Outstanding Writing, Extraordinary Lives

Prize Winners:
Melinda Nadj Abonji (Author&Rights + Sample Translation)
Iris Hanika (Author&Rights + Sample Translation)
Christian Nürnberger (Author&Rights)

Sheridan Marshall introduces readers to the recipients of three prestigious literary prizes, awarded in recognition of the skill with which the authors make the variously ordinary and extraordinary lives of their fictional characters and historical figures available to their readers.

The German Book Prize (‘Deutscher Buchpreis’) is considered to be the German equivalent of the Man Booker Prize and is awarded annually at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The prize was instituted in 2005 by the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers with the aim of raising international awareness of German language literature. The prize is open to any work of fiction written in German and published within the preceding year. Three of the six winning titles have already been translated into English: Arno Geiger’s We Are Doing Fine (Ariadne Press 2010), Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots (Europa Editions 2008) and Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart (Harvill 2009).
Following the success of the German Book Prize, the Swiss Book Prize (‘Schweizer Buchpreis’) was established in 2008 by the Association of Swiss Publishers and Booksellers and the organisers of the Basel Book Fair. It is awarded annually to a German language narrative or essayistic work by a Swiss author. NBG has reviewed earlier winners of the German and Swiss Book Prizes, and the Silver Jubilee issue in Spring 2009 featured an interview with the winner of the first Swiss Book Prize, Rolf Lappert.
The European Union Prize for Literature surveys the huge field of contemporary European literature, seeking to highlight the diverse achievements of creative fiction and to encourage readers to appreciate literature from beyond their own national borders. The prize is awarded to authors selected from each of the thirtyfive countries participating in the EU Culture Programme, which has also provided €8.5 million to fund the translation of 1500 literary titles since 2007.
Established in 1956, the German Youth Literature Prize (‘Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis’) has inaugurated a strong tradition of celebrating children’s and young people’s literature from both in and outside Germany. Awards are made in five categories for best picture book, children’s book, young adult book, non-fiction book, and the book selected by the young people’s jury.
Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji was awarded both the German and Swiss Book Prizes in 2010 for her autobiographical novel about an immigrant family living in Switzerland, Tauben Fliegen auf, or ‘Falcons without falconers’. Nadj Abonji is an ethnic Hungarian Serbian who lives in Switzerland and speaks German as her second language. Not only is this the first time that the German Book Prize has been awarded to a writer whose first language is not German, but Nadj Abonji is also the first Swiss writer to receive the prize.
The novel chronicles the lives of the Kocsis family, telling how Miklós and Rósza Kocsis leave their home in the Serbian province of Vojvodina for a new life in Switzerland. They work tirelessly to establish themselves and to make a home for their two daughters, Nomi and Ildikó. The girls join their parents after a formative period staying with their paternal grandmother at her smallholding and much of the novel reflects upon the contrasts between Ildikó’s fond memories of Vojvodina and her experiences of Switzerland. The novel is knitted together with beguiling descriptions of the rituals of daily life: the repetitive chores involved in running the family business, the Café Mondial, and the breaks from work for coffee and cigarettes. Nadj Abonji masterfully documents the inter-familial relationships and her accounts of the characters’ interactions are noteworthy in their attentiveness both to what is said and to what remains unspoken.
Few among the German literary scene expected Nadj Abonji’s wryly humorous book to win the German Book Prize, but the judges were impressed by her novel’s sensitive treatment of the immigrant’s predicament: inhabiting multiple worlds without necessarily feeling at home in any of them. The book is punctuated by episodes demonstrating the Kocsis’ enduring estrangement from both their Serbian and Swiss communities. This sense of alienation only deepens following the outbreak of war in Kosovo in 1998. The family fight to gain acceptance in their adopted Swiss town, struggling to prove themselves worthy proprietors of their café. Countless small humiliations culminate in a shocking incident which exposes the family members’ conflicting attitudes to their immigrant status and precipitates Ildikó’s departure from the family home.
As immigration remains a contentious issue in countries across Europe, Nadj Abonji’s absorbing and closely observed account of one family’s experiences offers an elegantly articulated insight into immigrant life which has justly found recognition in two national literary prizes.
Iris Hanika’s novel Das Eigentliche, or ‘The Real Thing’, also engages with matters of trans-national importance in its consideration of how knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust affects those who live afterwards. Set in Berlin, the novel focuses on the particular challenges for Germans of living with the pervasive national sense of historical culpability. The novel follows the friendship between Hans Frambach and Graziela Schönbluhm, both in their late forties, who share an obsessive concern with the crimes of National Socialism. The thoughtfulness with which Hanika treats this subject – stemming from her personal preoccupation with Nazism for over twenty-five years – is reflected in her receipt of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010. Hanika’s protagonist, Hans, works as an archivist at the ‘Institute for the Management of the Past’, an invented organisation which seeks to relieve German citizens of the burden of coming to terms with the Nazi past. Hans is profoundly unhappy and hates his job and his colleagues, but finds consolation in his relationship with Graziela, a music teacher. The novel charts how their friendship has altered since Graziela began a sexual relationship with a married man, which has replaced the Holocaust as her chief concern and now dominates her conversations with Hans.
This highly readable book is full of gripping emotional drama and tackles big subjects in precise, economical prose. There are chilling, awkward scenes at the institute, an official visit to Auschwitz and absorbing kitchentable discussions between Hans and Graziela. Hans struggles to come to terms not only with the Nazi crimes themselves, but with his diminishing sense of shock and shame in relation to them. In the course of the novel Hans comes to understand that he must take responsibility for his own unhappiness and, rather than blaming it on others or the past, take action to change his circumstances. Hanika has written a parable for the twenty-first century which commands our attention both for its judicious treatment of challenging subject matter and its compelling literary style.
Both Nadj Abonji and Hanika’s novels document the daily struggles of ordinary people. The focus of their writing corresponds with that of prize-winning British author Kazuo Ishiguro who, in a recent interview with the Observer, characterised the motivation of his literary fiction as follows: ‘I’m not at all interested in the brave who fight against the odds and win. I am interested in those who accept their lot, as that is what many people in the world are doing. They do their best in ghastly conditions’. For the winner of the non-fiction category of the 2010 German Youth Literature Prize, however, the opposite is the case. Christian Nürnberger reaches out to young people on the subject of Nazi Germany with his captivating volume of twelve biographical essays about men and women who had the courage to take a stand against Nazism. Many of these extraordinary people paid the ultimate price for their bravery and were executed.
In the introduction to his book, Nürnberger expertly summarises the moral dilemma of responding to the knowledge of the Nazi period, drawing upon his own experiences of becoming aware of the atrocities of the Holocaust as a young boy. He introduces his young readers to the idea of being thankful for having been born after 1945, ‘since no one knows how they would have behaved during that time.’ Nürnberger then brings home the difficult truth that most would not have behaved like the exceptional people of whom he writes, but would rather have been part of the ordinary majority who did not resist Nazism.
Nürnberger’s book is superbly written. Its engaging, accessible prose speaks directly to young adults without being patronising. Each portrait reads like a gripping short story and the author skilfully weaves in personal details which bring the figures to life. Accounts of Claus von Stauffenberg’s aristocratic childhood, Sophie Scholl’s excitement about her twenty-first birthday party and Willy Brandt’s beginnings as an illegitimate child will appeal to young and older readers alike. Nürnberger reflects on the nature of courage, investigating the historical, social and psychological circumstances of the lives of his selected figures in his attempt to understand what inspired their bravery.
In their thoughtful and thoughtprovoking writing, Nadj Abonji, Hanika and Nürnberger introduce us to the lives of both real and imagined people, lives which offer new insights into contemporary European society and the historical formation of that society. Each of the three books considers different conceptions of social conformism and the consequences of various forms of opposition to this. Their status as prize-winners will ensure that the extraordinary talents of these three writers bring pleasure to many more ordinary readers.
By Sheridan Marshall with additional research by
Vineeta Gupta and Steph Morris