Sex, Drugs and Plagiarism: Did the New Star of German Literature Steal from a Blogger?
Bestselling 17-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann is being accused of plagiarism after it was revealed that her debut novel contains passages lifted from a blog about sex and drugs in Berlin's techno scene. She denies she did anything wrong.
She may be embroiled in what could be the year's first big literary scandal, but Helene Hegemann seems relatively relaxed. It's Tuesday afternoon of last week. That morning, the culture pages of all of Germany's major daily newspapers published stories about Hegemann's novel "Axolotl Roadkill," and now hundreds of e-mails have flooded her inbox. "I can't understand what all the fuss is about," Hegemann says.
The interview with SPIEGEL is taking place in the offices of the Ullstein publishing house on Friedrichstrasse in central Berlin. Ullstein is one of the largest publishers in Germany, and we are sitting in the conference room on the top floor, nicknamed the "glass palace." A picture window looks out over the city.
Hegemann's book is a huge success. Ullstein has already printed 100,000 copies, and the novel is already in its third edition barely two weeks after it appeared. However, the previous weekend, it emerged that important parts of the book were not written by Hegemann herself. That's what all the fuss is about.
The sections in question were written by a blogger who calls himself Airen. SPIEGEL met Airen a few kilometers to the northwest of Ullstein's headquarters, at the law offices of Anja Maleu in the basement of a villa in the Berlin district of Reinickendorf. Just a few streets away are the offices of Sukultur, a small publishing house run by three literature enthusiasts. One of them is Frank Maleu, who is also a lawyer.
A Story of Sex and Drugs
The man who goes by the name of Airen is 28 years old and is wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He is clearly agitated. He doesn't want his real name to be published because he's worried he'll never work again if his employer finds out he has written a book about techno music and drugs. Airen lives in a world that's a far cry from that of Helene Hegemann. And yet Airen experienced some of what Helene Hegemann wrote about. This is what has triggered Germany's first major literary scandal of 2010.
Were it merely a question of plagiarism, the controversy would never have blown up to these proportions. The case centers on a phenomenally successful book -- currently in second place on the German bestseller lists -- which deals with sex, drugs, Berlin, youth, celebrities, generational issues, the Internet and copyright. But what's more important is the fact that the story is totally crazy.
On the one side we have the author, Helene Hegemann. Nothing annoys her more than being reduced to her age. And yet she has published a novel of astonishing depth and thematic breadth for someone who is just 17 years old. What's more, her age has lent her extra credibility. "Axolotl Roadkill" is about a 16-year-old young woman rebelling against the impossibility of rebelling. The protagonist comes from an affluent background but nevertheless feels neglected and spends her time taking drugs and philosophizing. The book is set in techno clubs like Berlin's famous Berghain club and bohemian shared apartments. Many consider it to be a generation-defining novel.
Helene Hegemann is the daughter of the famous German dramaturge and theater professor Carl Hegemann, which is another fact she hates to hear mentioned. She worries people might think she was riding her father's shirttails. She says things like: "I remember sentences my friends tell me just as much as I take on the ideas of (Slovenian critical theorist) Slavoj Zizek." Hegemann, who comes across as something of a know-it-all, moves through cultural history and the history of ideas with the ease of someone who is the daughter of a creative type and who is used to moving in the inner circles of the Berlin cultural scene.
A Vicious Circle of Excess
On the other side, we have Airen, a blogger who comes from a very different world. He is reluctant to speak about his private life but eventually reveals that he grew up in Upper Bavaria, came to Berlin a few years ago and began working at a consultancy firm. It's a world that has little in common with that of Berlin's young bohemians. "We'd already have clocked up 40 working hours by Wednesday," he says. Since the job was demanding and Airen was lonely, he began immersing himself in Berlin's nightlife and then blogging about it.
It was a combination that soon spun out of control, he explains. The writing fed on the partying, and the partying fed on the writing, until he became locked in a vicious circle of excess. At first he simply wrote about his nocturnal experiences, but very quickly he began doing things precisely so that he could blog about them. He took any kind of drugs he could lay his hands on, including ecstasy, speed, cocaine, heroin and ketamine. He also had sex with anyone he could lay his hands on, including men, women and transvestites, in the darkrooms of clubs like Berghain, in toilets, anywhere.
It was a tumultuous time, but one that is now over. Airen says he no longer goes out. He's chronicled his hedonist experiences in a book called "Strobo," a condensed and expanded reworking of his blog posts. "Strobo" is the journal of a man without limits. A few hundred copies of the book have been sold. One of them fell into the hands of Helene Hegemann.
Airen says his life has changed completely. He says he is married and has a child. And no longer writes -- when he stopped going out, he simply ran out of ideas.
- Part 1: Did the New Star of German Literature Steal from a Blogger?
- Part 2: 'There Was No Need for Her to Copy Me'
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