Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles._
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The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck, translated by Anthea Bell
Why This Book Should Win: Anthea Bell is one of the best translators working today; this novel won the German Book Prize in 2007; it made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year for the UK edition.
Since this novel has already won a number of prizes, here’s a series of quotes and comments from other award givers:
“Framed by the story of a child abandoned in the chaos of postwar Germany, this novel shows epoch-making events through the eyes and emotions of the ordinary people – above all the women – who always bear their brunt. After the tramuas of the 1914-1918 war, half-Jewish Helene escapes to Weimar Berlin, an emancipated nurse breathing the air of freedom. As the darkness of the Hitler era closes in, marriage to a pro-Nazi engineer link dictatorship at home and in the state, in a novel finely attuned to every exercise of power- and every act of resistance.” — Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
“Against the background of two world wars, Julia Franck tells the disturbing story of a woman who leaves her son, without finding herself. The book is persuasive in its vivid use of language, narrative power and psychological intensity. A novel for long conversation.”, is how the seven judges for the German Book Prize announced their choice.
(And just for the oddity of this quote, here’s another bit from the German Book Prize people: “There was a big majority for the judges’ choice of Julia Franck’s novel Die Mittagsfrau as the winner for the 2007 novel of the year. This decision was preceded by energetic and intense discussion of all titles; there was particularly lively argument as to what a contemporary German novel is able to achieve over and above literary fashions and off-the-peg goods”, says Felicitas von Lovenberg, speaking on behalf of the judges. “Off-the-peg goods” is my new favorite phrase. Along with “unintended fuckery.”)
Keeping on with the glowing praise for this novel, here’s a bit from Julia Pascal’s review in the Independent:
It is easy to see why The Blind Side of the Heart won the German Book Prize. Julia Franck’s novel, based on her own father’s life, is one of the most haunting works I have ever read about 20th-century Germany. Its distinction is Franck’s ability to explore intergenerational trauma in a totally fresh way – as if the 39-year-old author had lived through two world wars and returned as a witness.
Helene is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Aryan father. Brought up in Saxony she, and her sister Martha, suffer the consequences of their father’s war injuries and their mother’s mental illness. Both escape poverty and enjoy a freer life with their decadent Jewish aunt in Weimar Berlin.
What is so clever about Franck’s characters and plotting is that she shows the women maturing without any sense of political awareness. Although they see Lotte Lenya in Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, the larger political struggle, between Communism and Nazism, hardly touches them. The rise of Hitler is so understated that its gathering momentum gives the book a compulsive charge.
Granted, there is a surfeit of WWII-related books out there, but to convince you of the worthiness of this title, here’s an except (or technically, an excerpt of an excerpt):
They headed to the station at a run. But on the staircase down to the station, a uniformed nurse with a protruding belly came towards them, obviously a colleague of his mother’s. She told them the special trains weren’t coming into Stettin, they’d have to go out to Scheune, walk to the next stop; that was where the trains were going from.
They walked along between the tracks. The nurse got out of breath quickly. She jostled into place next to his mother and Peter walked behind them, trying to hear what they were talking about. The nurse said she hadn’t got a moment’s sleep, she kept thinking of the bodies they’d found in the hospital yard at night. Peter’s mother didn’t reply. She didn’t mention the soldiers’ visit. Her colleague sobbed, she admired Peter’s mother for her dedication, even though everybody knew, well, that something wasn’t right about her origin. The nurse laid a hand on her round belly and puffed, but she didn’t want to talk about that now. Who had that courage after all? She could never have taken one of the stakes herself and pulled it out of one of the women’s bodies, staked like animals, their guts all torn to shreds. She stood still for a moment and propped her heavy body on Peter’s mother’s shoulder, taking deep breaths, the woman who survived had kept calling for her daughter, but she’d bled to death beside her long before. Peter’s mother stopped still and told the nurse gruffly to stop talking. For heaven’s sake, stop it.
The narrow platform at Scheune was crowded with people waiting. They sat on the ground in groups and eyed the new arrivals with mistrust.
Nurse Alice! The call came from a group of people sitting on the ground; two women waved their arms wildly. Peter’s mother followed the call of the woman, who seemed to have recognized her. She squatted down next to them on the ground. Peter sat down next to his mother; the pregnant woman followed them but stayed on her feet, indecisive. She shuffled from one foot to the other. The women whispered amongst themselves, and two women and a man disappeared with the pregnant nurse. When a woman had to pee she was accompanied by several people if possible. People said the Russkis were hiding in the bushes and jumping out on women.
(FYI: The above translation is by Katy Derbyshire, not Anthea Bell. Katy’s a great translator as well, runs “Love German Books” and is a big champion of Julia Franck.)
So, even though we’re in danger right now of becoming a blog that only writes about book prizes (or maybe I’m only feeling that way because the Best Translated Book Award has been on my mind for so long), we would be remiss if we didn’t make mention of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist:
There are a few things to note: Although the bigger presses, or big name presses, are well represented, it’s interesting to note how much of the heavy lifting for translation in the UK is done by smaller independent presses (Comma, Maia, Bitter Lemon); there are three books (three!) that are translated from Arabic, which has to be some kind of record; and Humphrey Davies and Anthea Bell have the knack—two nominated titles each.
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