At Last, Translating This Surrealist Austrian Writer

At Last, Translating This Surrealist Austrian Writer

By Tobias Carroll

monkey and headphones


Because this literary mystery set in a near future full of Apple products and empathic chimpanzees is uncanny, yet enormously fun to read.

By Tobias Carroll

A room containing an endless array of mummified birds. An aging chimpanzee who tears the headphones out of a doctor’s ears. And epigraphs quoting Batman as played by Adam West. 

These are just a few of the surreal, fragmented and yet strangely compelling elements of 32-year-old Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz’s third novel, Indigo. But for seven years, unless you read German, you probably wouldn’t know of his work, which recalls the strange but also fun style of famed novelists Don DeLillo and Steve Erickson. That is, until now. In a move that’s become less common  in literary circles,  his work his being translated into English, giving Setz the chance to join the ranks of cult favorites and Nobel-mention writers like Japan’s Haruki Murakami, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and Spain’s Javier Marías.

“I don’t think you really need inspiration,” Setz told me as we spoke over the phone. “You just need obsessions.”

… there are no limits to the freedom literary creation allows. … It’s something like jazz improvisation.

— Ross Benjamin, translator of “Indigo”

german author posing for a picture

Austrian author Clemens J. Setz

He is soft-spoken and speaks with a slight accent; he jokes about his ability to pull off a convincing British accent for spans of 10 seconds or less. He’s warm, occasionally doubling back to search for a better word. He can also be tremendously self-effacing: At one point, describing his methods of researching, he adds, “I think my novels are all pretty weird, just the structural design.” Later in the same exchange, he says, “So far, they have been quite strange constructs and things.” And after a pause, he says with a laugh, “I’m not selling my books very well.”

But in Austria and Germany, he’s a star — and he may be the next foreign writer to make it big in the English market, a barrier too few have surmounted. Born in Graz, Austria, in 1982, he won the Ernst-Willner-Preis at the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition in 2008 and then the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2011 for his novel Die Liebe zur Zeit des Mahlstädter Kindes.

And though foreign writers have it rough, it’s not as tough as it used to be, says Nataša Durovicová, a professor of literature at the University of Iowa. “It’s still tough to get a publisher to take a chance on a translated writer,” she says — that’s because it’s harder to market. 

Indigo consists of two interwoven plot lines. One follows a writer and former teacher named — in Proustian manner — Clemens Setz, who is investigating the legacy of the “Indigo” children, a group of people with mysterious properties and implacable empathic facilities. (In our interview, Setz calls them “toxic children.”) In the second, set in a near future abounding with Apple products and surveillance technology, Setz’s former student learns of his exoneration after a trial for a horrific crime and begins to track his old teacher down. The novel weaves together both narratives, along with excerpts from literary works and official documents, both real and fictionalized. At times, it’s dizzying, proceeding toward an unclear result — but the narrative ambiguity, ethical debates and attempts to describe the indescribable all end up converging into a distinctive literary mystery.

Readers think that his absurd world is their world.

And OK, yes, Indigo is hard to sum up in an easy elevator pitch. Probably because Setz’s mind is anything but simple. The idea for the book, Setz explains, came from a pair of radically different images. There was an account he had come across, while doing research, of a chimpanzee residing in a sort of retirement home. The animal had been subjected to scientific experimentation — and his health was ruined. The chimp “had figured out that humans were torturers, pretty much.”

But enter Setz’s fascination with the idea of empathy: When the chimp witnessed a volunteer for whom he cared enter the room wearing headphones, “he saw his only friend in the world come into the room, and he had the same wires coming from his skull” — the same ones the poor chimp had been attached to in the experiments. In a moment, the animal tore off the headphones from the volunteer, believing he had saved the man’s life. Strange, dark, twisted — and very Setz. 

Setz wasn’t interested in simply copping the anecdote. So he set out to write “something around it.” He combined the chimp episode with a building seen from a train traveling slowly from Graz to Vienna, a hotel that had turned into a site for corporate meetings, and slowly, a story of unusual children and unlikely acts of violence and empathy was born.

As an appetite-whetter, Setz tells me his next project is a story about a stalker. Where does that one come from? He’s had a stalker. He tells me the stalker tale is a generic one, like a hero story or a romance. 

“I like collecting weird historical curiosities. That’s all I do, practically

— Clemens J. Setz

Ross Benjamin, who has translated works by the likes of Joseph Roth and Thomas Pletzinger, translated Indigo (as well as several of Setz’s short stories) into English. When I asked him, via email, for his impressions of Setz’s prose, he opined on “how elastic the medium of language becomes in his hands — you get the impression that he can and will do anything he pleases with it.” Later in the same exchange, he commented that Setz “reminds us in an exhilarating way that there are no limits to the freedom literary creation allows, that the potential for linguistic invention and play is inexhaustible. It’s something like jazz improvisation, virtuosity unbounded in its variety.”

Setz’s process does seem to involve an improvisation, with disparate subjects serving as his musical notes. He is a collector of strange stories, an obsesser over them. He hunts for them in musty archives and assembles them into the strange modern jigsaw that are his novels. He has an affinity for obscure old travelogues, old library catalogs, he tells me. “I like collecting weird historical curiosities. That’s all I do, practically.” This led him to a book, published in the 1960s, which documented the dreams of a priest in ancient Egypt. “It’s an obscure text,” he says, found in the same space as a vast array of mummified ibis. Setz made a connection between this and a more contemporary relative of those birds: the northern bald ibis, for which a program is underway to reintroduce them to Austria. He traces artifacts, etymologies, ideas, making his way through a maze of oddities that many of us would never encounter. 

And yet, the absurd elicits a strange reaction in his readers, he says. He tells me of readers who think that his absurd world is their world. “They think that this is nonfiction, and they ask me if there are support groups or meetings where they can go, because they have children who are like my Indigo children.” These children make unexpected emotional connections and sometimes prompt physical reactions in their parents; one character in the novel describes the early days of the phenomenon: “People were getting sick by the dozens, and didn’t know why. Mothers vomiting over their baby’s cradle. A big mess.

Setz adds: “It’s really creeping me out.”

This piece was originally published Nov. 8, 2014, and updated as of Nov. 15, 2014.