Friday, 31 October 2008

Aufbau Again

Things have calmed down since my last post on the publishing house Aufbau. They've been bought by a new rich newcomer to the world of literature and will be moving from Mitte to Kreuzberg, albeit the more boring part on Moritzplatz. I do find the whole thing slightly crazy - the idea that an "independent" publisher is entirely dependent on the whims of its single owner almost makes me believe in the benefits of corporatism.

Susan Bernofsky has the goods on the house's history here.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Anthea Bell at the Vienna Café

Last week saw a literary evening at London's Royal College of Art, as part of the multidisciplinary Vienna Café Festival, aiming to "redefine our understanding not only of the arts in Vienna, but also of modernity and modern life more generally." Sounds good, eh?

Demel had set up shop, serving coffee and cakes from behind an ornate bar, and the chairs and tables were café style. Sadly, though, all that was left for the evening was the quiet clinking of staff shutting up shop for the night behind us in the background to the reading. Sad because if you're going to an event about Viennese café culture, it would be even lovelier to enjoy the smells and tastes while you're at it. But I could have got there earlier, I suppose. I did enjoy eavesdropping on the two Austrian ladies chatting next to me though, which added a little of the flavour I craved.

The evening started with original fiction by Deborah Levy, a witty and entertaining encounter with Freud's Vienna. But I suspect I wasn't the only one in the audience looking forward to Anthea Bell, translator extraordinaire. The lady herself, small and endearingly modest like a favourite great-aunt, was talking about fiction in Freud's Vienna from her viewpoint as a translator. She was gushingly introduced by the boss of Pushkin Press, who have published a great deal of fin-de-siècle Austrian writing. But wouldn't you gush? I know I would (and probably will here), faced with the high priestess of German literary translation.

Launching into her talk by describing herself as "a mere translator", Bell started by telling us about the task of re-translating Freud for the general public, as part of a team for Penguin in the 1990s. She chose to translate The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which is one of the more cheerful, she assured us, describing it as a gripping series of detective stories based on Freud's own experiences and those of his friends, rather than his patients. Bell jettisoned the uncomfortable jargon-y term parapraxis (for Fehlleistungen, a translation approved by Freud but not suitable for today's lay readers, she felt) in favour of more colloquial solutions such as slip of the tongue, pen, mind, etc. - the Freudian slip itself.

By coincidence or serendipity, Anthea Bell was offered more Viennese texts after this one, sarting with Lilian Faschinger's novel Vienna Passion, where Freud hovers in the background at the turn of the century. Another modern take on old Vienna she has translated is Eva Menasse's Vienna. This, Bell commented, is one of those books she uses on her crusade to convince the British that there is such a thing as a Teutonic sense of humour.

Moving back to the early twentieth century, Bell introduced us to her translations of Stefan Zweig for Pushkin Press. He's not an easy writer to translate, she noted, as one has to think hard over every sentence. One gradually gets to know an author's favourite adjectives, though, and one of Zweig's is dumpf - which often means sombre. She is especially fond of Amok, which reminds her of Kipling and Conrad, and Leporella. His only novel, Beware of Pity, she told us, shows Zweig's great interest in medicine, psychology and Freud, which was shared by Arthur Schnitzler, a Jewish doctor-writer. Another Jewish author in Vienna was Joseph Roth, translated of course by Michael Hofmann, whose Radetzky March she warmly recommended.
At a distance of only 155 miles away in Prague, Bell generously subsumed Kafka into Viennese café society, attesting him a similar mindset to the Viennese. She has just handed in her new translation of The Castle to OUP, she told us. As other translators will know and Willis Barnstone points out in The Poetics of Translation, translation is an extremely "intensive reading of the original text". Actually, Anthea told us that, I haven't read it. She said she had never before been struck by the book's topsy-turvy atmosphere, leaving her feeling almost like Alice in Wonderland. From Kafka we leapt to Ernst Weiss, another Jewish doctor in Vienna, whose Franziska Anthea Bell recently translated, again for Pushkin. She was truly impressed by Weiss's very strong heroine, and wondered what he would have made of Jane Austen.

Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as the Germans marched into Paris. Zweig committed suicide in Brazilian exile in 1942, Roth killed himself with drink in Paris in 1939, Freud died in London, and Schnitzler had the fortune of dying in 1931. All their books were burned - a sobering end to a very creative era.

All in all, I was impressed to experience Anthea Bell in person. She seemed incredibly busy and dedicated, mentioning that she always works on more than one book at a time - a change is as good as a rest. So at the moment, she has Stefan Aust's Baader-Meinhof Complex on her desk, along with Stefan Zweig's long memoir and an outtake from Volker Weidermann's Buch der verbrannten Bücher to go with an upcoming Times interview (and perhaps Uwe Timm's Halbschatten?). Perhaps the occasion didn't merit it, but I was nevertheless a little disappointed that she didn't go into more depth on some of the themes and ideas in fin-de-siècle Viennese literature. But my cup was very much half-full, as she did give a very good idea of what it's like to translate some of these writers, and gave the books on sale that evening a very hearty push. If I wasn't so stingy I'd almost definitely have bought Franziska.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Ross Benjamin on Close to Jedenew

I recently read Ross Benjamin’s translation of the short novel Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann, and was so impressed I wanted to share it with you. But I knew Ross could do the book justice much better than me. So I interviewed him – and I was right.

Ross Benjamin, by the way, is a translator, essayist and literary critic based in Brooklyn. For more information, see his unsurprisingly classy website.

Ross, tell us about the book...

It's an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural -- "we" -- and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.

How did you first come across it?

I attended a reading by Kevin Vennemann from his second novel, Mara Kogoj, at the Frankfurter Biennale at the Literaturhaus Frankfurt in June 2007. I was immediately intrigued, so I bought both novels and began reading Nahe Jedenew, and was intensely moved and struck by its originality and power.

Did you know the author personally before you started the translation?

I met the author at the Frankfurter Biennale, and we got together soon thereafter in a cafe in Berlin, where we discovered certain common interests and got along quite well. At the time, he was translating an anthology of writings from the magazine n+1 from English into German, and I was translating Hölderlin's Hyperion from German into English, so we discussed translation. Several months later, I was asked to translate his novel. Having read it and been so impressed by it, of course I accepted.

The subject matter is pretty weighty. I know for me, translating a piece often takes me right into the text and I feel more deeply with the characters than in a normal reading. How did writing the translation affect you?

The power and intricacy of the German text became all the more evident to me as I sought to render it in English. I did feel a more profound attachment to the characters after retracing their fates so many times during the process of translation and revisions, reliving their painful experiences and gaining increasing insight into them. This probably allowed me as a translator to get closer to an author's relationship with his characters, though of course I did not invent them, so it was not exactly the same creatively or emotionally. Still, an acute experience.

You've kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?

I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann's technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author's aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.

How did the work compare to translating the very different Hyperion?

The process was radically different, of course. Above all, it was much less lonely, being able to consult with the living, and very helpful, author. And if I could have asked Hölderlin (when he was still sane) half the number of questions I posed to Kevin Vennemann, I might well be a more enlightened individual. At least it might have saved me hours and hours of doubt and irresolution. But in fact I love the experience of contributing to the afterlife of a classic novel and trying to communicate with the great poet's ghost as much as I enjoy working with a living novelist and being able to introduce as important a novel as Close to Jedenew and as talented an author as Kevin Vennemann to English-speaking audiences.

Many thanks to Ross Benjamin for the interview! I really recommend the book.

Going to London

I'm off tomorrow and will be back next week. To tide you over, here's a disappointing item on publishers' lack of interest in translations from the Guardian books blog. Note the much-repeated reader's response that translations are impure and thus inferior to "well written English prose". Gnnnn.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

No Escaping Zaimoglu

You may have picked up on the fact that Turkey is this year's guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In fact if you live in Germany, you probably can't help noticing - huge posters all over the place, newspaper articles galore, and hundreds of new books in translation. Plus a boycott and calls for freedom of speech from Germans and Turks.

There's one writer who seems to be everybody's darling in this context - Feridun Zaimoglu. His Liebesbrand was longlisted for the Book Prize, and nominated for the Prize of the Leipzig Book Fair in spring too. I personally was disappointed by it, finding it had a really great opening but fizzled out about halfway through. But why not try for yourself - there's an extract in translation (trans. Zaia Alexander) available at Litrix.

There's also a good piece about Zaimoglu and the literature of migration on the website of Swansea University, where he spent June as writer in residence. Tom Cheesman writes: "Within contemporary German literature, Feridun Zaimoglu is now the figure of a Turkish background to have become fully integrated in the literary scene." And deservedly so, I have to agree. He also happens to be a very charming man. But I often get the niggling feeling he's everybody's favourite token Turk.

Take the review of Liebesbrand from the Goethe Institut I linked to above, for example. It includes the sentence: "...we find in Liebesbrand a masterful and very modern employment of oriental storytelling with a plot that is a bit wild, unashamedly romantic and linguistically intelligent, original and witty." OK, it's only a short review, but there is no indication of where these elements of "oriental storytelling" are. I certainly didn't notice them, finding the novel fairly standard German storytelling stuff. Why does the reviewer seem to feel the need to get the word "oriental" in there? At readings, Zaimoglu is also often asked questions about Turkish politics. This is a man with a German passport, who's lived in Germany for the past thirty-odd years. He may well follow Turkish news, but he's far from an expert on the subject, as he readily admits.

And don't get me started on the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize for writers whose native language or cultural origin is not German. It's an admirable idea I suppose, but if people have issues with the Orange Prize, what on earth would they make of this one specially for foreigners? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the authors don't deserve it. What I object to is the whole ghetto-isation that goes on here. You can look at the winners down the years on the website. What strikes me is that these are by no means unknowns in need of a literary leg-up: Saša Stanišic, Rafik Schami, Ilja Trojanow, Emine Sevgi Özdamar - all of these names have made it into English, for God's sake. Into English! So don't tell me they're of marginal interest. Many of them are household names, in a certain kind of household... If you ask me, the Chamisso Prize has become obsolete - and a good thing too.

Germany (or parts of it) seems to be finally realising its migrants are part of society as a whole, and of the literary establishment. OK, two authors "with a background of migration", as they like to put it, on the twenty-name longlist for the German Book Prize may not sound much in comparison to the Booker, for example - but for Germany, that's pretty fantastic. So I was astounded to read Ilma Rakusa's feature in New Books in German, Notes on Contemporary German-Language 'Migrant' Literature. Rakusa, herself a one-time Chamisso prizewinner, writes: “ is the writers who have come to German culture from elsewhere who are substantially enriching, expanding and stimulating that culture – not only through their unusual literary subjects but through their courageous, at times risk-taking, use of language." Jesus, can they not just be writers? Do they have to be expanding the bloody culture all the time, adding linguistic spice?* Or, to turn that question on its head, does every good writer not expand and stimulate the culture?

Zaimoglu, at least, seems to be riding the wave, using his almost rent-a-quote status to put his often contentious points across. He welcomed Turkey's role as Guest of Honour, but gave the presentation itself a thorough slagging off, saying it would do "zero" to improve Turkish integration in Germany. He recently gave an interview to an up-and-coming journalist and blogger, Eren Güvercin, reiterating his anti-assimilation stance (I wrote about that here). I'm with him most of the way there, actually - certainly, you don't get told how to live your life half as often in Germany if you're actually German. And he also told Güvercin: "I've got another 30 or 40 pages to go to finish my new novel. ... It's about great yearning and where it takes you if you're not careful - and nobody ever is."

Sounds like full-on hot-blooded fiery oriental stuff. I'm looking forward to it.

*Don't worry, she's not that banal. I added that bit about the spice.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Translating Erotica

Out of the blue, I find myself translating erotic fiction for the first time - a short story by one of "my" authors. I had agreed to translate an unspecified piece for an exhibition catalogue, and yesterday the text arrived. Seven lines in, the phrase "halberigierte Penisse" made me choke on my Coke, and it went on from there.

The story is beautiful, very sexy and melancholy, very, um, erotically effective. But sadly, the translating process has killed the magic for me. Grammatically, German and English deal with bodies very differently. So while we say, to give a squeaky-clean example, "She washed her hands", German-speakers say "She washed herself the hands". Hands, feet, mouths, other body parts are generally used with the definite object and not with possessive pronouns. So in descriptions of things people do with their bodies, I often have to check back with the author exactly who is doing what with whose body parts. Not just for erotica, by the way, as German gives you the option of leaving things slightly vague, which can be interesting.

Or take body hair. Now the Germans have had a very different relationship to their body hair from the British, for example - as anyone who remembers watching Nena on Top of the Pops* will recall. Things are slightly more similar now (although sociologists are no doubt watching out for a body-hair backlash in the wake of Wetlands), but the word "behaart" (used of a man) is still relatively neutral. So what do I do - Hairy? Hirsute? Downy? Setaceous? I want to achieve an effect as equivalent as possible, without changing the content of the text. But the effect of the word "hairy" is more "Eeew" than "Oooh" - although not the idea itself, strangely. Or not for me anyway. I do have a solution actually, but I'm not telling you what it is.

So, all this means I can no longer read the text as erotica; it is now a rather dry collection of translation challenges. I really hope the end product works in the same way as the original, but I'll have to put it aside for a while to find out. And it also means a long and presumably awkward phone call with the author. "So whose hands exactly...?" I will be blushing.

*Just spent fifteen minutes staring at Nena's armpits on Youtube. Actually she was wearing a jumper on TOTP, but other footage is more revealing.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Der Turm

So, Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm has won the German Book Prize. I am slightly nonplussed, although it was no great surprise. My "impressionistic dismissal" of it based on the extract available (trans. Rebecca Morrison) was: "Everybody's raving. I'm snoring." And while I do appreciate that it's well written, I still can't summon up any enthusiasm for the book.

But - and this is a big "but" - I think it would be wonderful to see Der Turm translated. The subject-matter is something we insular Anglo-Americans really haven't bothered with in the past: everyday life in East Germany. Billed as a Buddenbrooks of the GDR, it's about that class that people from the West think didn't exist there - bourgeois intellectuals. And although the Stasi presumably plays some kind of a role in the 900-odd pages, the book is neither a sensationalist look at repression nor an example of Ostalgie. While we still source many of our ideas about the GDR from films like The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin, Der Turm is a more reflective, insider's view.

It has certainly garnered plenty of critical praise (see the Complete Review for an overview), although much of it has been along the lines of "so true to life, just as I remember it" - which won't work for readers from other cultures. But I for one hope it might just open the gates for other books by East German writers, from Clemens Meyer to Wolfgang Hilbig. I won't have time to read it though.

You can watch a charming little interview with Uwe Tellkamp at the FAZ lounge thing.

Monday, 13 October 2008

And the Winner Is...

Just to conjure up a tiny bit of the same 55-minute tension I've just been through, I thought I'd explain the whole process of my finding out who won the German Book Prize.

First there was a wild scramble to find Deutschlandfunk on medium wave, after the lady on the FM version told me she wasn't going to broadcast the ceremony. The dash to the radio, the fumbling with the dial, the brief elation that subsided immediately on realising that no, this was the Voice of Russia, and the relief at finally finding Deutschlandfunk, not a moment too soon.

As I chopped half an onion and some garlic, the first speech was given by the mayor of Frankfurt. Interestingly, she was the only speaker who didn't make any nervous jokes about the financial crisis. She probably doesn't find it very funny right now. The onion and garlic were frying and I was struggling with the tin opener when the next speaker came on. He talked about the controversies surrounding the award this year, and how the organisation behind it does attempt to at least make the process transparent - especially compared to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mashing the tomatoes in the pan with the side of the wooden spoon, all the speeches seemed to mush together. I really can't say who said what, or even how many of them had something to say. The tomato puree was a suspicious colour at the top, but I put it in anyway, then boiled water for the tagliatelle. Literature is not a sport, it is impossible to measure superiority, the jury changes every year, oregano and basil. In between, the applause sounded wooden and arhythmic, and you could hear every footfall when someone new walked onto the stage.

A quick dash to fetch the offspring, who was surprisingly patient with Deutschlandfunk. As she spooned parmesan directly into her mouth while I wasn't looking, someone or other continued with the abstract speeches. Very possibly, this was the fourth or fifth speaker. By the time we got to "I'm not hungry any more, can I have some ice cream?" though, things had got slightly more specific. A man with a very young voice had moved on from Hegel's suggestions for literary critics ("What on earth is he talking about mum?") to introductions of the shortlisted authors and their books. This was actually a lovely recap, with a few sentences from each book followed by interviews and a different critic singing their praises each time.

The offspring had left the room and I was getting nervous. Displacement activities - that old butter needs throwing away. I had just grabbed a handful of butter out of the dish through kitchen paper, despairing that they would ever announce the winner, when they announced the winner. Or at least, they announced they were going to announce the winner.

So there I stood, the butter gradually seeping through the kitchen paper and giving off a faintly rancid smell, as someone announced:

Uwe Tellkamp, Der Turm.

Rejection is In

Always one to upstage an event, Germany's most revered literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, has gone and joined the ranks of award-rejecters.

He was due to be given a lifetime award for services to the television industry, at the German equivalent to the Emmys. But first of all they kept him waiting on a hard chair in the front row for three hours, and then they gave most of the other awards to shows he didn't approve of. Mostly celebrity chefs.

When he was finally allowed to board the stage and graciously accept the award, he got a standing ovation, visibly embarrassed. "I don't want to insult anybody, but I do not accept this prize... I didn't know what was expecting me, I don't belong here. If the award had included money, I'd have given the money back. But it doesn't, all I can do is cast this object away from me that's been awarded to various people tonight. I can't accept it, and I think it's terrible that I had to sit through this for several hours..."

He got a round of applause for praising the ARTE channel, slagged off 3Sat, slagged off the "rubbish" they'd seen tonight. The presenter rushed onto the stage, offering him his own show about quality programming. He accepted that, wagging his schoolmaster finger in a characteristic gesture to warn that it probably wouldn't make any difference. Finished off with an over-long anecdote about a Russian composer, hugged the presenter and offered him the familiar "Du" form of address. Cue fanfare and another standing ovation.

You can watch all the fun here - I love the audience shots as the stars and starlets realise what the guy is actually saying. Now that's entertainment. Apparently, he did then take the glass obelisk home with him - he didn't want to appear impolite. More in the Guardian.

Friday, 10 October 2008

New New Books in German

At last, the English-language overview of this season's German-language books is online at New Books in German. Lots and lots to explore, although I hope they'll get around to posting some links and updating the events at some point.


The Frankfurt Book Fair opens its doors this coming Tuesday.

I'm not going. Why not? Why won't I be rubbing shoulders with the publishing world, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and discussing Le Clézio over cocktails and canapés? Mainly personal, childcare-related reasons, actually. But also because, despite the wonderful events in the Translators' Centre, it's not actually geared to readers.

I have to admit I've only been once, and was thoroughly intimidated by the huge fortresses built up by the major UK/US publishers in their hall, specially designed to keep the professionals in and the riffraff out. The German publishers were slightly more approachable, as the fair is also a chance for them to present their products to booksellers and to a certain extent the general public. But for sheer accessibility of reading material, writers and events, there's just no topping the Leipzig Book Fair.
Plus I was put off by this posting, which revealed just how severely challenged I am in the bookfair footwear department.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Translation Midwifery

Remember Translation Idol, the poetry translation talent contest I co-organised in May? You can see rather gruesome photos and all the entries at no man's land, by the way, if you click on the link on the right.

Well, last night I got hold of a copy of the literary journal Neue Rundschau, which features the poet Ron Winkler's original poem, seven of the translations, plus Ron's re-translations of all the versions. Rather like he provided the egg, the translators the seed, and his retranslations are the zygotes, growing into strange genetically related beings that are yet different to their parents, often almost unrecognisably so.

It was interesting at the contest itself to see how fruitful misunderstandings and deliberate adaptations can be. The original poem, und später dann Paraboläpfel am Atem, is not a straight-forward text, combining all sorts of cultural references and tricky questions. But then the translators created their very own versions - and Ron reinterpreted these in turn. So Heckler & Koch becomes Lady of Bristol becomes braut. Or nothing at all becomes aye becomes tjaja. Or das infernalische Obst becomes le fruit infernal, zut! becomes daadwerkelijk infernaal vruchten, verfloekt!

I have to admit to not a little pride at helping to bring these poems into the world. I wish them long and happy lives.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Links Catchup

What with celebrating German Reunification Day on Friday by working extra-long hours and all the extra stress in the run-up to the book fair, I've now got a backlog of lovely links. So here they all are in one big muddle:

For Londoners: Vienna Café Festival at the Royal College of Art. Two weeks of fin-de-siècle Viennese fun in Kensington (with cake). If you scroll right down to the bottom of the linked page, you'll spot the following event:

Literary Evening: 23 October, 6.30pm - Fiction in Freud's Vienna: a translator's viewpoint, by Anthea Bell and new fiction from Deborah Levy. The Psychopathology of Everyday Café Life: an imagined encounter with objects and subjects in Freud's Vienna.

Presumably they don't have many seats, or they have some other good reason for hiding this little gem away. I'm going!

For translators: Daniel Hahn will be blogging once or week or so on the Booktrust Translated Fiction site as he translates his way through José Eduardo Agualusa's Angolan Portuguese novel Estação das Chuvas. Looks promising.

For international readers: is a virtual library with "the goal of becoming 'The European Forum for Readers'". Most popular book is Bonjour Tristesse. A bit messy perhaps but intruiging. If you like a reader review you can find out where to borrow the book from a library.

For wanderers: The young writer and film-maker Finn-Ole Heinrich is spending three months on the road around Germany. Not just me-me-me blogging, but documenting what the people he encounters have to say. Called Heimathuckepack (homeland in a piggyback?!), the project website is well worth a look for the nice photos and films, the original characters, and Finn-Ole Heinrich's really rather good writing. Click on the photos at the top to get to the stuff.

New Swiss Book Prize Shortlist

I'll try really hard to write this little piece without mentioning the word "bandwagon", OK?

The Swiss booksellers' and publishers' association and the Basel Literature Festival have launched a new book prize for the best Swiss fiction or essay title of the year. The award is open to Swiss authors or writers who have been living in Switzerland for at least two years, and interestingly enough the books have to have been written in German (although Switzerland also has French, Italian and Rheto-Romansh as its official languages). It's called the Swiss Book Prize (can you feel how hard that opening challenge is yet?) and the five shortlisted titles were announced last week. Here's the list:

Lukas Bärfuss Hundert Tage (Wallstein)

Anja Jardine Als der Mond vom Himmel fiel (Kein & Aber)

Rolf Lappert Nach Hause schwimmen (Carl Hanser)

Adolf Muschg Kinderhochzeit (Suhrkamp)

Peter Stamm Wir fliegen (S. Fischer)

Regular readers will be familiar with two titles from another list (still doing well, eh?): Bärfuss's amazing Rwandan J'accuse Hundert Tage and Rolf Lappert's Swimming Home, apparently the booksellers' favourite this year. Two of the other titles are collections of short stories, an interesting departure. But the Leipzig Book Fair prize went to short stories this year and last, so who knows which book will win. No essays actually in the running though.

The results will be announced on 16 November at the Basel Literature Festival.

Phew, I can't believe I managed to skirt the whole German Book Prize bandwagon issue!

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Sherko Fatah @ International Literature Festival Berlin

Being kind of unilateral in my literary interests, I don't tend to take full advantage of the "international" side of the Berlin Literature Festival. This year is no exception, as I'm only going to two readings by German writers. Ideally, I suppose, I'd take a week off work and hire a full-time babysitter and just flit from one event to the next, but you can get too much of a good thing.

Last night's reading by Sherko Fatah was scheduled late in the day. It was a dark, dank evening and on my way to the station I came across a man in a suit so drunk he was unable to get to his feet after falling over on a rain-slippery pavement, his face bloodstained. A woman stopped her car and we started to call an ambulance, but the man struggled upright, grabbed his briefcase and staggered off unaided. From then on, everything seemed rather threatening and surreal.

I found my way to the Berliner Festspiele, where I have never been before in all my 13 years in Berlin. Nice place. I even managed to get a ticket just in the nick of time, only disturbing the drum improvisation artist very slightly as I dashed in, breathless. The festival always has a bit of music before each reading, which makes me feel extremely uncomfortable every time. Can't we just cut to the books stuff and save a bit of time and money? No, we all have to be bloody renaissance man and appreciate classical music, sheesh.

But my drumming discomfort was mercifully short, and then came Sherko Fatah. The presenter was the renowned critic Wilfried F. Schoeller, who I found rather fond of his own voice and who kept insisting there were references to Christianity in Fatah's book Das dunkle Schiff, about an Islamic jihadist. Fatah politely commented that he hadn't intended to put any in. The author read for a good thirty minutes, and to start with I worried that my mind would drift at the late hour (which it must have done if I was worrying that it might rather than concentrating on the reading). But I was soon picked up and carried along on a wave of excellent writing, especially a description of a ragged group of Iraqi freedom-fighters/rebels/Islamist insurgents sheltering from US bombs in a cave.

Fatah refuses to psychologise, focusing the story on the fate of his protagonist Kerim, who ends up with the jihadists by chance. A reluctant fundamentalist of sorts. There is a lot of brutality and demagogy here, but it is always recognisable as such. The author doesn't seem to take sides (at least not in the section he read last night) - except in the sense of sympathy with Kerim, who is almost an adventure-story hero and later stows away on a ship to Europe, where the seed of his indoctrination finally blossoms.

What I found most interesting was when Fatah talked about his research process. He makes regular journeys to Iraq to visit his father, and actually visited the caves where the passage he read was set. At the time he was there they were empty, but have since been occupied again by other makeshift armies. He said he had spoken to people about the war and had tried to talk to a former fighter in prison - but it was impossible to penetrate to him - "it was like he was on drugs." And he said there is a huge amount of film footage available, recorded on camcorders like the characters in the book use and posted on the internet. So he used this to get an idea of just how brutal the situation was, although he did censor himself to a certain extent.

I'm really itching to read the book now but have to finish a couple of other things first. Sherko Fatah took part in the British Centre for Literary Translation's summer school a couple of years back, and has an advocate in Britain in the person of the translator Martin Chalmers. Das dunkle Schiff is in the running for the German Book Prize, so you can read a translated extract (including the sit-up-and-scream prologue) at signandsight (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). I think we can safely assume the book will be available in English at some time in the future, whether it wins the award or not. And so it should be.