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Interview with David Wagner

Critically acclaimed German author David Wagner is already a prize-winning and respected literary name in China, but with the launch of a new hardcover edition of his novel Lives and the recent release of his work Four Apples in Chinese he is now primed to forge closer ties with Chinese readers.


Wagner has been to China five times in recent years since Lives (published by People’s Literature Publishing House and translated by Ye Lan) won the Best Foreign Novel of the Year Award in China in 2014.


The book, which has already been translated into 16 languages and has garnered awards around the globe, tells the moving, deeply existential story of a man who is hospitalised and is saved by an organ transplant.


Wagner himself suffers from autoimmune hepatitis which necessitated a liver transplant some years back, so as a starting point he was able to draw on that experience to frame the narrative before adding fictional dimensions to the story.


It took him five years to write and find a form and style that he was ultimately happy with.


“I write a lot and I reduce a lot. It is a condensed story of these events and this time in hospital,” he said.


“It is a book about not dying, and living. And it’s a book about staying a long time in the hospital, and so it’s a book about a room as well in a way. So, it has different themes, very human themes, a subject that connects all over the world.”


When he discussed Lives (Leben in the original German) at events in China and in classrooms in Shanghai International Studies University, Wagner was struck by the different cultural approach people in China took to the subject of death compared to in Western countries.


“They very often, very directly asked me about death, and dying and living, and not dying. In Germany and in Europe and Western countries this is sort of taboo, and there was never talk about this. About ‘you did not die’?” he said.


“So, the book was perceived in a different way [in China] and this is very interesting – like comparing cultures and comparing how readers read the book.”



Visiting the cities of Beijing and Shanghai, Wagner felt “like I was visiting the future … maybe not the future for everyone, but still I was impressed.”


He was due to come back to teach in the Shanghai university this year but the visit had to be postponed due to the coronavirus. His recent visits to China since his books were published in translation have underscored for him how Western-centric people in Germany and other Western countries tend to be.


“We are not aware of this China, and this culture and this power, and this greatness,” he said. “That is something that, thanks to the translated books, I found out.”


In his writing Wagner often trains his spotlight on the city of Berlin and he is noted for his ability to elevate a place to become a central character or subject in his work. When he walks around Shanghai he notes that, in a sense, it is comparable with Berlin, particularly in their periods of exponential growth. Berlin’s population quintupled in the late 19th Century, and grew tenfold from 1860 to 1940 – similar growth rates to those seen in some Chinese cities in recent decades.


With his students in Shanghai he encourages them to see cities as a subject, to read these places and non-places and try to give them a story.


“This is what I try to do in the cities where I live, and I’ve done it extensively in Berlin, and I’m still doing it.”



In his novel Four Apples (Vier Äpfel) – also published by People’s Literature Publishing House and translated by Ye Lan – he chooses the everyday supermarket as the platform, and he jokes that in ways it is his most autobiographical book to date as he has visited supermarkets many, many times over the years.


On one level, it is a simple novel, Wagner said, “about a man in the supermarket and he is there in the place of the world of today, where everything comes together.”


But it adds layers by quietly tackling a host of issues such as consumerism, consumer aesthetics, questioning where things come from, our carbon footprints, spying on consumers, and the consciousness of a contemporary consumer.


“In a way it’s a melancholic book as well because it’s about the things that you can’t have in a place where you can have all things, because everything is available, but you can’t buy everything,” he said.


“So, it’s a book about a sort of a paradise, which maybe isn’t a paradise.”


Four Apples has been very well received by writers and critics alike all over the world, and the book is sure to resonate in China too.


EU-China-litfest 01: Writing Lives