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 “The speech artist who repeatedly explores human limits”

Interview | Clemens J. Setz


Clemens J. Setz’s novel Indigo has been a massive award-winning success around the globe, in which his native Austria is caught in the grip of a sinister epidemic called Indigo Syndrome where children are the carriers and anyone who comes near them is affected. Part thrilling detective story, part post-modern puzzle, the Der Spiegel newspaper said it was “rich in dialogue and variety, amusing and anecdotal, but also brutal and unfathomable”, while the jury of the Georg Büchner Prize hailed Setz as a “speech artist who repeatedly explores human limits”.


Chinese readers are now looking forward to reading Indigo in translation soon (translated by Li Shuangzhi ), courtesy of CITIC Press. Speaking ahead of his appearance at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Setz said the acclaimed novel was actually inspired by a laboratory chimpanzee.


“I remember reading a story about a chimpanzee in a sort of retirement home for apes who are released from scientific labs. So these are usually very sick, destroyed animals, and in this home they can live out their final years. One of these chimpanzees had a friend, a local volunteer, who came into the chimpanzee’s room one day wearing in-ear headphones. The chimpanzee lunged at him, as if to attack him, adult chimpanzees are dangerously strong, and proceeded to tear out the headphone cables from the head of the man. The chimpanzee had thought that the cables were tubes – the same that had been in its head for years in the lab. ‘Tubes in the skull’ meant pain, torture. So the chimpanzee decided to save the life of his human friend. The story isn’t actually in the novel. Because it really happened I didn’t want to use it in my fiction. But it was the inspiration, the secret core of the story,” he said.


The other work by Setz that CITIC is currently preparing for publication in China is the story collection Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes. One recent reviewer said these stories were “peppered with grotesque ideas and subtle horror, full of violent moments and tender gestures. As in the novels, Setz presents himself in the short form as a keen observer of human nature and a sensitive, almost affectionate portraitist of its idiosyncrasies.”


“This was my first collection of stories, I was pretty young when I wrote them, 27 or 28. Many stories are a little bit like cartoons – but sort of taken seriously.” Setz said. “I do generally prefer the long form, the novel.”


A man of varied talents, Setz studied mathematics in university, as well as German, and is also a musician and a magician. Aside from his prose, he has published one volume of poetry Die Vogelstrausstrumpete.


“I still like writing poems but I now only publish them on social media,” he said. “That seems like the correct place nowadays for very short texts in general.”


His other literary interest lies in the area of translation, a field he hopes to become more engaged in.


“I have translated two books by the wonderful American writer Scott McClanahan, who I think influenced my prose a little bit in recent years. I also admire his openness and lack of embarrassment, two very important virtues for a writer of autobiographical fiction.


I hope I can translate more books in the future. My dream would be to translate,” he said.


Setz has not had the chance to visit China yet, but with CITIC Press soon to release two of his books he is hoping to visit in the not-too-distant future.


“I am very happy that my work is presented to a Chinese audience. My wife has studied Chinese and has lived in China for a year. From her I’ve heard a lot about the country and I hope to visit it one day with her!” he said.