The land of a thousand wilkommens
While the presence of the Bonn-born organic farmer in Wicklow or the Berliner craftsman in West Cork is a phenomenon we've all grown used to, the arrival of the German, Swiss or Austrian novelist on our shores in increasing numbers is a more recent phenomenon. Literary writings hammered out on computers in the Irish homes of these emigre writers could be seen as our latest exports. Heinrich Boll may once have been the main German writer associated with Ireland, but now there are several from his neck of the woods. The imagination of these German-speaking writers is increasingly at loose on the Irish landscape and across the streetscapes of our cities and towns as more and more poets, playwrights and novelists choose to settle in rural or urban Ireland.
While most of them continue to write in their native tongue, some are daringly entering the English language. One playwright and children's and adult fiction author, Renate Ahrens-Kramer moved to Dublin from Germany via London in the mid 1980s. "I had been in Ireland as a student in 1980 and when I came back in 1986 realised very quickly I'd find it incredibly difficult to leave again. I found Dublin was an environment where I could try out writing and envisage the idea of getting published. "In Ireland writing isn't considered eccentric. It has a value here. I wouldn't have had that kind of confidence in Germany." Renate's work to date includes a radio play, Back to Berlin produced on RTE Radio 1 and a stage play, When The Wall Came Down due to be performed in Dublin early next year. Discussing how, even though she lives here, her themes are often rooted in Germany, she says: "I find that although I choose to emigrate here in 1986 you don't ever leave your history or your country behind. On the contrary, you take it with you and you deal with it in more depth. For instance, German topics, like fascism and the East German adoptions keep coming up for me and creating a physical distance helps with the writing. Structures form more clearly in your head at a distance.
"After living here for four or five years I began to feel homesick for my language. This feeling was nothing to do with an alienation from Ireland but a desire to have both and allow it to be. Now with a second home in Hamburg I find myself part of two cultures, two countries and two languages and this is reflected in my writing."
Interestingly Renate tends to write about one place while in the other. Her children's novel, Katzenleiter nr 3 (which translates as No. 3 Catsladder - a title borrowed from the alley of the same name in Killiney, Co Dublin) which is set in Dublin, was written in Hamburg. Hansjorg Schertenleib and Sabine Reber are two of the most recent literary arrivals here. Zurich-born Schertenleib has written prolifically - including the best selling novel Das Zimmer der Signora (The room of the Signora) and his work is widely read throughout Germany and Switzerland. Reber has completed her first novel since their arrival here a year ago.
So what has drawn them here? "Switzerland is such a strange country when you think how it is separating itself from the rest of Europe. It is hard to stay there as an artist because they don't like people who write books. It takes so much energy to simply survive there," Schertenleib says frankly. Although the couple write in their native German, they have both contributed to the next issue of the Sligo-based literary magazine Force 10 (due out on December 14th). Schertenleib's contribution is a poem in English while Reber's is about how important silence is for a writer. "Moving here to the Donegal countryside has been such a big change from Zurich. It is so quiet and we are surrounded by sheep who are good company when you are writing a big book, because they don't talk," says Reber.
Gabrielle Alioth, a Swiss-born economist by profession, actually "became" a writer in Ireland. "My husband Martin and I made a decision to live outside Switzerland and we picked the place where we thought the way of life was most different to Switzerland," she explains.
Now living in Co Meath for over 10 years the Alioths are completely settled here. Gabrielle has published three novels in Switzerland and is currently working on her fourth, though none of her novels has been translated into English.
"People often ask me how it is to be surrounded by people who don't speak my language. I have found it an advantage. Because my books aren't published in English, people often don't know what I do. This gives me a certain freedom. When I go back to Switzerland where my books have been read I have to behave like a writer."
Her work has been influenced by her new environment. "Ireland is a very oral society where talking and telling stories are very important. If you work with words that makes life easier. In Switzerland people don't talk to each other. It's such a well organised society that in fact they don't need to talk to each other."
Other German-speaking writers who have chosen Ireland as their base enjoy the isolation so much here that they proved elusive to this reporter. These include the highly acclaimed Austrian writers Christoph Ransmayr and his compatriot, Felix Mitterer. Another category of writer who often lives abroad is the translator. Hans Christian Oeser, who has written travel books about Ireland, is well known among the fraternity of German-speaking writers here, none the least because he recently won the Aristeion European Translation Prize for his German translation of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy. Another part-time translator, University College Galway lecturer and poet Eva Bourke from Munich, is unusual in that she writes almost entirely in English. "Writing in English is a terrific challenge and liberation. The English language is a lovely language to use for poetry, with all its strong and monosyllabic words."
She also writes about Ireland. "I was hesitant at first as I felt like I was trespassing but then I just did it."
"For me, it's a privilege to live in Ireland. It has given me the space and time to write that I may not have found in a more hectic environment in Germany. People are extremely welcoming in the literary community here and I find the Irish poetry scene very lively. There is an element of entertainment whereas in Germany the poetry scene is terribly intellectual. As a translator, Eva was one of the first people to introduce contemporary Irish poets to the German market with Hundsrose (Dogrose), published in 1984. Her second translated anthology of Irish poetry, entitled With Green Ink - which she worked on with her Irish husband, Eoin Bourke, who is Professor of German at University College Galway - was launched at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair.