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“More insects than in Madrid“: an Interview with Inger-Maria Mahlke

As part of our Green Library series, we spoke to  Inger-Maria Mahlke about her novel Archipel, which was published by Rowohlt in 2018 and awarded the German Book Prize. Mahlke grew up in Lübeck and on Tenerife, studied law at the Free University of Berlin and then devoted herself to writing. Our conversation was about nature, class and colonialism.

Why did you decide to set Archipel on Tenerife? What did this place make possible for the story you wanted to tell?

First of all I have a biographical relationship to Tenerife, of course. I have family there and spent parts of my childhood there. And then Tenerife as a place is also a very distinctive setting for European history, because it is located on the periphery and because an island is always a limited space, European history – or world history – is very tangible there. That is why it is interesting to write about it. You can use it as a microcosm for other things to play out.

In Archipel, the descriptions of nature are rather particular. For example, you write that on Tenerife everything is wrested from nature, there are much more insects than in Madrid and this rough environment of the island seems to be in strong contrast to Spain’s capital in general. What role do these characteristics of the island play in your novel?

I think it’s less about the contrast between the island and Madrid, and more about the contrast between the island and mainland Europe. The Canary Islands – or the island in the book – are simply a very extreme place, where all kinds of biospheres occur, which makes natural processes much more extreme.

Nevertheless, the construction that these islands are something original or untouched, in themselves or in contrast to mainland Europe, comes from a continental European perspective. The islands and their natural environment are actually very much shaped by humankind. The first natural catastrophe of the island, which still has an effect today, is deforestation. The conquistadors started to cut down the forests in the 15th century, and there has never been reforestation. There are only very small areas of remaining forests.

The idea that the nature of the island is untouched or authentic is wrong. But the lumen number on Tenerife is perfect. A the beginning at least, everything can live there. Every plant and every seed starts to grow.

But all the plants you see on Tenerife are not endemic. Most plants are the result of failed economic projects of previous centuries. It starts with sugar cane, then came the chumberas, and so on.

And because Tenerife is so fertile, is it attractive for agriculture and trade?

Yes and no. Another problem with Tenerife is that it is actually just high mountains with a beach area at the bottom. This means that the island is very fertile because of the volcanic rocks, but there is no ground water, there is a lot of erosion. It can only be cultivated in terraces and especially in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century it had to be fertilized heavily. So nothing grows by itself. Always artificial elements have to be added to create this strange, luxuriant fertile ‘natural’ state.

At one point in your book, university lecturer Felipe Bernadotte quits his job and starts growing vegetables in his garden. Maybe it’s due to his (lack of) know-how, or because of the soil conditions, but the vegetables taste or look strange. But apart from that it seems like a compensatory gesture from this character: Failed at university, so back to nature.

Yes, but it is also a political working through. Felipe Bernadotte comes from a family of conquistadors, the upper class that controls the island. Felipe identifies his father, not without good reason, very strongly with the fascist state, and now he tries to take on the role that he understands as the victim role in all these political structures.

He only gardens for a while and his wife Ana is glad when he stops “being a simple farmer” and starts going to the club in the afternoon. In relation to this club, I was wondering what role class consciousness plays in your novel, but also in Spanish society. In this respect, the difference between the Bernadotte family and the Morales family is interesting. In Archipel, the Morales women have been cleaning for the Bernadottes for generations.

Exactly. Spanish society is a class society. This is true for mainland Spanish society, and on the Canary Islands the whole arrangement is even more cemented by the influence of the British. That, plus the colonial structures that still play a part. Classes are very clearly separated and you can still see that today.

My whole book is more or less based on this principle and the figures are designed according to this principle. You have the upper class, the Bernadottes; then the middle class, which can achieve a certain standing because of their education, these are the Bautes, and then you have the 99% on the islands, who form the lower class and for whom this is actually a hermetic state.

Could you briefly explain what kind of place this club is, that Felipe starts attending? Because I can’t think of any direct comparison in Germany.

One can only compare it with English club culture. One can only become a member by having two members suggest one. There are an incredibly large number of clubs in the Canary Islands. In mainland Spain, club culture developed towards the end of the 19th century – for example, the club Amistad doce de enero is mentioned once in Archipel. The club Felipe goes to is more oriented towards English clubs. There is a public part, a restaurant, and then there is a closed part for sports and such. Mostly there are also a music room and a reading room…

In addition to these clubs, you write about cafés as meeting places for men, e.g. the Café Atlanticó. These men usually want to influence political events and get involved in decisions otherwise made on the Spanish mainland, which have global ramifications. You also mentioned colonialism and fascism. The clubs and cafés seem to play a central role in these power games.

Yes, there were several such bars or cafés in Tenerife. One of them was the bar Cuatro Naciónes down at the port, which was actually a meeting place for fascists. It was a meeting place for the remnants of Empire, who were still hanging around the island, the Germans who had newly arrived on the island, and the Canarian upper class. Politics in the Canary Islands took place unbelievably unofficially and that is the importance of these clubs and these bars. This is of course related to the fact that the political structures are based on personal relationships, which is deeply anti-democratic. This seems typical for very hierarchical systems. I think this is also the point where colonialism and fascism overlap, although they are actually completely different. What both have in common is that everything that is not oneself is devalued. Whoever is not a colonizer, whoever is not a fascist majority is devalued, and this results in arbitrary structures that are very receptive to this informality.

Added to this situation, in the Canary Islands, is the fact that with the onset of fascism, the necessity arose to make the Canary Islands truly Spanish. An espanización was carried out, as in the colonies, a ‘Spanification’ of the Canary Islands, that is, forced enculturation in the ways of the mainland Spaniards. This included the prohibition of games or rites of the Spanish native population.

So there is an indigenous population of the Canary Islands, who are neither Spanish nor British. You do not write about them in your book, but can you tell us more about them?

These are the so-called Old Canarians or Guanches. Their origin is not quite clear. The latest research suggests that they are of Phoenician origin. It is known that many linguistic, semantic and cultural practices have Berber references. But where they come from is difficult to say.

The end of the Guanches came with Spanish conquest. This happened quite differently on the different islands. Tenerife was the island that fought back the hardest and it was a process of almost 30 years to get them under control. The Spaniards only managed to do this with the support of other ancient Canarians of Gran Canaria, which resulted in the hatred between these two islands that still exists today.

At first, the Spaniards saw the Canary Islands only as a base to be colonised for strategic purposes. The only economic benefit at first was the capture of Guanches and the selling of Guanches as slaves.

Fascinating. In your book, you write that the Spanish king once said that the Canary Islands were a British colony without a flag. Does that mean that the United Kingdom also comes into this complex power structure?

Exactly, because actually the Canary Islands didn’t really matter to the Spanish because the Spanish had much more fashionable colonies in Latin America. The Canary Islands only became really exciting in 1898, when the Spanish lost their other colonies in the Spanish-American War and the colonial army needed a new occupation.

The British – who were actually of Irish origin – came to the Canary Islands after the great famine. First, they usually went to Madeira, where there were many British trading houses. But when the great phylloxera plague happened there, many moved on to Tenerife, because it was a completely unregulated space.

What really makes an impression is that the Canary Islands are, on the one hand, so far away from the mainland and, on the other hand, are the hub of various continental European power games and trade relations.

Precisely, because they are the last stop before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Everybody had to pass by there in the 19th and early 20th century to make their way across the Atlantic.

You can listen to this interview in a somewhat longer form as a podcast discussion in German here.

The Green Library series is supported by the Berlin Senate.