Terézia Mora Running from alienation

Author and translator Terézia Mora was awarded the 2018 Georg Büchner Prize.
Author and translator Terézia Mora was awarded the 2018 Georg Büchner Prize. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Gregor Fischer / dpa

She left the powdered-sugar winds of the Hungarian countryside behind to become a renowned writer in Berlin: Terézia Mora writes about the excluded, the seekers, and the lovers. Now her work has been honoured with the Georg Büchner Prize.

Some people do not feel at home in their homelands, so they try to shake off a sense of alienation, set off in search of a place to experience a kind of homecoming. They flee an intolerable feeling of otherness, a form of escape intimately familiar to Terézia Mora.

Born in Hungary and now at home in Berlin, Mora is one of contemporary German literature’s most important authors. Her writing is relentless and urgent yet not without compassion. This autumn, the German Academy for Language and Literature will present Mora with the Georg Büchner Prize for writing that falls between “immediate presence and the living art of language”. The prestigious prize comes with 50,000 euros, making it the most highly endowed award for literature in Germany.

Right now in 2018, Terézia Mora is 47 years old, married and the mother of one daughter. Her life journey began in Sopron, a town of 60,000 in the Hungarian region lyrically named West 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 was part of a German-speaking minority in Hungary. She grew up bilingual and can recall being determined as a child “not to stay in this village a single day longer than required by law”. Mora moved to Berlin in 1990 after political upheavals reshaped Europe, where she became part of a different minority of native Hungarians. She completed a degree in Hungarian studies and drama and enrolled in the German Film and Television Academy, before working as Hungarian translator and starting to write herself.  

“Powdered-sugar winds and melting road tar”

Her first book, a collection of short stories entitled Seltsame Materie (Strange Matter), was released nine years later. One story from the collection, Der Fall Ophelia (The Case of Ophelia), won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, ushering Mora into the heart of Germany’s literary scene. In her award-winning tale, Mora writes about growing up in an Eastern Bloc country: “Every year, there were ten months 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 addresses the hurdles of belonging to a group that speaks 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 has said, is embedded in her instincts.

Childhood images from the Hungarian province are as much a part of her work as the hustle and bustle of the unfathomable city Mora explores her first novel. Alle Tage (Day In, Day Out), the story of Abel Nema who fled Europe’s East to a German city, was published in 2004. 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’s debut novel garnered high praise, and earned her the Leipzig Book Fair Prize.

Her next work was published in 2009. Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent (The Only Man on the Continent) introduces readers to a rather unheroic hero, Darius Kopp. Kopp grew up in East Germany, works as a representative of an American IT company, and is overweight, married and - like all of us - in search of happiness. In her second novel, Mora explores the vanities and insecurities of a middle-aged man and readers’ feelings for the perpetually-sweaty Darius Kopp fluctuate between cringing embarrassment and honest compassion.  

Book prize for a “masterful obituary”

Koop returns in Mora’s third novel, Das Ungeheuer (The Monster). In the interim Darius’ wife has killed herself, and he has lost his job and set out on an odyssey through Eastern and Southern 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. Mora employs this trick she calls a “disruptive action” to symbolically divide the underworld from the earthly realm. 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”.

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.