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Reading during the Covid19 years

Oelker, Gümüsay, Fouroutan, Kapitelman
© Oelker, Gümüsay, Fouroutan, Kapitelman

The digital file comprising the 500 or so titles submitted for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize each year is a sort of microcosm that displays the trends of the day - but also the pseudo-trends: the directions being plugged by publishers, and those that literary critics like to fantasise about. There were also discussions this year on the fundamental question as to what exactly is meant when we ask whether a book is worthy of a prize. On the one hand didacticism and activism have muscled in on the literary world as well as elsewhere, while on the other the politicisation of literature has been countered by those singing the praises of hermetic literature.

Thus both last year and this we have seen books appearing on long-lists and shortlists that gained much traction from the belief that they were absolutely essential for the purposes of social discourse. This year Hadija Haruna-Oelker’s book Die Schönheit der Differenz (‘The beauty of differentness’) was nominated in the Non-fiction category - a book by a Frankfurt journalist that aims to introduce its readers to the the jargon of people-of-colour activism while at the same time being unquestionably out to proselytise. A similar book was in contention last year too, namely Kübra Gümüsay’s Sprache und Sein (‘Language and being’), which argued for a more sensitive use of our everyday language, especially in regard to people of non-German origin. Both of these books present themselves as activist contributions to the prevailing social discourse, indeed their success derives precisely from that fact. Both are frequently personal and cursory in nature rather than grounded in serious scholarly research. Naika Foroutan’s book Die postmigrantische Gesellschaft. Ein Versprechen der pluralen Demokratie (‘Post-migrant society. The promise of a plural democracy’) also triggered passionate debate back then.
 

Bryla, Bazyar, Wenzel, Sanyal
© Bryla, Bazyar, Wenzel, Sanyal
The same thematic trend was also to be found in the Fiction category. Last year saw no fewer than five authors considered for inclusion on the shortlist who concern themselves with racism and/or are involved in anti-racist activism, Dmitrij Kapitelman, Kaśka Bryla, Shida Bazyar (whose Drei Kameradinnen (‘Three [female] comrades’) was also nominated for the German Book Prize), Olivia Wenzel, and Mithu Sanyal. The books selected by the jury for considereration this year followed the same trend, with the inclusion of titles by authors such as Senthuran Varatharajah, Sasha Marianna Salzmann, Fatma Aydemir, Katerina Poladjan, Slata Roschal and, of course, Tomer Gardi, the winner of this year’s Fiction prize.

These preferences clearly exhibit a wish to convey a picture of society that is more ‘diverse’ than that reflected hitherto in German-language literature. And it may be apt at this point to remember that less than ten years ago we were clamouring for more women to appear on prize lists - an aspiration that morphed into standard practice within a very short period of time, with the result that the authors chosen for consideration were by and large younger and included more women; last year the nominees in the Fiction category were all women except for Christian Kracht! This year, too, the number of women on the shortlist was pleasingly high. We may well now also see an analogous development take place in the form of an expansion of the ‘battleground’ of fiction to include all varieties of migrant themes, languages and traditions. These new perspectives constitute a massive enrichment of German-language literature - especially with respect to the image of German culture that is projected abroad.
 
Varatharajah, Aydemir, Poladjan, Salzmann
© Varatharajah, Aydemir, Poladjan, Salzmann
At the same time it needs to be acknowledged that not every book that is being talked about at the moment is a masterpiece. Many of the books show great qualities in terms of their easy-to-like entertainment value or their impressively outré manner of presenting their subject matter - but it is also clear in many cases that their authors have not yet quite mastered their craft. A considerable number of them are accounts of migration experiences that are closer to journalistic reportage than to literary-poetical meditation. They leave little in the air for our imagination to dwell on, preferring instead to harangue us with their reductive socio-political messages. ‘Telling’ replaces ‘showing’; indignation replaces literary dialogue. This sometimes makes the books predictable. And that is the real challenge whenever we ask ourselves what literary criticism is about - a challenge that this year at least provoked fundamental debates within the jury: What should we reward? - Literature that deals with the ‘correct’ topics? Or literature that is ‘good’?

Literary critics are happy these days when they see both approaches in tandem with each other; when the all too glib can be rendered palatable by a dash of the hermetic. Thus there were a number of authors this year who won plaudits because their narrative methods were deemed ‘avant-garde’. We might mention Dietmar Dath here, who made it onto the shortlist with his maths-oriented novel Gentzen oder, Betrunken aufräumen (‘Gentzen, or: Sorting things out while drunk’), in which he sought to apply the principles of higher mathematics to the novel’s time frame while simultaneously offering a critique of capitalism. Then there were the thematically sometimes quirky essays of the poet Uljana Wolf, who grappled on an elevated theoretical level with the ethics of translation and was duly rewarded in the Non-fiction category. In the Translation category itself the prize was won by Anne Weber with her rendering of a book by Cécile Wajsbrot that tackled questions concerning the readability and translatability of the world, albeit in a somewhat elitist fashion. Heike Geissler produced a political novel asking whether it is at all possible these days to be political when one is stuck firmly on the treadmill constituted by motherhood, family, and the work routines dictated by the digital, late-capitalist world - a treadmill further exacerbated by the ever more frenetic whirligig of changing values. The novel is interesting in its evocation of a woman’s life in the Leipzig of today, though it comes across as something of a diatribe that leaves little scope for imaginative effects and relies largely on discursiveness.
 
Dath, Gardi, Wolf,  Weber
© Dath, Gardi, Wolf, Weber
Turning now to Senthuran Varatharajah, his novel Rot (Hunger) (‘Red (Hunger)’) - which provoked considerable discussion in the preliminary round - focuses on the real-life case of the infamous Rothenburg cannibal, while combining it with the account of a migrant experience and a tale of self-destructive sex. He too, with his ragged, jagged line-layout and use of associative prose, is concerned to make political points. Viewed overall, the book is ambitious in its form, but also decidedly pretentious.

Things are very different in the case of the winner of the Leipzig prize for fiction. In his novel Eine runde Sache (‘A neatly rounded affair’) Tomer Gardi - an Israeli who has lived in Germany for many years - has turned a captivatingly flawed form of German into true literary diction and thus by dint of sheer playfulness brought to light a whole new dimension of the German language.

There were also some books this year that followed their own particular interests and fitted into neither of the opposing camps of ‘activism’ and ‘aesthetic autonomy’. One such was Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum (‘A room bounded by shadows’) by Emine Sevgi Özdamar, a book of poeticised reminiscences set variously in Istanbul, Berlin and Paris that veer into the surreal. From her first beginnings Özdamar was categorised as an exponent of migration literature, and as the doyenne of German-Turkish literature she lives up to her allotted role with real virtuosity. An additional aspect here is that Paris figures in a major and thought-provoking way as the central focus of intellectual yearnings in the 1980s.
 
Hoffmann, Özdamar, Geissler, Meier
© Hoffmann, Özdamar, Geissler, Meier
Also on the shortlist was the non-fiction author Christiane Hoffmann, for many years a foreign correspondent for Der Spiegel and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and currently Deputy Government Spokeswoman, who came up trumps with a thoroughly well written ‘migration story’ entitled Alles, was wir nicht erinnern. Zu Fuß auf dem Fluchtweg meines Vaters (‘The things we no longer remember. On foot on my father’s escape route’). By following the route that her nine-year-old father took in 1945 when his family was driven out of Silesia she not only confronts the unresolved traumas then suffered by the family, but also produces an impressive piece of reportage on the current realities of provincial life in Poland and the Czech Republic. The reader learns a great deal about the deep ideological differences that divide Europe today - including the tortured relationship between Ukraine and Russia. All the while, however, Hoffmann’s central concern is to fashion the hardships and belated repercussions of forced migration into a compelling narrative. This a book that perfectly suits its time, written by an author who knows much and has much to say.

One author I myself am especially fond of unfortunately didn’t make it onto the shortlist. With her book Die Auflösung des Hauses Decker (‘Clearing out the Decker family home’) Angelika Meier produced a novel fizzing with shrewdness and wit on the culture of the Federal Republic as it used to be. A fragile artist travels to the Ruhr to clear up the genteel villa of her dead father, a former professor, and as a result finds herself confronted with all manner of ghosts from the 1968 era. A touch of Kafka, a dash of Beckett, a sprinkling of the jargon used by the radical-left ‘K-groups’ of the period, and a great deal of Angelika Meier are all to be found in this book.

Eine andere Epoche (‘A different era’) by Ulf Erdmann Ziegler is another novel about the Federal Republic, focusing on the political personalities that characterised the early days of the country after Berlin became its capital. The scandal involving the former Federal President Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina is covered here, as are the infamous National Socialist Union murders and the case of the parliamentarian Sebastian Edathy, who stood accused of child pornography. We are shown the mindset of an era that these days seems curiously remote.
 
Erpenbeck, Ziegler, Franck, Roschal
© Erpenbeck, Ziegler, Franck, Roschal
Life in the German Democratic Republic is also reflected this year in two books by well-known authors. Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Kairos (‘Kairos’) and Julia Franck’s Welten auseinander (‘Worlds asunder’) are both heavily influenced by the political undercurrents that permeated their own real-life backgrounds. Julia Franck recounts the story of a life devoid of emotional bonds amongst eccentric artists in East Berlin. Erpenbeck depicts the disturbingly perverted love relationship between a leading East Berlin intellectual and a student. Both experience the cataclysmic end of the GDR in terms of the inherent assumptions and expectations of their generation.

In conclusion I should like to recommend the book 153 Formen des Nichtseins (‘153 forms of non-being’). This ingenious and innovative debut novel by Slata Roschal, born 1992 in St. Petersburg, stands out amongst the various books dealing with migrant experiences in Germany. It presents one hundred and fifty three highly diverse evocations of the experience of alienation, entirely free of activist axe-grinding. A small and perfectly formed novel made up of discrete fragments by an author well worth watching.


Copyright: © Litrix.de

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