German Book Prize Selection – Short List for the 2012 Book Prize

The logo of  2012 German Book Prize; © Deutscher Buchpreis
The logo of 2012 German Book Prize | Photo (detail): © Deutscher Buchpreis

The Association of the German Book Trade has chosen six authors who will now have to worry less than their colleagues about their sales. Clemens J. Setz, Wolfgang Herrndorf, Ernst Augustin, Ursula Krechel, Stephan Thome and Ulf Erdmann Ziegler are the contenders for the 2012 German Book Prize.

Naturally, some critics would have made very different choices – and so a struggle for interpretive authority over contemporary German literature has been raging among critics. They are unanimous, however, in the amazement that Rainald Goetz’s critical business world novel is not on the list. Nor is the proclaimed “autumn of the crisis novels” otherwise reflected in the selection. What sort of books are these then that are supposed to express the trends in contemporary German literature?

Robinsons blaues Haus – fantastic refuges

Ernst Augustin’s novel Robinsons blaues Haus (i.e., Robinson’s Blue House) leads the reader into a colorful, fantastic world full of strange realities and with heights and abysses, friends and persecutors and elusive identities. Spaces and their arrangement are essential in this world, whether they emerge in the form of a diving bell or a burglar-proof broom closet. They are bolt holes and refuges where protection is sought against the outside world, places of inwardness. The psychological dimension of the novel by the long-time psychiatrist Ernst Augustin is very clear here. Augustin has himself said that Robinson is “a handbook of dwelling, where dwelling is synonymous with living”. Each of the rooms, arranged in accordance with a particular inner life, represents not least different phases of “arranging oneself with oneself”. We thus have to do here with a surreal manual of life told in sequences of various genres.

Sand – spy thriller or post-colonial desert satire?

Not surreal but also replete with persecutors and confusions of identities, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s novel Sand comes to the short list having already been awarded the Leipzig Book Prize. It takes place in 1972 in North Africa, at the same time as the Olympic Village in Munich was attacked. Four residents of a hippie commune at the edge of the desert are shot; not far away a man gets hit on the head and loses his memory; an American woman, pretty but not free of complexes, is on a purported business trip, meets the amnesiac man at a gas station and takes him under her wing – so begins a series of catastrophes. The connections, so far as there are any, are revealed in the course of the book. Or then again not.

Indigo – children that make you ill

The prize for the most beautiful book would certainly go to Clemens J. Setz. Its content, however, is still bleaker than the soft, speckled gray cover suggests. How does a society deal with a “marginal group” that is “different”? One that has none of the external marks of difference, but that makes people who come into contact with it ill. Vomiting, diarrhea, rashes are the symptoms brought about by an indigo child as soon as someone enters the dangerous “contact zone”. Isolated from the outside world, the “indigo children” are taught in special institutions by, among others, the protagonist Clemens Setz (the author’s self-referential game is here mentioned only by the way). Setz stumbles upon the practice of “re-location” – a term cloaking the disappearance without a trace of several of the children – and looks for answers. An enigmatic, collage-like novel in which the author Setz delights in treating psychopathologies.

Clemens Setz about his novel „Indigo“

Nichts weißes – homage to the printed word

Ulf Erdmann Ziegler approaches his sleeping protagonist Marleen in a marvellously poetic and very gentle manner on the first page of his novel Nichts weißes (i.e., Nothing White), a homage on the printed word. Marleen Schuller’s world is typography. Very early on she knows what she wants: to design the perfect script, a “script without style”, one “that no one even notices”. An invisible vessel of the pure word. Beginning in the post-war period, Ziegler describes the career of a young woman in a time of change when not only lead type was replaced by computer technology, finding for this an unpretentious, direct language that forfeits nothing of poetry.

Fliehkräfte – failure without risks

The written word is also the métier of Hartmut Hainbach, Professor for Analytic Philosophy. How does it feel when you have arrived at the prime of life and got more or less what you wanted, but the people around you are constantly looking for new challenges? Is the failure he who has never dared anything, or he who treads water brooding over “What would have happened if ...”? In Fliehkräfte (i.e., Centrifugal Forces), Stephan Thome treats these and other questions in the disillusioned surroundings of the once self-satisfied academic establishment.

Landgericht – coming home to the alien

With Landgericht (i.e., Regional Court), Ursula Krechel has contributed an unadorned and realistic historical family novel to the short list. She tells the story of the Jewish judge Richard Kornitzer, who returns to Germany years after his expulsion by the Nazis. Yet he cannot feel at home in his former homeland. Kornitzer encounters a post-war Germany in which the suppression of history has become reality and denazification and restitution move forward only sluggishly – or not at all. Thus unwinds the story of a tragic figure who fights against these realities, insists on his rights and thereby comes more and more to resemble Michael Kohlhaas.