Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Writing against inhumanity: Margaret Atwood and Germany

Canadian author Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood will receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2017. | © Liam Sharp

Every year, two of the most important German literature prizes are awarded during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest trade fair for books in the world. Whereas the German Book Prize is for books in German only, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has been awarded internationally. Margaret Atwood has been a guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair in previous years, but this fall, she will return to Frankfurt not as a visitor but to receive the highly esteemed Peace Prize.

The jury was deeply impressed by Margaret Atwood’s “keen sense for dangerous subliminal developments and political undercurrents” in her work, which shows how fragile our assumed normality is – and how quickly it can turn into brutality (see the jury’s full statement in German here). For every book, Atwood conducted meticulous research so that her stories have, at least to some extent, a historical counterpart. This may be a reason why Atwood’s most popular novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, topped the bestseller lists again, 32 years after its first publication in 1985, and why it, and other books like The Heart Goes Last are relevant and seem to be commentary on contemporary events.

In a recent article, The New Yorker calls her a “prophet of dystopia” and a “buoyant doomsayer” and even though the U.S. has not yet turned into Gilead (the fictitious US-American successor state where The Handmaid’s Tale is set) Atwood acknowledges some analogies: “It’s the return of patriarchy”, she says about Donald Trump’s administration. Still, in an essay for the New York Times the Toronto-based author insists that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a prediction but rather an antiprediction, as the future cannot be foreseen but only be imagined. A hope that it will never happen. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, has a historical basis.

Atwood was invited by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to spend some months in West Berlin in 1984. The city and the whole country were still divided. The immediate vicinity of the GDR and the fragility of the political situation were palpable. In her apartment at Helmstedter Straße, Atwood could hear the East German Airforce’s flying exercises with supersonic speed. This is where she began to write The Handmaid’s Tale, one of her most popular novels.  At that time, Atwood also traveled through East Germany, former Czechoslovakia and Poland and the experiences, the stories she was told, had a crucial influence on her writing. “I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing”, Atwood recalls in her New York Times essay. 

The first draft she wrote by hand, then typed it with a German typewriter she had rented. Together with many other documents of her literary legacy, she later donated the manuscript to the archive of the University of Toronto. But Atwood did not hole up in her apartment; Berlin was also the perfect place to practice the German she had learned at school and university. She remembers the people in Berlin making many puns; she imitated them to improve her speaking skills. Until today, one of her favorite German words is “Fußpilz” (athlete’s foot), which literally translates to “foot fungus”, she reveals in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. Atwood left Berlin in June 1984 to go back to Canada but returned to Germany in 1987 to promote the German translation of The Handmaid’s Tale at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The novel was very successful in Germany – so far over one million copies have been sold.

Renowned German director Volker Schlöndorff was the first to adapt the novel into a film in the late 80s. Atwood attended the premiere at the Berlinale 1990 and was enthusiastically welcomed by fans. The Berlin Wall fell only a couple of months prior; two screenings were held, one in East and one in West Germany. The audiences reacted very differently, Atwood in conversation with The Globe and Mail journalist Simon Houpt remembers:  “In West Germany, they’re talking about aesthetics and directing and, you know, colour choices and biographies and things like that. In East Germany, they watched it very, very intently. And they said, ‘This was our life.’ They meant the feeling that you couldn’t trust anyone.”

Margaret Atwood remains the most popular and the most taught Canadian author in Germany today. Bestowing her with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade demonstrates not only the impact her work had on German readers throughout the last decades but her international significance as well and the importance of humanity, tolerance and activism today.