Jaroslav Rudiš originally wanted to be a train driver – but when Czech Rail wouldn’t take him on account of his faulty eyesight, he turned to writing. As it turns out, České Dráhy’s loss was the reading public’s gain. Today, Rudiš is one of Berlin’s most interesting authors, as well as a highly respected Czech-German cultural figure: last week he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his border-crossing literary activity.
It has been a busy year for Rudiš, with the release of his graphic novel Nachtgestalten (Night Crawlers) as well as the paperback release of his prize-nominated novel Winterbergs Letzte Reise (Winterberg’s Last Journey). This darkly humorous work follows hard-drinking care worker Jan and his 99-year-old patient Winterberg on a madcap rail odyssey across Central Europe’s various cities and battlefields, accompanied by Winterberg’s interminable lectures about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This month, Rudiš also launches a personal nonfiction work about – you guessed it – trains, named Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Zugreisen (Train travel: A User’s Guide). You can catch him reading live at the Kulturbrauerei on October 7.
How did you come up with the idea behind Winterbergs Letzte Reise?
Well, I’m an Eisenbahnmensch, a railway person [laughs]. I love travelling on trains, especially through Central Europe. And the modern history of Europe is unthinkable without the railway. A friend of mine from Leipzig found this Baedeker guide to Austria-Hungary from 1913, the year before the whole empire collapsed, which I have Winterberg reading from. So that was the idea: a novel that takes place in the train while traveling through a now-vanished land.
This character of Winterberg is unforgettable – his cheekiness, his compulsive narration, his repetitive little catchphrases. How did you come up with him?
Winterberg is a person of the past. He incorporates, for me, the forgotten parts of Central Europe’s history. He just narrates and narrates and narrates, I mean, he talks so much, and it can get on your nerves – which is good, because that way you get a feeling for how mad and exhausting this guy is. But he has so much to tell about history because he’s survived so much, he’s experienced and observed so much. There’s a moment where he says: when people like me are no longer around, then the history will be gone too. And that might just be true.
I was also inspired by the sound of the railway. Taking the train with my Leipzig friend, the way he spoke had all these repeated phrases, just like Winterberg – traurig, traurig and so on. It felt to me like all the railway noises you hear when you travel down old routes [makes train noises]. I’m someone who loves music. So I wanted to capture the music of trains, and introduce it to the book.
This voice of Winterberg is so distinctive. Do you still hear him from time to time?
Totally [laughs]. I couldn’t ever really free myself from him. My partner thinks I’m a bit of a Winterberg myself –once I get started, it’s hard to stop me. I’ve written some more work, short stories and theatre, that features Winterberg as well. I mean it’s hard, once you’ve developed a certain sound and then you lived in it for months. And for me it’s been longer because, since the book came out in German in 2019, it’s received a lot of attention – which meant I was invited to a lot of readings, maybe over a hundred in all. So I’m still reading from the book. And the sound of Winterberg, the sound of the railways, is something that’s never left me. Even today, I can’t free myself from him. But that’s OK by me.
Winterberg says that he’s geschichtskrank, sick from history. At first he seems to be fixated on the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz, where his ancestors fought on opposing sides – but then we learn more about the Nazi era, for instance.
Yes, Winterberg’s history runs deep. It’s not just all about World War Two. For me he personifies the difficult, divided history of Central Europe. And it’s all mixed up: there are moments in the book where you can’t tell if we’re in the present, 50 years ago, 150 years ago or what. All of the stories run in parallel. But I don’t want to be a history teacher. I hope the book is entertaining and humorous. Because I can’t write without humour – that’s the Czech in me. For us Czechs, humour is essential, along with tragedy. And beer – in this novel, like in Nachtgestalten, there’s a lot of getting drunk. Perhaps it’s a desire to forget the awfulness of history, if only for a few hours.
How does it feel to be living as a Czech in Germany? That’s two cultures with a long and complicated history, which isn’t always pleasant.
You’re right – but there’s much more that connects us than divides us. And for me, Germany isn’t so foreign. I come from a country where being bilingual, even multilingual, was absolutely normal a hundred years ago. For Czechs, it’s easier to learn German than the other way round because we used to live in both languages. When these Czech nationalist politicians say we have to go back to our roots, I say, OK, great! Back to our roots would mean that in Prague you have to speak German as well as Czech, plus in the Middle Ages there was a lot of Italian spoken there, and lots of other people from all over. That’s the craziness: you don’t get far with history if you’re a nationalist.
One thing Winterberg likes about trains is that they connect us to the past, unlike busses, which he absolutely hates. Is that why the railway is so valuable, because it brings history into our lives – both the good and the bad?
Absolutely. The railway connects the present with the past. Take the trip between Prague and Berlin, for instance. I think it’s one of the most beautiful lines in all of Europe. You can see these lovely, picturesque landscapes, but then also all the cemeteries, the ruins, and the dark side of history, like Theresienstadt, a totally sinister place. If you travel Central Europe by train, all the history comes together. I write about this in my new book, Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Zugreisen, too. It’s an ode to the railway, really, a very personal declaration of love.
It’s a lovely book. And it’s interesting that here it’s not just capital-H history but also your own personal history that gets mixed into the present through railway travel…
Yes, exactly! Well, that’s what I tried to do anyway [laughs]. I wanted to bring it all together. It’s a very personal book. You travel along with me, and sometimes also with friends who share my passion. As it turns out, there’s a really large number of Eisenbahnmenschen who are more than happy to accompany you on a train journey.
That book talks about some of your most formative and favourite railway lines in Europe. Anything you recommend?
That Prague-Berlin route down the Elbe Valley is my “trunk route”. But there’s so many others with great history, like the route from Vienna down to Ljubljana and Trieste, the so-called Semmeringbahn. It’s one of my favourite lines. Crossing the mountains, and then you see the sea for the first time, in Trieste, it’s unbelievably beautiful. Another great experience is traveling in Lapland, in Finland – the trains go fast, but they’re just gliding through the forests towards the Arctic, and the carriages are practically empty. Very different from somewhere like Italy, where the line from Rome to Palermo – a gorgeous coastal route, and maybe 30 degrees outside. An absolute dream. And there are great smaller trains, like the Schmalspurbahn in the Harz, which I write about.
And you even love Berlin’s S-Bahn, right?
Yes! Whenever someone comes to town for a brief stay and doesn’t have much time, I suggest they take a loop around the Ringbahn, and then cut across from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz. You see so much of the city, it’s brilliant.
Do you think railway has a bright future?
Yes – the railway is the future! I mean, it’s the future of travel for us. Not cars, definitely not planes. Trains are a great hope. And I wish we could do even more here in Europe – I wish we had a genuine European rail card, for instance, an affordable one with no exceptions. That would really be something.