Running from alienation
She left the powdered-sugar winds of the Hungarian countryside behind to become a renowned writer: Terézia Mora writes about outsiders, those who wish to belong and those who seek – and find – love. For which she was honoured with the Georg Büchner Prize in 2018.
By Viola Kiel
Some people don’t feel at home in their homeland. To escape that unbearable sense of being a stranger in one’s own country, they set off in search of a place where they can feel at home. Terézia Mora knows about the tough transition from outsider to insider.
Hungarian-born Mora made it to Berlin and has since made it as a leading light of contemporary German literature. She writes mercilessly, urgently, and yet compassionately. The German Academy for Language and Literature describes Mora's writing as inbetween “immediate presence and the living art of language", and in the autumn of 2018 awarded her the €50,000 Georg Büchner Prize, making it the most highly endowed award for literature in Germany.
Terézia Mora is married and has a daughter. She was born in 1971 in Sopron, a town of about sixty thousand inhabitants in a Hungarian region with the whimsical name Western Transdanubia. Sopron is in the north-western tip of Hungary very close to the Austrian border. And while Vienna is three times closer than the capital Budapest, the Iron Curtain once resolutely separated Mora’s homeland from neighbouring Austria
Mora's family is part of Hungary’s German-speaking minority and she grew up bilingual. Already as a child she made up her mind "not to stay a single day longer in this village than required by law", as she recalls. And as soon as Europe opened up in 1990, she moved to Berlin – where she again found herself part of a minority, though this time around it was the Hungarian-born community. She studied Hungarian studies and drama and attended the German Film and Television Academy, before working as Hungarian translator and starting to write herself.
"POWDERED-SUGAR WINDS AND MELTING ROAD TAR"
Nine years later, she published her first book: Seltsame Materie (Strange Matter), a collection of short stories including Der Fall Ophelia (The Case of Ophelia), which won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, ushering Mora into the heart of Germany’s literary scene.
In Der Fall Ophelia, she describes her own childhood in Eastern Europe: "Ten months a year of never-ending rain, wind, the smell of molasses and factory soot falling on the linens. The rest was white summer, powdered-sugar winds and melting road tar." And she recounts the obstacles facing a minority who speak a different language: "The teacher just explained that anyone who speaks like my family does is a fascist.” Living in the nebulous in-between must have been a difficult burden for a young girl to bear, and shaped Mora, giving her her language. Eastern Europe, she says, is embedded in her instincts.
Images of childhood in the Hungarian province run through Mora’s work, as does the experience of losing one’s way amid the hustle and bustle of an unfathomable city, which formed the subject-matter of her first novel. Alle Tage (Day In, Day Out), which came out in 2004, tells the story of Abel Nema, who flees Europe’s East to a German city. His bride can smell the cloying scent of otherness clinging to him. This foreignness seems to keep the protagonist from ever finding his feet in both his personal relationships and in a city, a country, and a society. Mora, on the other hand, has clearly settled in, and literary success now clings to her: her debut novel won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
Her next novel, Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent (The Only Man on the Continent), came out in 2009. It’s about the vanities and uncertainties of a middle-aged man. Darius Kopp, its unheroic hero, grew up in East Germany and works as a representative of an American IT company. He’s overweight, always perspiring, married and – like everyone else – looking for happiness. The reader is likely to feel a mix of shame and compassion for Darius Kopp.
BOOK PRIZE FOR A "MASTERFUL OBITUARY"
Darius Kopp returns in Das Ungeheuer (Monster), Mora's third novel. His wife has since taken her own life, he has lost his job and now sets forth on an odyssey across Eastern and Southeast Europe. The pages are bisected by a black stripe, with the top of the page devoted to descriptions of Darius Kopp’s meanderings through life, and the lower half filled with notes from deceased wife detailing her battles with the dark monster depression. This graphic device – which Mora calls a Störmanöver, i.e., in military parlance, "disruptive action" – serves to symbolically separate the underworld from earthly existence. While the device may seem artificial, critics were enchanted by the second instalment of the planned trilogy, and Mora was honoured with the 2013 German Book Prize for what the jury called a “stylistically masterful obituary”.
In Mora's fourth novel, Auf dem Seil (On the Rope), IT expert Darius Kopp traverses Europe with the ashes of his late wife. In Sicily he meets his 17-year-old niece; they have to depend on each other, and end up returning to Berlin together. Kopp performs a sort of balancing act, gauging his happiness by the things he can – or cannot – change.
Mora's characters fail and fail again. They are alone and their vain attempts to run from alienation only serve to deepen the divide. Mora follows her protagonists on their desperate search for belonging with dazzling imagery and linguistic finesse. The struggle runs through her most recent work as well, a story collection entitled Die Liebe unter Aliens (Love among Aliens). Mora hinted as her thematic mission in her very first novel, writing: “Panic is not the state of a single person, panic is the state of this world”. And the desire to escape this state is equally universal.