European of the Week: Helene Hegemann, the art of cut and paste
11 February 2010
She’s the new star of the German literary scene. At 17, Helene Hegemann has already beguiled the critics with a novel about disoriented and unrestrained youth. The only problem is she lifted whole passages off the web. But she admits it – and ushers in a new take on plagiarism and “authenticity”, writes the Berliner Zeitung.
Cribbing, we learned in school, can be a very helpful expedient – provided you stick to the rules. Rule no 1: Don’t get caught. Rule no 2: If you do get caught, fess up immediately. Helene Hegemann is, by these standards, a model pupil.
Here’s the scoop: 17-year-old Helene Hegemann recently published her first novel, Axolotl Roadkill, a wild, tumultuous coming-of-age story. The critics have been raving about it ever since. What superb stylistic aplomb! How radically wicked! And oh, all those spot-on observations and unlooked-for ruminations! We haven’t seen a debut like that in donkey’s years, thrills the thrill-crazed literary scene. And all those folks who aren’t all that into books, but into sensations, were all agog: By Golly, she wrote this book at 16?
Three lines of speed in the toilets
We took the novel for an authentic first-hand account, we thought Helene H. had experienced all that awful sex, drugs and puberty stuff herself, which made Axolotl Roadkill all the more remarkable. Did she really get into the Berghain [in Berlin], the hot, the infamous, the best club in the world, whose strict policy is not to let anyone under 21 in? Did she really indulge in “three lines of speed” in the loo? Incredible!
Helene Hegemann did invent her 16-year-old protagonist Mifti, but somehow most of us couldn’t help identifying Mifti with Helene. Every time the father comes up in the book, we all saw Carl Hegemann, the famous former dramatist at Berlin’s Volksbühne. Whenever Mifti has recreational sex in a car, waxes philosophical on the subject of bisexuality or plays the “snotty brat with attitude”, we thought we were hearing the real Helene. Axolotl Roadkill deliberately plays with these dazzling authenticity effects. And how deftly at that! Helene Hegemann, the new, staggeringly young star in the literary sky.
Highly creative cut and pastes
And now this: The culture blog www.gefuehlskonserve.de found out that Hegemann plagiarised – mainly from Strobo, a sex, drugs and clubbing novel by blogger Airen (b. 1981) published last year by SuKuLTuR, a small publishing house in Berlin. Not only did she borrow humorous collocations like “Techno-Plastizität" (techno plasticity) or "Vaselintitten" (Vaseline tits), she lifted whole lines and scene setups.
Helene Hegemann says she’s sorry, she knows it was wrong “not to mention all the people whose writings helped me”. And yet she stands by her novel: after all, “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, there’s only authenticity”. What’s more, she’s only a “lodger” in her own mind: “I help myself to whatever inspires me.”
The virtual poets' society
So people are now crying scandal, but the spreading hullabaloo over the “Hegemann case” is basically a knee-jerk reflex: we think the aura of authenticity is incompatible with a little cribbing. Yet Axolotl Roadkill constructs an aura that no longer acknowledges any distinction between fact and fiction. Helene Hegemann belongs to the "Virtual Poets’ Club” evoked in Strobo: "We’re part of a strand that occasionally slipslides into fiction. It’s all pretty schizophrenic." Incidentally, it was Carl Hegemann who developed the theoretical superstructure for this hybrid artistry: "A reality is no longer encountered, but brought forth by the ‘members’ of a culture.” In this sense Helene Hegemann did what she knows how to do best: she cut-and-pasted together a novelistic existence for herself.
Factual or translation error? Tell us.