Category: Fiction

Michael Kleeberg
Das Tier, das weint. Libanesisches Reisetagebuch
[The crying animal. Lebanese travel diary]

Review

The crying animal: these are the cats with the sad, inflamed eyes which Michael Kleeberg sees on the streets of Beirut. An author known for his highly visual, precisely observed descriptions, he is shown the cats by his little daughter. At the same time, the title of Kleeberg’s “Lebanese travel diary” cites Pliny’s characterization of the human being as a creature gifted with emotion.

Accordingly, this book not only speaks volumes about life in Beirut, “the white city”, and about the people and animals inhabiting it. Kleeberg’s diary of his four-week trip to Lebanon in spring 2003, part of the literary exchange program West-Eastern Divan, is a highly personal, yet highly accessible reflection on the contemporary condition humaine in general and that of the writer in particular.

The observations, recollections, reflections, digressions and anecdotes that come together in this stimulating, highly readable travelogue center on the author’s unusual friendship with Abbas Beydoun (born 1945). Beydoun is one of the most important Arab writers of his generation and, in his capacity as culture editor of the Lebanese daily As-Safir, a key critical voice in Arab journalism. In late 2002 Beydoun was invited to Berlin for several weeks by the Wissenschaftskolleg as the “Oriental half” of this west-Eastern writer’s exchange. At the side of Michael Kleeberg as his partner from the Occident he experienced the environment, everyday life and thinking of German intellectuals.

The resumption of this friendship, the encounter with the Other, the strange world of Beirut which opens Kleeberg’s eyes to his own world and changes his understanding of himself – these are the subjects of this lively, many-faceted document of travel and personal experience. It contains very lively and sensitive portraits of Kleeberg’s Beirut acquaintances and gives a vivid idea of intellectual discussion in this fascinating “république des letters”. The reader has the sense of being there in person as German and Arab authors meet on the common terrain of occidental philosophy, literature and music, able to communicate without the slightest difficulty.

Highly personal reflections, everyday experiences related with an eye for significant detail, impressions of family life take equal standing alongside Kleeberg’s confrontation with weighty questions – literary and ethical – and with his understanding of himself as an author. The result is a kaleidoscope of the aesthetic productivity inherent in Kleeberg’s geographical and cultural border crossings.

Often taking an associative approach to this collection of notes, reflections and recollections, Kleeberg evokes a wealth of wonderful scenes, many of which seem to harbor material for new literary works. Especially memorable is the story of the German-Lebanese couple Ursula and Jussuf Assaf: during the many years of the civil war they risked their lives on a daily basis just to keep the orphaned Beirut Goethe Institute open for a few undaunted students of the German language. It is the story of a “love forged in the conflagrations of war”.

Over and over again, what impresses Kleeberg, and what the sensitivity of his storytelling brings to life, is the people he meets and their individual experiences in the years of war. And it is these anecdotes, sometimes comic, sometimes sad, but always full of worldly wisdom, which sweep the reader away on the “flying carpet crossing cultures and languages” into the exotic and familiar world of the Middle East.

Kleeberg listens eagerly to all the life stories he is told during his weeks in Beirut, with a keen, “bloodhound’s” sense for the “material” which, “listening on several different levels at once”, he examines for “images, storylines, narrative concepts, perspectives, plots, tones”.

But when the temptation to create myths and the involuntary search for mythological models threatens to carry him away, the advice of Elias Canetti, one of the great traveler-writers before him, brings him back to earth: reality as experienced or heard from others: “It is best to stop writing the travelogue at the point when the temptation to create a new work begins to become urgent.” In other words, we have every reason to look forward to the works to which the author’s west-eastern experiences and adventures will tempt him!
Anne-Bitt Gerecke

By Anne-Bitt Gerecke, 27.07.2004

Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole