Tilman Rammstedt says the love letters he wrote as a young man was what inspired him to write fiction

German author Tilman Rammstedt’s Der Kaiser von China (The Emperor of China) tells a hilarious story in which the protagonist, Keith, and his family gift their grandfather “an all-expenses paid holiday to any destination in the world.”

The grandfather chooses China on a whim, and asks Keith to accompany him. But Keith loses all the money for the trip at a casino, and he goes into hiding – mostly under his desk – and his grandfather, who is actually uninterested in travelling to China, engages in a similar ploy.

Keith’s grandfather dies unexpectedly, however, leaving Keith to continue the farce alone. He writes a series of letters, in which he writes of their imaginary travels, to his family.

Tilman won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2008 for this novel. Der Kaiser von China has been translated to English by Seagull Books, Kolkata and was launched at the recently-held Bangalore Literature Festival.

Though the novel was appreciated for its interesting characters and plot, for Tilman it was one of the hardest books to write. “I had the protagonist and a basic idea about imagining a journey through China without ever being there. It was a struggle to write the book; my life was very chaotic at the time. Once it was published, I felt a sense of relief.”

Writing a book, says Tilman, is very different from writing itself. “A book needs a structure. You are faced with a deadline, faced with expectations, faced with self doubt. You wonder if the book is any good. When writing a book, there are a lot of voices in your head, not all of them are pleasant.”

The more serious the topics are, the more important it is for Tilman to tell it in a humorous way.

“I do it to balance it out. My humour is in exaggeration. In all my books, characters play an important role. In a way, I like extreme characters. I think of a new character, not a new plot. In The Emperor of China, I have tried to exaggerate the grandfather. Sometimes you need to exaggerate a character to make them visible, in a way.”

We tend to categorise writing into short stories, novels and poetry, but for Tilman none of these formats are important. “I call my books novels, out of practicality. The Emperor of China borrows from different literary forms. I had read out a short story to an audience once, and they thought it was a poem. I speak as a literary scholar, really.” In the two weeks Tilman was in Bangalore, he noticed the importance given to English.

“It is fascinating to have a country of many languages, and then to have this overall very practicable and colonial English language spoken by everybody. Writing and reading in English is becoming more dominant in India, at the horizon are the regional languages. I had attended a mass poetry reading in which 30 different poets read out their poetry. There were about three poets, but when they read out their poetry, the atmosphere was charged. They spoke freely, they didn’t read out their poems. There were loud wah-wahs from every corner. If the same poets had written in English, they wouldn’t have had this reaction.”

What brought Tilman to writing was the many letters he wrote as a young man, particularly love letters.

“I found writing love letters similar to writing fiction. You try to seduce the reader, and the only way you can do it, is through words.”