Pandemic Palimpsest: Yoko Tawada’s “Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel”

MGP editor Qingyang Zhou and Jezell Lee, both participants in our series of Zoom workshops with authors, reflect on our event with poet, playwright, and novelist Yoko Tawada, examining the transnational homage and fragmentary intertextuality of her latest novel, 2020’s Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel.

In the third installment of the Zoom conversation series on “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News,” renowned author Yoko Tawada led a dynamic discussion with Elisabeth Krimmer (Professor of German, UC Davis) and Jonas Teupert (Ph.D. German, UC Berkeley) on her latest novel, Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel. Originally from Japan, Tawada has written in both Japanese and German and is currently based in Berlin. She has garnered much international acclaim for her intercultural work and is the recipient of numerous literary accolades including the prestigious Goethe Medal, the Akutagawa Prize, the Kleist Prize, the Chamisso Prize, and a National Book Award. 

Tawada’s writing often involves traveling across boundaries, drawing upon her own anecdotal experiences of moving between countries, fostering elements of transculturalism and interlinguistic exchange. Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel is an exquisite, magical treasure case that opens up to a world where Celan’s poetry is woven into a dreamlike encounter between Patrik, a Celan scholar of Polish descent, and his “trans-Tibetan” friend Leo-Eric Fu. The novel explores abstract boundaries such as the linguistic confines of waking life, as well as those that partition thoughts and emotions. 

During the conversation, Tawada traces ways in which Celan’s approach to writing inspired her novel. She mentioned that Celan’s early poems have a distinct musical rhythm to them and could be easily sung during a performance. In his late poems, however, body parts such as mouth, hand, and liver appear frequently as lost, lonely, and strange (verloren, einsam, fremd) beings, as if the author wrote them in a state of bewilderment. In chapter four of Tawada’s novel, body parts such as tooth, beard, heart, and neck likewise become the locus where language disintegrates into letters, so that the symbolic becomes the semiotic and vice versa. 

Tawada’s reappropriation of the trope of lost body parts constitutes an act of “palimpsestic intertextuality” on two levels (Hallensleben 168). First, by putting a scholar of literature in dialogue with an Asian character well versed in traditional Chinese medicine, Tawada criss-crosses her own linguistic attentions over Celan’s words and lines. In chapter two, Leo-Eric invokes the idea of the Meridian to draw a connection between the conception of the body in Chinese acupuncture and geographical locations hinted in Celan’s poetry. By linking the physical to the literary, this interpretation exposes how “[b]ody and text are seen as performative entities, which constantly represent and simultaneously act as media of spatial memory” (Hallensleben 177). The idea of the skin as a “remediated performance space,” where inscribed cultural identities could be erased and rewritten (Hallensleben 173), becomes embodied in Leo-Eric’s mysteriously malleable identity. 

Throughout the novel, Patrick attempts to pinpoint his friend’s cultural and ethnic background based on the way he speaks and the cultural references he makes, but to no avail. Indeed, the very fact that the “trans-Tibetan” character looks like a freedom protestor in Hong Kong, a Tibetan monk, a Zen-Buddhist from France, and a North Korean spy speaks to the very multi-directional potential that the body has as a fluid textual space. At the same time, the lost body parts also prompt the protagonist Patrik to suture the poet’s body whole, so that it is no longer seen as an entity that is unrecognizable. Patrik then assumes the role of not just literary scholar, but also scientist, piecing together how Celan wrote his poems. 

On a second level, Tawada’s use of “palimpsestic intertextuality” allows for a reconfiguration of memory through archival practices. During the discussion, Tawada mentioned that she had initially planned to write an academic essay on Paul Celan for a lecture series at the Freie Universität Berlin. Nevertheless, during her research at the Literaturarchiv Marbach, she realized that her ideas for Celan’s poems were too “wild” to be contained within a scholarly treatise. Breaking out of the strict logical coherence required for literary analysis, Tawada opens the novel for multidirectional, rhizomatic readings through which the original context of Celan’s suffering during the Jewish Holocaust could be linked to alternative memories. 

For instance, Leo-Eric’s grandfather has a peculiar habit of buying books that Celan read and copying Celan’s reading notes onto his own copies. Leo-Eric then validates this history by paying a visit to the Literaturarchiv Marbach. The novel does not explicitly explain the rationale behind the characters’ archival fever, nor do we fully understand why the grandfather decides to practice Chinese medicine in Paris in the 1960s. Rather, the diverse array of languages, cultures, and texts that emerge in the course of these archival engagements speaks to the idea that trauma is not an exclusive mnemonic property belonging to a specific nation or ethnicity, but a nodal point in a complex web of intercultural entanglements. The very last image of the novel epitomizes this approach: the image of Leo-Eric as an angel ready to fly out with his bird wings attests to the way in which poetic ideas roam about freely, in the language of dreams.

During the conversation, Elisabeth Krimmer noted that Patrik’s inability to venture out of his house resonates strongly with the general sense of languor, fatigue, and immobility that characterizes pandemic life. Affirming that this is indeed a pandemic novel, Tawada plays upon the other meanings of the word “corona,” drawing from Paul Celan’s poem of the same name, which was originally published in the volume Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory, 1952). The introduction of the protagonist not by name, but as “the Patient,” is remarkable in that it denotes the existence of a disease that is not named, in which the reader never uncovers what “sickness” ails the character. On a linguistic level, the Patient becomes a part of the sentence that marks the semantic role of the subject affected by a given verb. The play on the wider meanings of the word “corona” as we know it could relate to the crowning of the beloved or a corona around the darkened sun, in conjunction to the “Fadensonnen” (“thread suns”) in Celan’s poem and referenced in Tawada’s novel. The last few lines, when read by Celan himself, possess a languishing yet rhythmic impatience, resonating with the feeling that surrounds contemporary sentiments of the pandemic. The playful interactions of Celan’s words were woven underneath Tawada’s free-flowing exploration of language, thereby creating a layered and fluid palimpsest.

Work cited: 

Hallensleben, Markus. “Rewriting the Face, Transforming the Skin, and Performing the Body as Text: Palimpsestuous Intertexts in Yōko Tawada’s ‘The Bath’.” Beyond Alterity: German Encounters with Modern East Asia, edited by Qinna Shen and Martin Rosenstock, Berghahn, 2014, pp. 168-189.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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