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Yannick Haenel: 'Berlin symbolically incarnates all the horror of the preceding century'

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In his award-winning novel 'Circle', the professor from Rennes and 'Ulysses of the 21st century', 40, takes the reader on a European road-trip from Paris to Berlin

(Photos: C. H-lie/ Gallimard)

I discovered Yannick Haenel after reading his seventh and latest literary venture, Cercle ('Circle', 2007). The novel was nominated for a prestigious award by French literary organisation, the Goncourt Academy, and immediately became the persistent object of attraction; French publisher Gallimard's 'best latest literary book' and was hyped as an essential work, an absolutely universal book. There were many reasons why it caught my attention, almost against my will. I resisted picking it up, at least until the media frenzy had passed, when only then I borrowed it from the library.

There was the surprise: enchantment, stupefaction - I found myself shaken and entranced at the very core of my being by a prose which resembled no other; simultaneously poetic, erotic and serious, multiplied by a subject without forgetting that it is neither ordinary nor vapid. The book in a few words - a man refuses to commute on the RER train into the suburbs at 08.07 in the morning. By this simple act of refusal, he rocks in another dimension where literature, dance and eroticism would be the keys to understanding the world. An odyssey, sometimes nightmarish, from Paris to Berlin, a European quest of the senses. The pages unfolded at an uncanny speed. Only one question remained for me: when and where could I meet its author?

Berlin between the pages: controversy

Before Circle, Yannick Haenel published Introduction à la mort française ('Introduction to French Death', 2001), where he denounced the self-centrism of French academia and their superiority complex. In 1997, he created 'Ligne de risque' ('Risk Line'), an avant-garde journal for literature, with French writer François Meyronnis, and directed two volumes of interviews with fellow writer and critic Philippe Sollers.

We meet at Café Justine, on rue Oberkampf in a western, trendy district of Paris. Wearing a nice grey shirt, his hair quietly dishevelled, Haenel had already settled in by the time I arrived. At 40, he still looks remarkably like a student: immersed in his reading, a Moleskin notebook, a pen in hand and a half empty bottle of San Pellegrino resting on the table beside him.

Circle eventually won the 2007 Prix Décembre ('December prize'), billed as the 'anti-Goncourt' prize which is the last major award of the literary year in France. 'In the beginning, I thought interviews were a waste of time,' he says of his time with journalists. 'I found them insufferable because I wanted to be spending my time writing my next novel, and I'm a fairly solitary person,' admits Haenel, whose father was in the army. Perhaps resonating the years he spent at school in a school managed by the military, the Prytanée National Militaire. 'That was a painful time period. I was so isolated.' But he became more self-confident and surprised himself: 'except in some cases, I learnt to spend hours talking with the public.'

German cool

Circle doesn't leave you unmoved; it provokes debate. When the narrator arrives in east Berlin, he is sick. His pain and fever give him hallucinations where he meets with Shoah's ghosts, deformed figures, turned to meat, tortured bodies, history's demonic executioners. 'In my eyes, the Berlin chapter isn't controversial. The visit to this city made sense for the evolution of my novel,' explains the writer. 'It's a descent into a certain Hell. I was describing the Berlin of the twentieth century, not that of today. It's a symbolic city which incarnates all the horror of the preceding century. Berlin is like the belly button of Europe: eest and east brought together to its centre.'

To write his book, Haenel literally went to and lost himself in Berlin. He had neither address nor money. 'That put me in an urgent position. I wanted to hear everything in the city, and let it all come to me.' To avoid freezing to death, he spent whole days and half nights in cafes, notably the 'Zapata' (which in the novel, becomes 'Gastr!'), and the nerve centre 'Kunsthaus Tacheles', where he discovered the real bohemian life. The old grand store on the border of the Jewish quarter used to be a squat, before being converted into an arts centre recognised by the government as a symbol of the reunification. There, junkies rub elbows with artists, with fathers who have just finished work for the day. 'The city seemed at once very calm, frenzied and peaceful, the perfect image of German cool,' says Haenel.

Italy: impulse laboratory

Is Berlin a nightmarish city or an incarnation of a libertarian dream? 'It's the capital of culture. But worse than that, it's where the narrator's conscience finds a Europe as the inheritor of a common crime,' Haenel answers. Without divulging what's next, the narrator pursues his own odyssey towards Warsaw and Prague, guided by some sacred vision of a dancer from the Pina Bausch troupe. Will she bring him the answers he's looking for?

Haenel himself admits to having always been on a mission. The Ulysses of the 21st century, he wants to sound out his era, to make a kind of autopsy and discover it's meaning, despite the shams. Looking for new headlands, he's considering Italy whose 'citizens are less depoliticised than those in France.' Certainly, to not be trapped in Franco-French, or be like a tourist on a trip. He wants to live in Florence long enough to ' boil over the subject; Italy cannot be reduced to its museums and delicacies. It's a laboratory of all impulses, including the most savage. The social bond is very hard. In the south, they have dozens of refugee camps like those of Sangatte in Calais. Capitalism has been introduced everywhere and has radicalised everything, including all the way into human relations.' Yannick Haenel, the rare comet in the French literary sky, provokes his own exile to escape voluntary servitude. Harnessing beauty, the rampage, the pure and the impure … everywhere that they nest.

Yannick Haenel discusses his novel 'Circle' (French)

(Homepage photo: C. H-lie/ Gallimard)

Translated from Yannick Haenel : « Berlin est le nombril en béton de l'Europe »