Feminine, Foreign and Historic - This Year’s German Book Prize Short List

September 22, 2018

Initially conceived as an analog to the Man Booker Prize, the German Book Prize has been around for over ten years now and has produced many illustrious winners and highly lauded books on the short lists. However, despite increased awareness for gender disparities among literary prizes, this year’s short list is the first to have more female authors than male (although the 2013 short list was all even at three each). What is even more remarkable it reverses a recent tendency for many of the nominated books: instead of focusing on issues of current German politics, German history, or German families, all of the books on the short list have some emphasis on other countries. In other words, it is a remarkably foreign-focused German Book Prize.

María Ceclia Barbetta grew up in Buenos Aires, came to Berlin in 1996 with a doctoral scholarship, and stayed. Her novel Night Lights [Nacht Leuchten] is set in Buenos Aires in 1974, and portraits the workers in a car repair shop and how they deal with the political upheaval of the time. It offers unique insights into a turbulent time.

Maxim Biller is no newcomer to the German literary scene. Aside from over 20 publications to date, he was a participant in the literary talk show Literarisches Quartett from October 2015 to December 2016. In Six Suitcases [Sechs Koffer], his latest tour de force, he attempts to trace the contours of a family secret. The six “suitcases” contain six different perspectives on a presumed betrayal of the protagonist’s grandfather, with a family history connecting dots in the Soviet Union, Prague, Hamburg, Zurich and Canada, it is a short, interesting and highly polished tale.

In contrast, The Cat and the General [Die Katze und der General], by Nino Haratischwili, weighs in at around 750 pages, but still less than her previous effort, The Eighth Life, which had over 1200 pages. The novel follows Alexander Orlow, a Russian oligarch nicknamed “The General” and his new life in Berlin. But his activities during the First Chechen War come back to haunt him and revenge creeps ever closer. This year Georgia is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which may tip the scales.

Inger-Maria Mahlke was on the short list back in 2015 with Wie Ihr Wollt (which took place in 16th century England), and her newest offering, Archipelago, also takes place on foreign soil: the Spanish island of Tenerife. Rosa, the protagonist, has returned to the island to trace her family’s history. Immersing herself in life story of her grandfather Julio, Rosa’s discoveries reach back throughout an eventful century—and beyond.

Long considered a masterful storyteller who has received far too little acclaim, Susanne Röckel’s The Bird God [Der Vogelgott] gives us a mélange of genres with a healthy dose of Gothic horror. A secular, scientific-minded family’s three siblings’ slow decent into madness is depicted in three sections. All of them become fascinated by a Bird God and cannot tear themselves away from the spell. It is a surprising page-turner with unexpected twists and turns. Röckel is also a translator of authors such a Paula Fox, Antonia Byatt, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Last but not least, with God of the Barbarians [Gott der Barbaren], Stephan Thome has landed a spot on the short list for the third time in ten years (and three of his first four novels). The main figure is a young German missionary in the mid-19th century who would like to contribute to the modernization of the Chinese Empire. Traveling to Nanjing, he is caught between the fronts. Taking pains to be evenhanded in its historical depiction, but at some point reader the barbarians referred to in the title are Europeans.

It was admittedly hard to find a favorite among these excellent books, but if forced, I would predict the winner could either be Mahlke or Haratischwili. And although Biller or Thome would certainly be worthy, it would be great to have the highest honor given for contemporary German language literature to go to an author who happens to be a woman. Tune in during the second week of October to see who won!

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