‘We never know who the other is, just as we never really know who we are ourselves.’ – says the author of The Guest, Ariane Koch
Do you like being a guest?
I like getting an insight into a home that is unknown to me. I find it exciting to participate in rituals or ways of life that are unfamiliar to me; I have to admit, I like it more than being a host myself.
What does hospitality mean to you?
I believe that hospitality is only the first step of an open society that must learn to recognise guests as equal citizens. Thus, it has to learn to abandon the term ‘guest’. Concerning my text, I think that we are in urgent need of hospitality. Privately, socially, but also politically. I would say that hospitality in The Guest is portrayed in the worst sense, as it really should not be.
What prompted you to write a novel?
On the one hand, because I was a guest myself very often and therefore became interested in hospitality. Once I even had the idea that I could no longer have a home at all. I would have liked to only be a guest. But that kind of research would have been too radical for me. I ended up moving into a house with six flatmates and received guests myself more often. And on the other hand, the so-called refugee crisis was very present in 2015, also in the media. I quickly realised that the figure of the guest not only raises questions concerning the private home but also political and philosophical ones.
My work as a writer in the theatre helped me to write a novel. But I also realise in retrospect that my background as a visual artist played a big role too. I have adapted the working methods I know from theatre, but also from the visual arts to the novel. The associative, the discursive, and the pictorial.
The relationship between the protagonist and the visitor is complicated. Tenderness is mixed with reluctance. It is also a relation of power.
It is a very contradictory relationship. The other day a journalist said that the guest is an excuse for everything for the protagonist. I like that interpretation. Whereas the power only lies with the protagonist at first glance. She does have the power of interpretation over the guest. The reader only learns about him through her gaze. At the same time, the guest has the power to leave, which he will then make use of.
Is the protagonist in love with the guest?
Absolutely. But it is a love that the protagonist by no means allows and vehemently denies.
In The Guest, you show that helping is not always selfless. Is it possible to help without thinking about one’s benefits?
There are some theories that human beings mainly find fulfillment through helping. I guess society is much more unaware of how much it can benefit from helping or welcoming guests. A society without immigration is not a living society. My protagonist is angry with the guest. However, she has realised that it is also beneficial to her to let the unknown into her life. Their coexistence is so difficult because we never know who the other is. Just as we never really know who we are ourselves.
I will not hide that your book wasn’t an easy and pleasant read. It was difficult to like the main character and sometimes her behaviour for me was unclear.
I think that my protagonist is not only evil but also very depressed and lonely and desperately wants a change in life. So she is also a very pitiful character.
In my review of the book, I wrote that not only the visitor is the guest. It is also the protagonist. What is alienation and where does it come from?
I don’t know. I think it happens because people are insecure with themselves and so they try to transfer the self-exoticisation onto the other. Asserting one’s own norms and excluding others is also an efficient instrument of power. In any case, my protagonist is also searching for her origins, for her place in the world, and is trying to find it through a guest.
Do we always need the Other to find ourselves? Is the Other a kind of mirror for us?
We need others above all to exist. Encounters and relationships are what make us human, I believe. That’s where existence comes into being. Alone and without conversation we are nothing or nothing at all. And I think we have a great capacity to be interested in others without it being just a reflection of ourselves. I think the self is mainly in the other anyway, in others.
In your book, we can see that you follow the philosopher’s and the intellectualist’s steps. Levinas, Waldenfels, Derrida but also Kafka. Which one of these had an impact on your book?
Apart from Derrida’s concept of hostility towards guests (Gastfeindschaft), I was particularly preoccupied with texts by Hans-Dieter Bahr: The Language of the Guest and The Presence of the Guest. They are not very popular texts, but they span a radical hospitality perspective over the world. It was only after my book came out that I read Donatella Di Cesare’s book Philosophy of Migration. But prose texts were equally important as inspiration, for example, The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann or Dr. Katzenberger’s Bathing Trip by Jean Paul.
Are migrants the most important challenge for Europe? What do you think? What do people in Switzerland say about migration?
I find that a difficult question. Migration has always existed and all societies have always benefited culturally from it, Europe in particular. Most nation-states treat guests horribly if they are welcomed at all (although the meaning of hospitality is maybe changing at the moment, at least in Europe). I don’t think it’s right to present migration only as a challenge. Switzerland is not a friendly country in terms of asylum policy, although it could easily afford to be as such a rich country. In reality, Switzerland only welcomes rich refugees with open arms.
In many Polish interpretations of The Guest critics wrote that it shows the European attitude towards refugees. What do you think about this view?
For me, it’s just one level of interpretation out of many. It’s not necessarily about Europe specifically, but about hostile societies and individuals in general. For me, it is important that the text can have many meanings and references at the same time – and is therefore in itself hospitable to the reader.
Ariane Koch – Swiss author of plays, radio dramas and prose texts, honoured with many awards. Her plays have been staged in Basel, Berlin, Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow, among others. Her debut novel, The Guest, published by Drzazgi, was honoured with the Swiss Literary Award.
Ewelina Kaczmarczyk – Salam Lab editor and writer, graduated in anthropological and cultural Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University. Interested in contemporary migration literature.