Humor in Heidelberg: Saša Stanišić’s Herkunft

After reflecting on the connection between multilingualism and multidirectional creativity in Ilija Trojanow’s Nach der Flucht, MGP editor Elise Volkmann returns, with co-author Angèle Yehe Zheng, for another blog post on the healing power of humor against trauma in Saša Stanišić’s German Book Prize-winning novel, Herkunft (2019).

The second installment of the event series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News,” took place on October 22, 2021. Titled “Fictions of Origins,” the conversation between Saša Stanišić, Lilla Balint (Assistant Professor of German, UC Berkeley), Djordje Popović (Assistant Professor of South Slavic Studies, UC Berkeley), and the translator Damion Searls focused on the author’s novel Herkunft (2019), which is scheduled to appear in English translation in December 2021 under the title Where You Come From.

Herkunft follows the story of a young boy and his family who are forced to flee the war in Yugoslavia to Germany. This semi-autobiographical work explores several major topics such as the dismantling of communities, the end of political order, and the loss of Heimat. These themes coincide in Herkunft and are retold through the perspective of a child. The complex question, Komplexe Frage! (32), of origin ultimately resolves in the acceptance of the plurality of answers to the question. In turn the reader is prompted to ask themselves if Herkunft is a necessary category of description and whether or not we can move beyond these labels.

A major point of discussion towards the beginning of the conversation was the decision to translate the title Herkunft as Where You Come From instead of the direct translation “Origin”. Searls explained his choice by saying the direct translation did not fully capture the wider implications within the title. In German, nouns carry more action than in English, in which action is primarily denoted by verbs. Therefore, “Origin” lacks the implied action within the title Herkunft. Additionally, the German word invites the opposite of the prefix her-, namely hin-, which is a sort of back and forth. In other words, the question: where do you come from (Woher kommst du?) also begs the question: where are you going (Wohin gehst du?). Since these questions are central to the text, Searls opted for the translation Where You Come From, which suggests action in a way that the direct translation “Origin” does not. Also, in choosing the personal pronoun “you”, this translation enables a more generalized narrative over the highly personalized one inferred by the pronoun “I”.

These questions of origin and directionality play a significant role in the Heidelberg chapter. In particular, we can understand the ARAL-Tankstelle (gas station) to be an “in-between” location. Though the ARAL is a specific location within Heidelberg, the gas station is rarely the final destination. The ARAL functions as a microcosm of multicultural society partially due to the fact that a stop at a gas station always implies a continuation of the journey. In this way, we can understand the ARAL to be a metaphor for the characters who find themselves drawn to the ARAL as their in-between location en route to the unknown final stop. This is further emphasized at the end of the chapter when Stanišić evokes the words of John Berger, who wrote that each city has a gender and an age. Stanišić extends this idea to Heidelberg, his zufällige Stadt (coincidental city), when he writes,

Heidelberg ist ein Junge aus Bosnien, der sich in den Weinbergen am Emmertsgrund von einem Mädchen Deutsch beibringen lässt. Der sich erst viel später des Zufalls bewusst werden wird, ausgerechnet ein Heidelberger Junge geworden zu sein. Der diesen Zufall Glück nennt und diese Stadt: mein Heidelberg. (131)

As a semi-autobiography, the narration of Herkunft is grounded in memories. Yet, the reader is forced to ask on multiple occasions: is this foundation trustworthy? In the chapter “Ein Fest!”, Stanišić himself poses this question as he recounts an event in which he witnessed his father killing a poskok, a horned snake. However, later in “Vater und die Schlange”, his father denies the possibility of him killing a poskok, recounting his own story of falling into a nest full of poskok and fearing them ever since. These contradicting memories undermine the credibility of Stanišić’s narration on which the foundation of his identity is built. Narration relies on memories––as philosopher John Locke argued, a person’s identity over time consists in having the same memory over time. It is also through memory that an individual can identify oneself through changes in times and places (2; ch. 27; sec. 9). An ambiguous memory damages the surety one has of one’s identity and place. Therefore, these contradicting memories between father and son in the novel demonstrates a moment of undermined credibility in the narration on which the foundation of  identity is built. 

However, not being stopped by the ambiguity of memory, Stanišić offers a solution to the trustworthiness of narration by his clever design for the ending of the book. Stanišić gives the right to shape the ending over to the readers and with that he gives a reminder that people are in power of narration, not the other way around. His use of humor further showcases the transformative power of narration. 

According to Stanišić, the biographical episodes would not have been easy to write if he did not remember the light moments within them. Stanišić explained that “the promise of a joke around the corner” helps alleviate the tension inherent to the troubling memories of violence and civil war in Yugoslavia. Humor, therefore, plays a significant role throughout the novel. It is often used in juxtaposition with the horrors of political violence, and it is in these instances that we can understand humor to be a tool to negotiate past trauma. As Jacqueline Garrick defines it,

Humor is a human trait that is often summoned to combat a stressful situation, whether it be to enhance a sense of belonging in a social situation (i.e., “the life of the party” or the “class clown”) or to diffuse tension. It is the component of human nature that helps make concepts and experiences seem amusing or comical. (173)

The second component––diffusing tension––is particularly useful when looking at the excerpts Stanišić read aloud during the talk. This concept is fairly broad insofar as what is considered a tense situation that needs diffusion can be different for each person. The use of humor scattered throughout Herkunft functions as a means to alleviate tension that arises from the discussion of difficult material. This creates a twofold effect: first, the joke allows for readers with different experiences to find ways into the text even if they do not fully understand the complexities of the traumatic experience, and second, it acts as a coping mechanism that allows the storyteller to mitigate the retelling of their own traumatic experience. By integrating humor, Stanišić transforms stress into a constructive outlet and reclaims the more personal elements of the story. 

It is in the midst of this discussion of the ARAL that Stanišić crafts a short scenario that hinges on humor and demonstrates a successful mitigation of trauma. He writes,

Die Bibliothek der Philosophischen Fakultät blieb bis spät geöffnet. Während meines dritten Semesters saß ich oft dort und tat so, als würde ich Adorno lesen. Ich trug einen Rollkragenpullover, auch im Juni. Die Belohnung waren einige Spaziergänge mit ihr am Neckar. Ihr erzählte ich freiwillig, wo ich herkam, was ich erlebt hatte. Ich dachte, Flüchtlingsschicksal? Gibt vielleicht Punkte. Sie zitierte gelegentlich Philosophen, ich weiß nicht mehr, wen, und leider auch nicht, was. Wie der erste Kuss geschmeckt hat, weiß ich noch (wir hatten Köfte gegessen). (129)

The joke lies in the fact that the narrator cannot remember anything he studied but he can perfectly recall his first kiss with an unnamed girl. In fact, he remembers the kiss insofar as he vividly remembers the taste of the kiss––really, he remembers the taste of the meatballs they ate just before the kiss. It is worth noting that Stanišić uses the Turkish word for spicy meatballs, köfte, in this passage as a clear allusion to the Mediterraneanization of German cuisine but, by further extension, the degree to which migrant cultures have integrated with German culture on a broader scale. Stanišić’s juxtaposition of intense philosophical study, which is now completely forgotten, with the folly of a first kiss, which can never be forgotten due to its distinct köfte flavor, creates a lighthearted moment within the traumatic narrative. 

By reaching into the archive of his own memory, Stanišić captures a relatable situation in the midst of tragedy. Thus, the reader is able to relinquish built-up stress from the prior allusions to the destruction of war because they are able to recognize the humor in this familiar, if somewhat unfortunate, first kiss. This is accomplished by briefly shifting the narrative focus from the overarching context of refugee experience in Heidelberg to the seemingly quotidian experience of young people studying, eating, and kissing. Additionally, the storyteller is able to mediate their own trauma by turning distress into “eustress,” which points towards a desire to move beyond not only the traumatic experience but also the refugee experience on a broader scale.

This moment forces a remediation between the reader’s expectation of what the literature of migration and exile should depict and the actual lived experience of people who must flee their homes. In this way, Stanišić’s novel resonates with Ilija Trojanow’s work Nach der Flucht. Humor in Trojanow’s text might be more subdued than in Stanišić’s but Nach der Flucht and Herkunft both succeed in telling individual stories with a universal ring, which humanizes and unsettles the category of refugee. What is a refugee story and how should it be told? From the conversations with these authors, it is clear that these questions are central to their work, but nevertheless do not call for one definitive answer. Trojanow and Stanišić avoid generalizations and stereotypes by incorporating autobiographical elements into their texts. These autobiographical anecdotes, humorous or not, reveal the rich variety of experience common amongst all people.

Works Cited:

1. Garrick, Jacqueline. “The Humor of Trauma Survivors: Its Application in a Therapeutic Milieu.” Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 2006.

2. Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Understanding, 1698.

3. Stanišić, Saša. Herkunft. Luchterhand Literaturverlag, 2019.

About Elise Volkmann

Elise Volkmann is a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies at UC Berkeley.
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