“The Past Survives in the Telling”: Eight Questions for Esther Kinsky

“I never look for inspiration when I embark on a project. My writing evolves from something I’ve seen, heard outside—never from reading.”

When I bought Rombo by Esther Kinsky, I was on my lunch break and I was getting flustered. I was at a bookshop in Sydney’s business district and they didn’t have any of the titles I had noted down. My time was limited and there were walls of books to choose from, just not the ones I’d come to buy. It was also raining and the prospect of trying to smuggle a book back to the office without it getting soggy was growing less and less appealing. I circled around the shelves one last time and, on a whim, picked out Rombo—Caroline Schmidt’s English translation—read a little of one of the first pages and examined one of the narrow photographs of what looked like rock carvings, then took it to the counter.

I was aware of both Kinsky and Rombo before that encounter with the book, but not in any sort of detail. Yet even in that first reading, something about it intrigued me. It was clear that the book was unusual: formally unorthodox, not quite nature writing but not a disaster novel either. I could tell it would take some figuring out. This feeling only grew as I read further. The narrative swings between stories of people who live in the valley below Monte Canin in northern Italy and the stories of its landscape, and the more I read, the more I wanted to understand what exactly was happening here. Rombo held my attention from start to end in a way that was magnetic, the kind of book that I thought about when I was off doing other things.

I know well the risk of killing certain joy when interrogating too deeply why we like something. But more than most of the other books I read last year, Rombo returned to me and lingered in my thoughts, especially when other books I picked up failed to replicate its subtle electricity. The risk of going deeper seemed worth taking.

Esther Kinsky is an award-winning writer, poet, and translator from Germany; I am a curious reader from Sydney, Australia. When a few Google searches yielded little about the book, I decided to do the next best thing: I contacted Esther to discuss how her novel about two earthquakes that shook parts of northern Italy in the 1970s came to be.

Tristan Foster (TF): One of my favorite reading experiences was making my way so far into Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar that I forgot what I was reading and who it was by. I read it on an e-reader, and the device hid the book’s title and the author’s name. I was left with only the words of the text, no framing information, so reading became akin to dreaming. I had a similar experience with Rombo. I both do and do not want to know what this book is—fiction, nonfiction, a work of the imagination, or a product of you stalking the valley below Monte Canin, part of the mountain range that forms the border between Italy and Slovenia. Maybe the information around a text is ultimately inconsequential, but in its absence the uncertainty creates a tension and a mystery, the kind that make for the best reading experiences. Was this intentional or did I miss a memo?


Esther Kinsky (EK): You certainly didn’t miss a memo. I agree that the less you know before embarking on a book, the more you’ll gain from the experience. I would never want to give any information about my approach, about the writing process, about the degree or kind of familiarity with an area or a way of living. I tend to find it very irritating when presenters or members of the audience want to know “facts” about the way a book has come into being, these “Did it really…?” questions to which there are no answers. For one thing, I really do want readers to abandon themselves to my texts, as they would (and should) to a piece of music or a film, but I also don’t believe that an author can give an exhaustive analytical answer to these types of questions after the fact. Creating something, be it a poem, a novel, a string quartet, or a film, is a mysterious process, and the mystery should survive. Trying to explain creative decisions in retrospect will always be fake and misleading, not necessarily intentionally so, but by inevitably taking an analytical view to a process defined by synthesis.


TF: Rombo is formally unorthodox, an encyclopedic patchwork of fragments of stories, stories within stories, details about the local flora and fauna, tidbits about the region, geological facts, and so on. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I so profoundly inhabited a specific place in a book—the slopes of Canin, the shadow it casts across the villages in the valley below, the houses and buildings left in fragments overrun with ivy; you describe everything from a weed that grows on a hillside to the musical instruments used by the villages to the oil shale mined in the area. Can you tell me a little about the functions of this narrative style?


EK: I believe explanations tend to look back and simplify—but there is one answer that lies in the book itself, especially in the very last chapter, “MEMORIAL” which talks about the surviving fragments of the fresco in the cathedral in Venzone. Like the fresco, posttraumatic memory is fragmented, always. Actually, all memory is fragmented. Or becomes fragmented in the retelling, because naming and language are so much more time consuming than just revisiting a memory in our heads. But also memories change with the retelling and revisiting, details are lost, others, in fact, are added. I listened to many people talking about the earthquake, not because I conducted interviews, but because people seem to like to talk about it, and I like to listen, and I was taken with the idea of those memories beginning to create a mosaic. A mosaic is composed of fragments.


A Hole at the Bottom of the Book

By Aidan Ryan

TF: I enjoyed inhabiting the world of your story—rarely did I feel the fear or anxiety associated with an earthquake and, upon reflection, it struck me that the actual earthquake appears on the peripheral; it ultimately plays a minor role. There is the before, and the after, the movement of the people and the landscape, yet still: “Everything continued to grow, despite the earthquake. The beans, the cabbage, the potatoes. Everything.” Life and the world continues—scarred, but it continues. More important to the narrative are these befores and afters. An earthquake is devastating, but existence doesn’t stop. Underscoring this is the natural landscape: the mountain and the valley are devastated, but they remain. These things have the appearance of the eternal. The book, then, is about how these events give shape to life, the trauma they leave us with, and ultimately about life going on. What are your thoughts on this reading of Rombo?


EK: I think the experience of the landscape and the peculiar flora typical of a poor soil and alpine conditions did shape my perception, of course it did. But I never consciously thought about the transitoriness of human life versus the longevity of rocks, et cetera. I was more struck by the contrasts of the landscape, the mountains, the hills, the plains, and the Adriatic Sea. It’s quite an extraordinary landscape. Evidence of gigantic material displacement sits side by side with documents and manifestations of painful human experiences and displacements: the First World War, the traces of a brutal feudal system of land ownership and landless peasantry, the migrations east to west and south to north, for millennia. It’s a part of the world where so many paths cross. I love geology, as much as I love ornithology and botanics, and I’m particularly fascinated with the way humans can’t help themselves, they have to name everything. And the names are so small and helpless in the face of the way “nature” just inches on and on and on, unaware of any name its manifestations go by. I like the idea of those levels of human thinking bleeding into one another—memories and personal narrative, naming phenomena and fitting them into an order and a system, trying to get one’s head around time and, eventually, also articulating myths.


TF: I want to discuss this idea or phenomenon of reality being turned to myth by memory. While reading Rombo, I happened to read Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Paris Review interview. In response to a question about memory, he says:

Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling a memory is part of the same process. This is very clear in Proust: For him there is no difference between lived experience—his relationship with his mother, and so forth—and his characters. Exactly the same type of truth is involved.

For me, there was a resonance between his words and your book; the stories told by your characters pertain to the earthquake but also to life in the village and, maybe even more so, to their own private worlds. I’m thinking, for instance, of the story of the lunatic of Bologna who haunted the forest near the village, but also the cow that electrocuted itself. These stories are the kinds of things that are repeated so often among a community or a family that they grow and evolve and become cemented within the collective consciousness, often to fortify a particular idea or feeling (“Our country is damned, the people said”), the reality of the situation being lost a long time ago. Rombo mixes the concrete and the mythical. Am I right in seeing a correlation here?


EK: Yes, as I said, myths have a great significance to me, and, yes, you are right, I think I wanted to find a way to juxtapose those “forever” myths like the Riba Faronica, the pharaonic fish that is said to cause the Earth to rumble with a flick of its tail—characteristic of the entire Periadriatic Fault where earthquakes occur but also of places and regions where matriarchal structures survived into recent times, in various guises—with local stories that become myths by being allocated to the before world created by the rift of the earthquake. It is a mark of posttraumatic memory that pretraumatic memories become mythical; they belong to a past that is not just irretrievable through the passing of time, but also by such dramatic material shifts and changes that it can only survive in the telling.


“I Began With Sound”

By Emily Wilson

TF: I read Rombo in Caroline Schmidt’s translation into English for Fitzcarraldo Editions and New York Review Books. You have also translated very extensively from English and Polish into German. From your point of view, what is lost and what is gained through translation?


EK: This is a very big question. I think, for me, as a writer and translator, translation continues to be a very rewarding and fruitful exercise simply by forcing me to rethink, again and again, the boundaries of the language I translate into. Every translation will force the translator to question the limits of one’s own language, and to push boundaries, to transgress and create. Translation has enriched languages unbelievably, and perhaps the awareness of this richness through translation is something the anglophone world is missing out on to some extent. Of course, one also has to live with the inevitability of loss—but it’s worthwhile to not just think of what’s lost in translation but also of what is gained. As for the translations of my own work, I try not to interfere. A translator does in some ways become a coauthor in the new language and must be conceded a degree of autonomy. While the original is the product of a creative engagement with a vision, the translation is the product of a creative and inspired engagement with the text, working on a version of the vision, and this version is as unique and inimitable as the original.


TF: I’m curious about your influences. Can you tell me about who—or what—you look to for inspiration and how it shaped your thinking around what Rombo would become?


EK: I never look for inspiration when I embark on a project. My writing evolves from something I’ve seen, heard outside—never from reading. Rombo first existed as a brief commissioned text about “seismographies” for a science and arts event, and this commission coincided with my incipient acquaintance with that particular landscape in northeastern Italy, where I became interested in particular rock formations and their specific flora, and then I heard some people talking about the earthquake in their Slav dialect, and I realized that I wanted “voices” in the text, not one narrating “I.”

I know that critics often come up with names of authors, preferably male authors, as if a woman author my age couldn’t develop her way of writing on her own. I’m particularly irked by comparisons with Sebald whom I never, ever considered an influence in my writing. I read three of his earlier books (in German, of course): Vertigo, The Emigrants, and Rings of Saturn, and I didn’t like Rings of Saturn much and haven’t returned to his writing since (we’re talking mid-’90s). What I’ve always missed in Sebald’s writing, for instance, is compassion for the individual. Also, in German his style is not particularly original, so for poetic inspiration I’d rather look to other writers. Perhaps also film and cinema are much more important for me than narrative literature. Kafka’s language and his gaze, so inspired and informed by silent films, has probably the most abiding influence on my thinking, and among more recent prose writers there is Peter Kurzeck, who passed away some years ago, and who hasn’t even been translated into English as far as I know. And then, of course, there are poets, John Burnside, for instance, among the living, and Friederike Mayröcker, who passed away in 2021 and whose poetry has kept me company for many years.

Then there are writers and thinkers whose approach has probably influenced me—Pasolini, for instance, in his essays and his deep appreciation and love for the “underprivileged”; Zanzotto; Levinas; and many more. There is perhaps one guiding principle for me: I want to write books that can be read by anyone. All a reader needs is patience, no education. Patience is classless.

TF: I wonder if we can discuss your writing process. Rombo has seven characters whose voices are spread across seven chapters. I wouldn’t suggest this as an approach to encountering the text but on my second read I went back and sought out specific characters and read their sections sequentially—for example, I read Olga’s sections back-to-back and her character and history began to crystallize in my mind in a way that was different from my first reading. I saw that she liked details, I felt her bitterness, I knew that she was a singer, and not originally from the valley. In terms of the mechanics of bringing this narrative together, I wondered if Olga’s story was always conceived of in fragments. How did the book begin and was there an evolution through to its finished state?


EK: With Rombo, form and structure developed more gradually than with my other books, and it took me a while to decide how to proceed. At some point quite early on I decided to write each voice strand from beginning to end and then cut it up to fit the themes of the seven chapters. That was a real breakthrough for me, and it helped me, I think, to achieve a sense of fragmentation without making the parts too disjointed. Together with the brief texts about flora, rocks, history, myths, local lore, et cetera. I assembled a mosaic, shifting bits around until, at least to my mind, each little fragment helped its neighbors to shine. Nothing is random in the assembly of the fragments, nothing is interchangeable.

As for the ways of reading my books—I think every reader has to decide how to read a book, I have always wanted to write books that one can open at random and start reading without having to leaf backward to get the plot or appreciate a character’s motives. And yet, nothing in the telling is random, every word has its part to play and its singular place in the text. My writing has more to do with my idea of text and texture than with story. There are no plots and there’s no narrative arc in terms of suspense or closure.


TF: Why do you write?


EK: I just can’t help it. I have no other reason, no motive beyond this sense of need to work with language. I don’t think I have “stories to tell,” it’s never about the story, about the “what” to tell, but always about “how” to tell it. icon

Featured image: Photograph of Esther Kinsky courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions