Writer's nook: How did Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll gain unexpected relevance from the pandemic?

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll was never meant to be relevant to anything current in the world, but the pandemic ironically made its grim, dark themes endear deeply to readers.

Jaideep Sen Published :  14th June 2020 08:07 AM   |   Published :   |  14th June 2020 08:07 AM
Daniel Kehlmann (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Daniel Kehlmann (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Chennai, June 12: The mythical character of Tyll Ulenspiegel is a creation of German folklore that became very popular in modern-day children's literature and comic books.

When Daniel Kehlmann decided to pick up the jester's story for his new novel a few years back, he knew he was in for a long and arduous process of research and especially reimagining the Middle Ages of Europe.

What he didn't expect, once he completed the book, was how such a dark story would strike a chord with today's readers of fiction. 

As the writer admits, the timing of the pandemic was completely unexpected, but turns it actually helped his book. Then again, the book also picked up critical acclaim from the likes of Salman Rushdie, Michael Haneke and Ian McEwan.

We got to chat with the author of Tyll, which has been named on the 2020 International Booker Prize Longlist. Don't miss the part about how Donald Trump's coming to power almost paralysed Kehlmann from writing his book.

Tyll Ulenspiegel instantly seems like such a powerful, forceful and influential cultural figurehead. How did you come upon this character, and what made you write his story?
I got to know him in children’s books - a much tamer version than the evil prankster from the old stories. I wanted to give him his original darkness back, and I felt he was the ideal guide through a very dark time.

Being named on the 2020 International Booker Prize Longlist must feel good. Tell us about the other writers on the longlist who you follow and whose books you might be interested to read.
I just read Yōko Ogawa’s Memory Police, which I loved. I’ll now read The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree (by Shokoofeh Azar) - what a great title! I am really looking forward to it.

It seems ironic that we appear to be entering a new era of the dark ages, while the story of Tyll reflects all the emotions and chaos and character flaws that we can find in people around us. How did you imagine the book would find relevance for today's readers?
Honestly, when I started out writing this book in 2012 the world looked very different. I felt it was a very untimely topic, which was part of its attraction for me.

Then the world I was writing about and the world I was writing in kept moving closer and closer together, year after year. That was really unexpected - good for my book, not so good for the world.

The themes of war and religion seem so urgent and compelling in the book, right from the beginning. And these themes resonate across cultures - with us, in Asia, for instance, in very different ways. Was it your intention from the very beginning to capture a sense of the dark times in modern history?
Yes, that was one of my main intentions. To tell a story about an era that was so dark that it has become rather unimaginable to us. Which is not at all bad. It makes you realise that even though things are really not good right now they could be much, much worse. 

Is the wry, devil-may-care sense of humour a part of you in real life as well? How does that sense of humour help you get through life nowadays?
I do often think of Tyll - how would he react, what would he say? He is a much stronger person than me, much crazier and freer, but his resilience has helped me a lot.

Whenever I feel close to despair I tell myself: “Come on, Tyll wouldn’t break down because of this. He would actually think this is funny.” And as strange as it may sound, that really helped me time and again.

Tell us how the news of Donald Trump becoming US President affected your writing of the story. We understand that you were about midway through the book at the time.
Yes, and for a while, I couldn’t go on writing because I felt Democracy might end here and now. But then I thought: Even if that happens it would not stop Tyll from performing and it should not stop you from writing. So I kept writing the book. I couldn’t have done it without the example of my own main character.


Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll 


Are you familiar with Indian Hindu mythology? As an Indian reader, we have a world of mythological characters - demonic and divine - to relate to. And Tyll, who can at times seem savage, and then again be completely human, would appeal to us for the character traits of a need for freedom, to never give up hope, and to break free from the shackles of a crude society, even if it leaves you alone in the end. It's a very human quality. How do you seem him endearing to readers across cultural boundaries and literary traditions?
I think the trickster is an archetype, and so we find him in mythologies everywhere. I never worried about whether readers would be able to connect to him. Quite the opposite: I felt I had never in my writing been in touch with a character as universal as him. I felt Tyll was much larger than my novel, other writers have written about him before me, and other writers will write about him longer after me. In my book he becomes immortal, but that’s because he is immortal, as a part of myth.

Tell us a little about the original story in German and the translation by Ross Benjamin. How much of the original literary flavour were you able to retain in the translation? We understand that the book is being translated in many other languages, will it be translated into Hindi and Indian languages as well?
It is a very German book, but in my experience, that is not an obstacle when you’re trying to reach an international readership. When I read (Fyodor) Dostoevsky in my early-20s, there were so many allusions to local Russian politics I didn’t understand at all. But that didn’t make the book less interesting, quite the opposite, it made it more real. I hope there will also be Hindi and Indian translations, that would be a great honour for me.

Tell us a little about the proposed Netflix series based on the book. How much would you like to be involved in the making of the series? Do you see it playing out as an extravaganza of CGI effects, lavish sets and costumes - much like so many other popular period dramas on-air today?
I will be involved in writing the adaption for Netflix. My ideal version would be a very tricky, intricate and experimental one, more Watchmen then Game of Thrones

What are you working on next? Are you getting much writing down during the pandemic? Tell us how you're spending time during the lockdown. What books are you reading, and how do you hope to make the most of this time?
I’m actually writing a play about the pandemic. A couple of short satirical scenes in the style of Bertolt Brecht or Karl Kraus about the danger of the virus and the crazy consequences of radical lockdowns. My favourite theatre in Vienna is going to perform them as soon as all this is over and they are allowed to. Of course, no one knows when this will be.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from German by Ross Benjamin, INR 1,050. Quercus / Hachette India.