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Ralf Rothmann

Ralf Rothmann
Photo: Heike Steinweg

Ralf Rothmann is one of Germany’s most celebrated novelists, and his latest novel would be a favourite for this year’s German Book Prize – if the author had not refused to be nominated. Alexandra Roesch introduces readers to Germany’s ‘proletarian poet’.

Can someone who left school at sixteen and trained as a bricklayer become one of Germany’s most significant writers? With his eight novels, four volumes of other prose and two of poetry, a stage play and an essay collection, Ralf Rothmann has certainly proved this possible. Often referred to by German media as the ‘proletarian poet’, and compared to John Steinbeck, Rothmann is considered one of the most sensitive and authentic writers of our time.

Rothmann’s own biography is omnipresent in his work. He grew up in the Ruhrpott area, characterised by its coalmines and working class communities. His father worked in the mines for over thirty years, before dying at the age of sixty-one. Rothmann moved to Berlin in 1976 to become a writer, having previously worked as a bricklayer, cook, printer and carer. He was inspired by Hermann Hesse and began to write about what he knew: the Ruhrpott, the Ruhr district in western Germany. His debut volume of poetry, Kratzer, was published in 1984, encapsulating topics that were significant to him and a whole generation at that time: the desire for freedom and responsibility, authority and family, escape from predefined life stories, the search for meaning and the examination of German contemporary history. This was followed by the stories Messers Schneide in 1986 and Windfisch in 1988, which describe similar issues – escape from conformity, gentle rebellion against family and religion and the unresolved German past that is part of the author’s own history.

In the early nineties, Rothmann found a wider audience with his trilogy from the Ruhrpott – Stier (1991), Wäldernacht (1994) and Milch und Kohle (2000), which has been described as a classical coming-of-age novel in a modern setting. Set in the Ruhr area in the 1970s, Rothmann writes without nostalgia, with humour and self-irony – bringing the era into present-day cultural awareness.

The second focus of Rothmann’s epic work is Berlin. When Rothmann moved there in 1976, there was a noticeable shift in his choice of topics. Although some aspects of childhood and growing-up still featured in his work, the general focus moved to intercultural aspects, the working class and the intellectual scene in Berlin around the turn of the century, as seen in Flieh, mein Freund (1998), Hitze (2003) and Junges Licht (2004). The stories in Ein Winter unter Hirschen (2001) and Rehe am Meer (2006) tell of a generation from western Germany who, like Rothmann himself, are searching for a new identity in the city of Berlin. In 2012, Rothmann published a collection of short stories entitled Shakespeares Hühner. Poignant, lyrical, with beautifully drawn characters, these eight stories show Rothmann at his best. His love of and interest in people and animals are once again reflected in precise detail.

Two characteristics make Ralf Rothmann stand out amongst German contemporary writers: his authenticity and his precision. He writes about all things human – life and death, hate and revenge, passion and malice – and readers can relate to this. However, the precision with which he does so is masterful. There never seems to be a superfluous word, yet his writing is so rich in detail. He is passionate about writing and literature and about freedom. His novels demonstrate the constant struggle for freedom as an essential human right, but also show that it is not possible to achieve this without social integration and responsibility. He firmly believes that culture can humanise daily life and that literature can help strengthen the freedom of thought. In his acceptance speech for the Max Frisch prize in Zurich in 2006, Rothmann said that literature is an ‘open space for dreams, where you can lie unpunished to your heart’s content and then, when it all ends well, you have told the truth after all.’

Ralf Rothmann’s most recent novel, Im Frühling sterben, was published in May 2015. It is an attempt by Rothmann to fill a vacuum that has remained with him all his life – his father’s involvement in World War II. Like the novel’s protagonist, Rothmann’s father was forced to sign up in 1945 and sent to Hungary. He returned unharmed, and went on to work in the mines for thirty years but died young, when Rothmann was just nine years old. One of the characters in the book says: ‘If you survive, the bullets that hit you damage your descendants. The trauma manifests itself in the cells.’ This is what the novel is about – friendship, death, voids in life and inherent sadness. The protagonist, Walter, is forced to shoot his best friend for deserting. The question of guilt and the weight of sadness persist throughout his life, and Rothmann raises the question of whether one can escape the past and fill the void. Rothmann attempts to do so by filling it with a story. It is not his father’s actual story, but one he was told. And it seems to have worked.

Alexandra Roesch is a bilingual, bi-cultural translator from German to English, with an MA in Translation from the University of Bristol. She lives in Germany with her husband and three children.


Im Frühling sterben (‘To Die in Spring’) has already sold into twelve territories and is forthcoming in English with Picador (UK) and FSG (US). It shot into the German bestseller lists as soon as it was published.

English translations of Rothmann’s works:

Messers Schneide – Knife Edge,
tr. Breon Mitchell
(New Directions, 1992)

Junges Licht – Young Light,
tr. Wieland Hoban
(Seagull Books, 2010)

Feuer Brennt Nicht – Fire Doesn’t Burn,
tr. Mike Mitchell
(Seagull Books, 2012)