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Juli Zeh – More than just a successful novelist

What could be louder than the silence when you are treading, in constant fear of explosion, through a field of landmines, not knowing where to place your feet next? You could do worse than to follow the advice of writer, Juli Zeh: ‘You can put yourself in the position of the soldiers who laid the mines. The softer the earth, the easier it is to bury the things. Rocks, big stones and tree trunks are obviously safe to step on.’

 

Juli Zeh’s travel diary, Even Silence is a Sound, from which this helpful advice is taken, is much more than just a list of different stops on a journey through an unknown land. But that’s not very surprising because, of all places, in 2006 the dedicated lawyer and expert on international law travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina – the country that came out of the Balkan war as the biggest loser, with large areas still uninhabitable today, having been mined indiscriminately by soldiers and militia. The people of Bosnia try to protect themselves against the danger, but even so, eight accidents are estimated to occur every month. Dryly, the author defuses the drama of that sentence: ‘It’s certainly anything but nice,’ she says, ‘but the German autobahns are much more dangerous.’

Dedicated pacifist

 

The whole book reads like this, balanced on a narrow path between the tragic and the humorous, leaning first one way then the other and always sustaining the tension. Above all, it is a clear anti-war statement, against not only the war in former Yugoslavia, but all war in general. In Juli Zeh’s eyes, war does not produce gallant victors, just losers – and the individuals who profit from the bloody business: the perpetrators of genocide, dealers in drugs and weapons, and politicians who are mainly trying to save their own skins.

Juli Zeh, who wrote her first novel Eagles and Angels when she was 27, and whose books have now been translated into 29 languages, is not only a writer but also a lawyer specialised in international law. As the daughter of Wolfgang Zeh, a former administrative director of the German Bundestag, she grew up in a political environment. For her doctorate in law, awarded in 2010, her dissertation examined the role of the UN in international conflicts, and cast a critical light on the international community. She believes the UN designs peace treaties at the diplomatic level which are then rejected by the leaders of the warring parties. The UN’s peace-keeping troops, UNPROFOR – the so-called Blue Helmets – lack the mandate to take military action, leaving them merely to play the part of audience to the massacres.

Sharp-tongued observer

 

Much less dramatic, but more humorous is the account that Zeh wrote of her journey to Viet Nam in October and November 2010. She spent four weeks travelling around the country at the invitation of the Goethe Institut, all the while describing her experiences in a blog on the institute’s website. The result is an appealing and highly readable contribution to intercultural understanding.

Here, for example, Zeh describes a Vietnamese driver who has, for the first time in his life, taken his dilapidated car onto the country’s one and only motorway; within minutes he is swearing just as violently as a typical German driver: ‘We are witnesses to an astonishing performance. Vietnamese stoicism stood inviolable, as solid as a rock amid the raging storms of the chaotic epochs; it did not falter, did not surrender; it smiled and waited; Que sera, sera! – and was finally defeated by a short stretch of Autobahn.’

Juli Zeh has written some exciting travelogues. Some of the community members at the Alumniportal Deutschland also talk about their travels. Have you, too, just undertaken an interesting or exciting journey? Which country did you explore? Share your experiences with the community.

Discuss with us in the community!

Juli Zeh has written some exciting travelogues. Some of the community members at the Alumniportal Deutschland also talk about their travels. Have you, too, just undertaken an interesting or exciting journey? Which country did you explore?

Share your experiences with the community, for example in the groups Global Travelers or Travel Lovers.

July 2011

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