Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shoah business: Maxim Biller and the problem of contemporary German-Jewish literature

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Shoah business: Maxim Biller and the problem of contemporary German-Jewish literature

Article excerpt

Dem Markt entgeht keine Theorie mehr: eine jede wird als mogliche unter den konkurrienden Meinungen ausgeboten, alle zur Wahl gestellt, alle geschluckt. So wenig indessen der Gedanke dagegen sich Scheuklappen umbinden kann; so gewiB die selbstgerechte Uberzeugung, die eigene Theorie sei jenem Schicksal enthoben, in Anpreisung ihrer selbst ausartet, so wenig braucht Dialektik auf solchen Vorwurf hin and den daran haftenden ihrer Uberfliissigkeit, des Beliebigen einer von aulen aufgeklatschten Methode, zu verstummen. Ihr Name sagt zunachst nichts weiter, als daB die Gegenstande in ihrem Begriff nicht aufgehen, dabi these in Widerspruch geraten mit der hergebrachten Norm der adaequatio. Der Widerspruch ist nicht, wozu Hegels absoluter Idealismus unvermeidlich ihn verklaren mul3te: kein heraklitisch Wesenhaftes. Er ist der Index der Unwahrheit von Identitat, des Aufgehens des Begriffenen im Begriff.

-Adorno, Negative Dialektik (16-17)

American academics have paid considerable attention recently to a small group of authors of Jewish extraction writing in German about the Federal Republic. Along with Esther Dischereit, Barbara Honigmann, and Rafael Seligmann, this group includes Maxim Biller. Born in Prague in 1960, Biller emigrated at the age of ten with his family to Hamburg, studied journalism in Munich, and wrote in the 1980s as a regular columnist for Tempo magazine where he became known, in the words of one critic, as a "grimmiger Talentpolemiker." (Biller, Die Tempojahre, cover) Thus far he has published two collections of short stories (Wenn ich einmal reich and tot bin [1990] and Land der Yater and Verrdter [1994]), a journalistic compilation (Die Tempojahre [1991]) and one novel (Die Tochter [2000]). As a writer of fiction Biller has the reputation of enfant terrible. While favorably inclined readers have compared him to Joseph Heller and Philip Roth, many important critics and German academia have greeted Biller's fiction with dismayed silence. As Marcel Reich-Ranicki put it in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "ich mochte mich zu dieser Art Literatur lieber nicht auBern" (cited in Biller, Wenn ich, cover).

American interest in Biller stems from two sources: a continuing concern with Jewish-German issues in the wake of the Holocaust and the academic trend toward postcolonial criticism beginning in the 1980s. Nonetheless, for specific reasons, Biller has remained an author more often invoked than interpreted. Most critics merely name Biller together with the above-mentioned authors as part of a school of contemporary German-Jewish writers with a presumably somewhat coherent outlook and agenda. Those critics who have discussed Biller's works focus on a single short story from his first collection and are often motivated by the postcolonialist search for and valorization of hybrid identities and minority modes of discourse. I argue that, in so doing, they have missed those aspects of Biller's work that make him stand out as a uniquely challenging and perceptive writer.

The purpose of the present essay is twofold. First, I shall offer an overview of Biller's fictional works with an eye toward the themes and tropes that recur throughout both collections of short stories and his recent novel. Of interest is not solely Biller's depiction of German-Jewish issues, but also his exploration and reflection of how such issues are constructed in mass culture-a heretofore neglected but absolutely central aspect of Biller's work. Second, I shall suggest an interpretative reorientation away from affirmative postcolonialism and toward negative identity critique as a more productive approach to Biller and the ethnic-discursive issues raised by his fiction. More so than any other contemporary writer, Biller depicts the commodification of German-Jewish issues by a mass culture that continually exploits the public's fascination with the Holocaust. Insofar as academia is part-if only a tiny part-of the culture industry and is governed by economic rationales similar to those in film, television, and commercial publishing, Biller's work has an important message for scholars who make their living writing about majority-minority interaction. …

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