Often compared to the British Booker Prize, the French Prix Goncourt or the American Pulitzer Prize, the German Book Prize is the most high-profile literary prize in the German-speaking world, where winners can hope for substantial sales of their works.
The shortlist, announced on September 20, represents the entire panorama of contemporary German-speaking literature: From the anecdotal to the art novel to the feminist working-class novel and post-migration literature.
Whether set in the Hunsrück uplands in southwestern Germany, Istanbul or in Switzerland, among others, their stories tell of human folly, gender fluidity and the history of the German republic from the perspective of those who have built it, namely the guest workers.
Here is an overview of the finalists of the German Booker Prize:
1. Fatma Aydemir: ‘Dschinns’ (German for ‘Djinns’)
German literary culture has shown its more diverse side in the last few years. Authors who have not been born in Germany, or whose parents were not born in Germany, reveal their lives pendulating between different worlds. The keyword “post-migrant literature” is actually used for novels about very normal lives in Germany, where around 25% of the population has a migrant background.
In “Dschinns,” Hüseyin, who has worked in Germany for 30 years, finally fulfills his dream of owning a house in Istanbul. However, on the day he has to move into the new place, he dies of a heart attack. His funeral brings the family together. Fatma Aydemir narrates the story of human longings, unachieved dreams, big and small secrets and German post-war history.
2. Kristine Bilkau: ‘Nebenan’ (‘Next Door’)
Known for her withdrawn prose, Kristine Bilkau talks about themes that have occupied all her other novels: the lives, the problems and the neuroses of the upper middle class.
In an unnamed town at the Northern Baltic Sea channel, a 30-year-old, shy woman, who has moved in from the big city, meets an established, 60-year-old general practitioner, who has been running a practice in this place for several decades. A neighboring family disappears without a trace, the doctor receives threatening letters, and the small town changes insidiously.
With subtle tension, Bilkau narrates the diffuse fears of the well-off middle class in Germany.
3. Daniela Dröscher: ‘Lügen über meine Mutter’ (‘Lies about my mother’)
Daniela Dröscher narrates a story of growing up in a family, where one theme dominates everything: her mother’s obesity. Is this beautiful, impulsive and unreliable woman too fat? Does she need to lose weight urgently? Yes, she must, her husband decides. And the mother faces this, day after day.
On the one hand, the book is a story about a childhood in the Hunsrück uplands; on the other, it looks at misogyny of the past and how it continues to this day. A daughter narrates the story of her mother, who migrated to Germany from Poland and perceives her as a complex personality as well as an ideal.
“Lies About My Mother” is also a class novel. Daniela Dröscher has tackled the subject in the past: Her memoir about growing up as a working-class child in Germany was published in 2018 under the title “Show Your Class. The story of my social origins”.
4. Jan Faktor: ‘Trottel’ (‘Idiot’)
“What is the reason for my good mood? Simply, everything.”
These are the opening lines of Jan Faktor’s novel and amid the slowing COVID pandemic, rising energy costs and the Russian invasion, a good mood can make a huge difference.
This anecdotal novel offers exactly that: readers follow the story of a man, who calls himself an ‘idiot,’ living and re-living his stupidity to the unending enjoyment of the readers. As is characteristic of the anecdotal novel, the “Idiot” is naturally there to reveal his surroundings: the red wine-sipping intellectuals, the mother-in-law or the even more idiotic son. Anyone who doesn’t see himself or herself in one of the stories is above all, a little bit idiotic.
5. Eckhart Nickel: ‘Spitzweg’
Nickel’s novel takes its name from the 19th-century German painter, Carl Spitzweg. In the story, three students, including two boys and a girl, discover the attraction of the arts. The narrator admires Carl, a boy who joins the school shortly before his school-leaving exams.
In order to impress Carl, the narrator does not defend his classmate Kirsten when the art teacher calls her self-portrait a “courage to be ugly.”
This is a book about art, a love triangle, a highly talented girl and cunning plans for revenge. Nickel appeared in the 2019 Longlist for the German book prize for his novel, “Hysteria.”
6. Kim de l’Horizon: ‘Blutbuch’ (‘Blood Book’)
The non-binary narrator of “Blutbuch” lives in Zurich, after they flee from the small, conservative village in Switzerland, where they were born.
Their grandmother’s illness however, puts the narrator into a thoughtful mood: they talk to the older woman and list all themes about which both have never spoken, including the protagonist’s fluid gender identity or the grandmother’s racism.
Secrets and silences in families are popular and timeless themes in literary history. De l’Horizon, through their non-binary protagonist, approaches the subject from a new perspective, adding to the many accusations made about families.Coming on the heels of the German government’s proposed law in June 2022 to simply change gender entries, “Blood Book” comes at the right time politically — and rounds up a shortlist that depicts the modern society that the Federal Republic has become in the 21st century.
This article was originally written in German.
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