Jaroslav Rudiš: “I love to travel by train”

Jaroslav Rudiš originally wanted to be a train conductor, but when Czech Rail didn’t accept him because of his poor eyesight, he turned to writing. As it turns out, eské Dráhythe loss was the reading audience’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 received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his cross-border literary activity.

It has been a busy year for Rudiš, with the release of his graphic novel Nachtgestalten (Night Crawlers) as well as the pocket release of his nominated novel Winterbergs Letzte Reise (Winterberg’s last trip). This dark-humored work follows Jan, an alcoholic caregiver, and his 99-year-old patient, Winterberg, on a crazy rail odyssey through the various towns and battlefields of Central Europe, accompanied by Winterberg’s endless lectures on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This month, Rudiš is also launching a personal non-fiction book about – you guessed it – trains, named Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Zugreisen (Train travel: User guide). You can see him reading live at the Kulturbrauerei on October 7th.

How did you get the idea behind Winterbergs Letzte Reise?

Well i am a Eisenbahnmensch, a railway worker [laughs]. I like to travel by train, especially through central Europe. And the modern history of Europe is unthinkable without the railroad. A friend of mine from Leipzig found this Baedeker guide to Austria-Hungary from 1913, the year before the entire empire collapsed, which I read through Winterberg. So that was the idea: a novel that takes place in the train during a journey through a land that has now disappeared.

This character from Winterberg is unforgettable his insolence, his compulsive narration, his repetitive little slogans. How did you meet him?

Winterberg is a person of the past. It integrates, for me, the forgotten parts of the history of Central Europe. He just narrates and narrates and narrates, I mean, he talks so much, and that can piss you off – which is good, because that way you get a feel for the insanity and exhaustion of this guy. But he has so much to tell about history because he has survived so much, lived and watched so much. There is a point where he says: when people like me are gone, then the story will go away too. And it may be true.

I was also inspired by the sound of the railroad. Taking the train with my friend from Leipzig, the way he spoke had all these repeated phrases, just like Winterberg – traurig, traurig etc. I felt like all the railway noises you hear when traveling on old roads [makes train noises]. I am someone who loves music. So I wanted to capture the music of the trains, and introduce it into the book.

This Winterberg voice is so distinctive. Do you still hear it from time to time?

Totally [laughs]. I could never really free myself from him. My partner thinks I’m a bit of a Winterberg myself – once I start it’s hard to stop. I have written other works, short stories and theater, which also feature Winterberg. I mean, it’s hard, once you’ve developed a certain sound and lived in it for months. And for me it’s longer because, since the book came out in German in 2019, it has received a lot of attention – which has allowed me to be invited to a lot of readings, maybe more than that. ‘a hundred in all. So I still read the book. And the noise of Winterberg, the noise of the railroads, is something that has never left me. Even today, I cannot free myself from him. But that’s fine with me.

Winterberg says hes geschichtskrank, sick of history. At first he seems to be obsessed with the 1866 battle of Königgatz, where his ancestors fought on opposite sides but then we learn more about the Nazi era, for example.

Yes, Winterberg’s story runs deep. It’s not just about World War II. To me, he embodies the difficult and divided history of Central Europe. And it’s all mixed up: there are times in the book where you can’t tell if you’re in the present, 50 years ago, 150 years ago or whatever. All the stories take place in parallel. But I don’t want to be a history teacher. Hope the book is entertaining and humorous. Because I can’t write without humor – that’s Czech in me. For us Czechs humor is essential, as well as tragedy. And beer – in this novel, as in Nachtgestalten, there is a lot of drunkenness. Perhaps it is a desire to forget the horror of the story, if only for a few hours.

How does it feel to live as a Czech in Germany? Thiss two cultures with a long and complicated history, which ist always nice.

You are right, but there is much more that connects us than divides us. And for me, Germany is not that foreign. I come from a country where being bilingual, even multilingual, was quite normal a hundred years ago. For the Czechs, it is easier to learn German than the other way around because we lived in both languages. When these Czech nationalist politicians say we have to go back to our roots, I say, OK, great! Going back to our roots would mean that in Prague you have to speak German and Czech, and in the Middle Ages you spoke a lot of Italian there and a lot of other people from all over. It’s madness: you don’t go far with history if you are a nationalist.

One thing Winterberg loves about trains is that they connect us to the past, unlike buses, which he absolutely hates. Is that why the railroad is so precious, because it brings history into our lives both the good and the bad?

Absoutely. The railroad connects the present with the past. Take the trip between Prague and Berlin, for example. I think it’s one of the most beautiful lines in all of Europe. You can see these beautiful picturesque landscapes, but also all the cemeteries, ruins and the dark side of history, like Theresienstadt, a totally spooky place. If you travel to Central Europe by train, the whole story follows. I write about it in my new book, Gebrauchsanweisung fürs Zugreisen, too much. It’s an ode to the railroad, really, a very personal declaration of love.

It is a beautiful book. And it is interesting to note that here it is not only the history of the H-capital but also your own personal history which mixes with the present through the train journeys…

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 with me, and sometimes also with friends who share my passion. It turns out that there are a very large number of Eisenbahnmenschen who will be happy to accompany you on a train journey.

This book is about some of your most educational and favorite railroads lines in Europe. Something you recommend?

This Prague-Berlin route in the Elbe Valley is my “main route”. But there are so many others with a great history, like the route from Vienna to Ljubljana and Trieste, the so-called Semmeringbahn. It’s one of my favorite lines. Cross the mountains, and then you see the sea for the first time, in Trieste, it’s incredibly beautiful. Another great experience is traveling to Lapland, Finland – the trains go fast, but they just slide through the forests towards the Arctic, and the cars are practically empty. Very different from somewhere like Italy, where the line from Rome to Palermo – a wonderful coastal road, and maybe 30 degrees outside. An absolute dream. And there are big, smaller trains, like the Schmalspurbahn in the Harz, which I’m writing about.

And you even like BerlinS-Bahn, right?

Yes! Whenever someone comes to town for a short break and doesn’t have much time, I suggest they do a loop around the Ringbahn and then cross from Ostkreuz to Westkreuz. You see so much of the city, it’s awesome.

Do you think the railroad has a bright future?

Yes, the railroad is the future! I mean, this is the future of travel for us. Not cars, certainly not planes. Trains are a great hope. And I wish we could do even more here in Europe – I wish we had a real European rail card, for example, an affordable card with no exceptions. It would really be something.

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