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.
Young German writer Helene Hegemann is at the center of a new literary scandal.

Young German writer Helene Hegemann is at the center of a new literary scandal.

Foto: DDP

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.

'There Was No Need for Her to Copy Me'

To fully understand the situation, perhaps it is necessary to try and see the story from Airen's perspective. After years of excess, the dawn of a new life and quitting writing, parts of his own story have landed on the bestseller lists. Except that somebody else wrote the book. It's hardly surprising that he's feeling stunned.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that Airen likes the novel. "'Axolotl' is full of interesting sections," he says. "There was really no need for her to copy me. But she borrowed entire passages of dialogue. I feel like my copyright has been infringed."

In "Axolotl Roadkill," Hegemann sketches out her aesthetic philosophy in different terms. "Berlin is here to mix everything with everything," one of her characters says, in English. "I help myself wherever I find inspiration and ideas: Films, music, books, paintings, poetry about sausages, photos, conversations, dreams … Light and shadow, precisely because my work and my theft become authentic the moment something touches my soul. Who cares where I get things from? All that matters is what I do with them." "So it's not by you, then?" someone asks him. "No. It's by some blogger."

Heroin as Metaphor

Airen is that blogger. His aesthetic philosophy, by contrast, is simple: "If it says in my book that I had to throw up, it means I really threw up," he says with a smile. It's the smile of a man who is glad just to have survived.

For one of them it is all a game, and a text is always the result of an experiment. For the other it began in similar fashion, but then turned serious. One uses heroin as a metaphor for truth -- the other actually used it.

So, in this case, is it theft or an act of homage to plagiarize sentences? Is it "remixing" or is it just stealing?

For Airen and the Sukultur publishing house, the situation is simple. "We want to make it clear that 'Strobo' is one of many elements which make up 'Axolotl Roadkill.' That has to be recognized and valued," says Anja Maleu.

That's exactly what the Ullstein publishing house wants to do. Future editions of "Axolotl Roadkill" will contain a list of sources. The American author Kathy Acker will be mentioned, as will American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and private correspondence -- and Airen, in the form of both his blog and his book.

Just a Clever Marketing Idea?

Airen has already been added to the book's acknowledgements. Hegemann admits it was a mistake not to have mentioned him from the outset. But she insists she corrected the mistake before the scandal broke and the accusations against her began. But she doesn't think she did anything wrong.

Interestingly enough, Airen's name appears in the acknowledgements together with that of the powerful German literary agent Petra Eggers. With so many famous names in her immediate surroundings, it's easy to dismiss Hegemann's book as a clever marketing idea or even an imaginary tale about "the cultural establishment itself," as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper put it.

On the other hand, it's made a great story.

The success of "Axolotl Roadkill" is based on a yearning for an authentic voice with access to a world that is closed to others. For a while, it seemed as if a 17-year-old bohemian from the trendy Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg could be this voice. The hubbub about whether or not she committed plagiarism is partly also fuelled by disappointment that she probably isn't that writer. Nevertheless, even if Hegemann used passages written by Airen, it doesn't prove that she isn't that voice. She is certainly a contender. Except, like her readers, she also yearns to access that underground world. And she has a good ear for the authentic -- that's how she found Airen.

The World as Raw Material

Hegemann says she mercilessly plundered her own experiences and those of her friends in the search for material. That is something that has to be taken seriously. The ability to rely on your own taste, to interpret things to suit your needs and to transform them in a way that they can become significant is a talent that should not be underestimated -- because it is rarer than the ability to write well.

In the world of pop music, such people are called stars. A star must know what's cool and be able to represent and personify those things. Being ruthless comes with the territory. Stars use the whole world as their raw material. They take what they consider to be rightfully theirs with the confidence of a demi-god.

That can be painful for those people who become someone else's raw material. It's an act of cruelty, but it is not intended to hurt people's feelings.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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