make it possible to describe new concepts.

The final story that Klevenhaus read from was his own. Top Twenties transports the reader back in time and to another country. It’s 1970s Germany and the teenage residents of a tiny village live for barn discos where they can listen to the hottest new music and try out dance moves copied from John Travolta films. When I first read this story I was surprised and perhaps even slightly uncomfortable about the inclusion of a Nazi-uncle in the tale.  High school exchange trips to Germany have instilled in me a Basil Fawlty-esque “don’t mention the war” type of mentality. Klevenhaus explained that the Nazi-uncle strand in the story reflects how he viewed people when he was growing up in post-war Germany. As a child he would ask his family what they did during Nazi times, but his questions went unanswered. Eventually he learned that members of his father’s family had been involved with the Nazis while a relative of his mother’s had been gassed, “so I had both sides in one family.” He began looking at people in their sixties and seventies and asking himself, Nazi or not?

German Interest in Gaelic Language and Culture

Klevenhaus said that an awareness of the Nazi regime not only influenced the way his generation viewed their elders but is also partly responsible for the renewed interest in Gaelic. “It’s the loss of our own folklore, which was destroyed during Nazi times. Nobody wants to sing their folk songs anymore. We were looking for an ersatz history.”

And although Klevenhaus himself was not looking to replace his own culture through Gaelic – on the contrary he has tried to revive it. He told the audience with a chuckle that when teaching Gaelic songs to his classes he sometimes surprises his students by sneaking in an occasional piece in medieval German – he certainly seems to have found one that he can be equally comfortable in. “Scots are very open and warm people,” he told the West Port audience.  “In Scotland people want to share their culture with you.”

Der Schädel von Damien Hirst / An Claigeann aig Damien Hirst (Ur-Sgeul, £8.99) can be ordered from the publisher’s website.

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5 thoughts on “Michael Klevenhaus – West Port Book Festival 2010

  1. Gaelic and German! I never learnt Gaelic although I dabbled, having worked on Gaelic theatre projects a few times. I did learn German, to A-level, and now, 35 years on, whenever I try to speak German, the Gaelic pops into my head! So on some neuro-linguistic level at least, there is a gutteral connection, at least in MY brain!

  2. Muddling up your languages is easily done. I think my brain has an English mode and a foreign language mode. I’ve found myself speaking German in Spain and Polish in Germany, much to the amusement of the locals.

  3. I’ve just stumbled across this (yeah I admit, I google myself sometimes ;)) and I was strangely touched when I read that for someone my story was their favourite one from that book… Thank you! 🙂
    By the way, I’ve recently written another story for a new collection by Ur-Sgeul, but it will be a Gaelic only book, as far as I know.
    A bheil Gàidhlig agad-sa ma-tha?
    ~Mona

  4. Hey Mona,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you stumbled across my blog. Unfortunately I don’t speak Gaelic so I may not get to enjoy your next story. Fingers crossed that the business of publishing German/Gaelic bilingual books really takes off, then there might be a German translation in pipeline.

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