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Overview of the German Book Prize

Over at Love German Books, the wonderful Katy Derbyshire has a fun and informative overview of all the titles on this year’s German Book Prize longlist. As with years past (this is the third year that Katy’s written this sort of overview) she noticed some common themes among the books:

Teenage girls seemed to crop up rather frequently, which I love because there’s nothing sexier to read about than teenage girls. I do wonder if it’s a reaction to Helene Hegemann’s success though. The other common thread is setting things abroad, preferably in Eastern Europe or Paris as opposed to the USA, which was all the rage last year. Or if it’s not set abroad, an oppressive village setting is a bit of a classic in contemporary German writing. Also, about half the book covers feature some variant of trains, planes and automobiles – it would seem the German readership longs to get away from it all.

As a result, each of the write-ups has a note about where the book is set, and “Teenage Girl Factor” . . . Check out the link above to read about all the titles, but here are the ones that piqued my interest based on her write-ups:

Alina Bronsky, Die schärfsten Gerichte der tatarischen Küche

This is billed as “a delightfully spicy novel for women – emotionally charged, sensual, shocking and exotic – the story of the most passionate and astute grandmother of all time.” Which majorly pisses me off I’m afraid; because what do men get to read then – tales of golfing grandfathers?

Anyway, as with her first novel Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky just writes so entertainingly and convincingly that I can’t help jettisoning all my prejudices and simply enjoying the prose. This time it’s a quirky grandmother trying to abort her ugly daughter’s immaculately conceived foetus. Which is a hell of a lot funnier than it sounds. Very possibly a German version of that Ukrainian tractors book – fun, light post-Soviet reading matter with strong characters. Rights have already been sold to Europa Editions, so look out for an American version, probably translated by Tim Mohr. I know I’ll be reading it.

Jan Faktor, Georgs Sorgen um die Vergangenheit oder Im Reich des heiligen Hodensack-Bimbams von Prag

Jan Faktor is utterly cool – I’ve seen him live a couple of times and always gone home happy. According to the blurb, this is a book about a boy growing up in Prague: “Caught between war-traumatised aunts, a tyrannical uncle and a dazzlingly beautiful mother, all Georg wants is to escape to a new future.”

The extract is great stuff, detailing Georg’s concerns with his genitals and his obsession with his past. The language is delightful and intricate and witty but I suspect, from the extract, the length of the book – about 600 pages – and what I’ve heard him read, that it’s probably very, very rambling. The novel was also shortlisted for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in the spring and is on the longlist for oddest title. Too long for my weak wrists though, I’m afraid.

Michael Kleeberg, Das amerikanische Hospital

A Frenchwoman makes friends with an American soldier recovering from the Gulf War in the Parisian hospital of the title. I like the little I’ve read of Michael Kleeberg’s writing in the past – he seems to be uninterested in trendy subjects and chooses “real stuff” to write about. The publishers say: “Michael Kleeberg skilfully and movingly interweaves contemporary history and private lives, the mental horrors of war and the physical horrors of an unfulfilled wish for children with the dense atmosphere of Paris.”

The extract is like a puzzle, and possibly the novel as a whole unfolds this way, which is always fun. The soldier describes the Middle East in a beautiful, unrealistic, imagery-laden monologue, which gets very disturbing. My notes: Woah. Seems very good. I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thomas Lehr, September

Two female protagonists, one an American who dies on 9/11, the other an Iraqi who dies in a bombing three years later. Lehr’s previous novel, 42, was shortlisted for the German Book Prize in 2005 and is a bizarre scenario in which time stands still for everyone but a small group of people. The publishers say: “In densely poetic language, September tells a story about Islam, about oil, terror and war and about two women who stand for the victims of this conflict.”

And people, it’s fantastic stuff! Even the pattern the words make on the page is beautiful. Lehr avoids the traps of Orientalism, sketching a Middle East rife with sin and sensuality, myth and bathos. Contrasted with Long Island, other private calamities. My notes are strewn with “OMG”s. Odd words, odd sentences, odd punctuation. I think he makes the two women sisters. Mentally. I think they watch each other and tell the other’s story. But maybe they don’t. I really need to read this book.

Andreas Maier, Das Zimmer

A grown-up narrator recounts his childhood memories of his rather eccentric uncle. Maier’s second novel Klausen is out now in translation by Kenneth J. Northcott. I once saw Maier in the flesh and he had an unappealing Al Qaeda-style ginger beard. But don’t let that put you off. The publishers say: “Das Zimmer is both a portrait from memory and a novel, perhaps the beginning of a great family saga, a reflection on time and civilisation, on human dignity and how to maintain it.”

The language in the extract is a delight, smattered with great words that jump out at you. And it’s full of intelligent ideas and strange characters, primarily of course that uncle. It certainly made me want more – a real contender, at least for my reading pile.

Andreas Schäfer, Wir vier

A family shaken to its foundations by the murder of a son. The publishers say: “Us four lucidly, sovereignly and movingly tells the story of a trauma and its consequences. The reader cannot get away from it.”

And yes, the extract is great stuff. Infused with threat and oppressive atmosphere from beginning to end, everyday life lived with an appalling memory at the back of everybody’s mind. Traces of violence popping up everywhere, and a strong-minded mother holding it all together, just about. Deceptively simple narration, so much going on below the surface. I liked it a lot, I’ll read it if it makes the shortlist.

Thanks for this overview, Katy, and we’ll be posting more about the award as soon as the shortlist is announced. (And yes, still pulling for Maier. . . . Klausen is a damn amazing accomplishment, and this new book sounds fascinating.)



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