Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

'Like a Japanese born in Austria': An interview with writer Philipp Weiss

The German covers of "On the edge of the world man sits and laughs" authored by Philipp Weiss (Photo courtesy of Philipp Weiss)

Austrian novelist Philipp Weiss published his highly acclaimed novel called "On the edge of the world man sits and laughs" in the beginning of September: five books, five characters, five ways to look at the world, 1,000 pages and most of them taking place in Japan. Within a few weeks he received renowned German literature prizes such as the "Klaus-Michael Kuhne Preis" and the "Literaturpreis der Jurgen Ponto Stiftung." The rights were immediately sold to prominent publishers in France and China. A well-known Japanese publisher is highly interested as well and proving the translation at the moment. Furthermore, the German publisher Suhrkamp is already preparing the 2nd edition since the first 6,000 books are almost sold out.

    --- From theater to graphic novel

    "I feel like a Japanese born in Austria." Philipp Weiss was born in 1982 in Vienna and studied German and Philosophy. He wrote numerous plays for the theater as well as short stories. "On the edge of the world man sits and laughs" is his first novel. It consists of five separate books which are written from the perspective of five fictional characters, all connected in a subtle way. Furthermore, every story is portrayed in a different format, even graphic novel was not left out. The novel is both thrilling and informative not only due to the use of different formats and perspectives but also because of the immense knowledge Philipp Weiss gathered during his research and shared with his readers.

    The German covers of "On the edge of the world man sits and laughs" authored by Philipp Weiss (Photo courtesy of Philipp Weiss)

    --- From Paris to Japan

    Even though there is no chronological order when reading the books, starting with the story of Jona Jonas is recommended. Since it is written as a narrative it is the most classic in its style.

    Jona is a 30-year-old artist trying to find his much older lover Chantal who had suddenly disappeared. Since he expects her to be in Japan he abandons his life in Vienna without any notice and travels to Tokyo. There he not only experiences a peculiar night with people he met but also the great Tohoku earthquake, which results in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. The earthquake leaves him numb, writing on a paper: "I need a hospital. Please help!!"

    Chantal presents her own story in so-called cahiers, a notebook which can be more seen like a diary. She is a climate scientist from France with a rather complex mind, an immense knowledge, which she most of the time does not put in order. At least that is the impression you get while reading her thoughts. "This is the opposite of a diary. It doesn't put anything together. It doesn't lead to construction, to comfort, only to dissolution." Since she experiences her love to much younger Jona as destructive she decides to disappear and to follow the footsteps of her great-great-grandmother Paulette, whose body was found on a receding glacier in Japan.

    Philipp Weiss (Photo courtesy of Philipp Weiss)

    Paulette's own story is presented in the form of an encyclopedia. She lets her readers accompany her on her journey from the Paris Commune -- a radical socialist and revolutionary government that ruled Paris in the beginning of the 70ies in the 19th century -- to the World Exposition in Vienna in 1873, where not only she is amazed by what can be found around the globe. She then becomes one of the first European women to move to Meiji-period Japan by marrying a Japanese doctor. "Nobody speaks my language. Not really. Some know some French sentences, maybe. I behave incorrectly. I sit incorrectly. I pace incorrectly. I bow incorrectly. I speak, laugh, eat, sleep, keep quiet incorrectly. I pour the tea incorrectly and my smile is incorrect in general. How can you love incorrectly? How?"

    Then there is Akio, a nine-year-old Japanese boy, living with his grandmother, parents and younger sister. His family is affected by the tsunami caused by the Tohoku earthquake. He finds himself alone with his sister, in search for their father, who works at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Their story is presented through the transcription of Akio's thoughts during their journey, which he speaks into a recorder given to him by his father. It seems like Akio is trying to escape from reality, so to say the catastrophe, by sticking to the thoughts and ideas of a child under normal circumstances.

    The graphic novel contains the story of a young Japanese woman called Abra. She has a prosthetic arm and leg due to an accident that also led to the loss of her family. In her desperate search for her identity and the sense of life she is wandering through Tokyo, always balancing between reality and fiction. "I also don't know if I wake up when I claim to wake up. Once I open my eyes, I will know. In case I have eyes. Who knows? Maybe I exaggerate. Maybe. I should calm down. Possibly I am only fantasizing."

    --- The world from the most different perspectives

    Identity is one of the main themes in all of the books, showing its actuality at all times of human history. But it is only one theme among numerous others. In "On the edge of the world man sits and laughs" Philipp Weiss enables his readers to join the journeys of very diverse characters, dive into different worlds and times and find themselves unable to stop reading. He shows great competence in presenting the perspectives of people even outside his own cultural sphere. You find yourself soaked into the lives and worlds of Jona, Chantal, Paulette, Akio and Abra and have a hard time accepting when finishing a story.

    --- Meeting the author Philipp Weiss

    The focus on Japan, the fast success as well as questions such as how he was able to dive into circumstances quite different from his own made us request an interview, which he fortunately accepted. We met him in a very typical Viennese cafe where we almost lost track of time since he presented himself as a very interesting narrator as well.

    What made you go to Japan and start writing about it in 2012?

    When the nuclear accident in Fukushima happened I immediately felt that there was something I was interested in. I asked myself: How does such a highly technologized society cope with such a technical catastrophe. I have been to Japan three times since, always staying for about 2 months. It was an extremely fruitful encounter.

    How did you get in touch with Japanese people?

    A gate into the Japanese reality was Couchsurfing (a social media platform allowing its members to stay in private homes for free, editor's note), which worked perfectly well at all times. The people hosting me were between 18 and 80, from students to simple workers and artists. For instance, there was an 80-year-old engineer, who had worked on a laser for cancer therapy at a university in Tokyo. His wife had died and left this empty room he offered to Couchsurfers. Or there was a cultural journalist in Kyoto and also a translator. People with immense knowledge on Japan. I got to know one person whose girlfriend was volunteering in Fukushima, in Minamisoma. I was able to accompany her, we also entered the restricted zone. It looked almost the same as on the day it was left. I don't think it works to just talk to someone in a bar and become friends. But since I had foreign contacts living in Japan, who passed me on within their networks, it was a very open world for me.

    Parts of your novel are taking place in France. Why so?

    There is a deep connection between France and Japan. I think out of all European countries France is most obsessed with Japan, a connection that goes back to the 19th century. Also in literature, a France-Japan axis exists which is somehow coherent. I personally also feel very connected to French culture. The French way of thinking, literature and philosophy, it always felt more familiar than the German or Austrian. And I can perceive that my way of thinking is understood better in France. For some of my work for example I received a prize in France but not in Austria. And all of my work has been translated into French. The editor of my French publisher told me that usually it was an absolute no-go for them if foreigners write about France. Because usually it just doesn't work. But in my case it was different, obviously I was successful for example when writing about the Paris Commune. For some reason French people did not really cope with that fascinating historical event.

    Is there a character you feel most connected to?

    In some way all characters are extensions, extremes, realizations of possibilities which are inside of me. There is this young boy inside of me, Akio, who survives the tsunami on the roof of his family's house, and also this cynical, almost mean scientist, Chantal. Jona, the androgynous artist, of course is the closest to me considering his type and age and how he experiences the world. With Paulette, a young bourgeois woman in 19th century Paris, it had the most emotional writing experience, I enjoyed traveling with her a lot. Abra, a young Manga artist from Tokyo, maybe is a bit more far away, the comic in my novel is a world in itself, it works through images and not so much through identification. A different form also of language.

    How were you able to write about a society and a country which is not your origin?

    First of all, I have this perspective from outside when it comes to Paulette, Chantal and Jona. Then there is my fundamental belief that all people share a basic experience of being human, being this small creature in a now globalized world which we don't really understand and where we have to find our way. And I think the individual differences are more fundamental than the categories we create such as male and female, Austrian and Japanese or whatever categories may be relevant. As an author this enables me to, for example, become a woman with a different nationality at a different time. I know there is a Japanese like Abra, there are those who are freaky and chatty. If you run through Tokyo long enough you will find such a person. But I had difficulties writing about Fukushima, I knew I couldn't just invent something, that would be presumptuous. I was struggling with that, but at some point Akio just appeared and started to talk. And he brought this infantile spirit which could connect everything. Fantasy and reality. It enabled me to talk about the events without having to be correct since a child cannot know. It was very liberating for me. I can imagine that people in Japan may not feel represented by these characters, I don't know and this is not my aspiration, as I write fiction. I was inspired by Japanese forms, the culture, I met a lot of people, and this is what I do. I collect. I have the most different sources and out of those I create my stories.

    In another interview you said you feel like a Japanese born in Austria. What did you mean?

    When I was 18 I went to Central America, to Guatemala, and there was this experience of something overwhelmingly different, something which had an impact on me. Such an experience I did not find again later in my life, so I concluded that it just had been due to my adolescent naivety. But Japan taught me better. Interestingly not because it is fundamentally different but because it so connects to my cosmos. It seemed very familiar. It felt like coming home. One reason is of course the European impact and influence on Japan since the Meiji period. Another has to do with the aesthetics, which in my impression are much more important in Japan than in Europe. In the western world a lot is very functional, very pragmatic. There is much more consciousness, more sensitivity about beauty in Japan, even in everyday life. Furthermore I maybe share some Japanese behavior, I am a quiet, a thin-skinned person who likes to be aware of his surroundings. Therefore I feel comfortable in Japan, at home and understood in my perception of the world.

    (By Theresa Veith, Vienna Bureau assistant)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media