Thursday, 1 October 2009

An International Literary Gala

Last night saw the awards ceremony for the new International Literary Award at Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Due to the financial constraints involved when there are six writers from around the world on the shortlist, they'd actually decided a little in advance who was going to get the €25,000 prize, only flying in the one and announcing the winners a couple of days ago: Peruvian-American Daniel Alarcón and his translator Friederike Meltendorf for Lost City Radio.

Now we come to the full disclosure: Friederike's a friend of mine and had invited me along. I was thrilled - even after I realised that any old hoi polloi was allowed in to partake of the ceremony and the meagre buffet afterwards. To her great credit, Friederike didn't mention a word about having won a whopping €10,000 beforehand. I know I'd have had trouble biting my tongue under the circumstances.

So how was it? It was mixed. It was a little over-ambitious, perhaps, with a rather long programme of different people popping up on stage and clambering down again: the writer Ilja Trojanow, displaying film-star qualities with his opening speech on how migration has become a positive cultural factor, the rather distracted anchorman Wilfried F. Schoeller (not one of my favourites and a great one for mispronouncing authors' names), various members of the jury talking about the shortlist and an overly long but not uninteresting eulogy from the Spanish literature professor Ottmar Ette - which he delivered off the cuff while performing a strange wandering motion around the stage, in a jacket that wanted putting out of its misery.

But just as the pungent-smelling man two rows ahead of me was launching into his umpteenth fit of moist coughing out of sheer impatience, the spotlight turned on the stars of the show. Daniel Alarcón and Friederike Meltendorf were clearly thrilled at the honour, with Friederike bursting into Oscar ceremony-style tears at the excitement (she's just had a gorgeous baby girl - it was the hormones, you know). The writer was cute and witty and made you want to put him in a doggy bag and take him home, and they both rather staggered under the weight of the flowers they were given. In coincidentally colour-coordinated outfits, of course.

Then came a nice little chat, the action moving from centre-stage to a talk-show-like setup on the left. We learned about Alarcón's influences - his first reading material as a teenager was Russian literature, and he read Borges nearly every day before getting down to writing. But to Schoeller's obvious surprise, he prefers to write like an American than a Peruvian. Of course Friederike is a match made in heaven for him, in literary terms, as she also translates from Russian but not from Spanish - meaning she didn't bring any expectations of Latin American literary traditions to her translation.

The reading that came next belied Alarcón's doe-eyed innocence - Lost City Radio is hard-hitting stuff, and Anna Thalbach (no, not Katharina, Herr Schoeller) did great justice to the material. And then we were released with a collective sigh to the joys of the buffet. By the time I made it after congratulating Friederike, though, there were only a few folorn dishlets of red gloop dotted across the table.

I think it was generally agreed that the evening was a success, despite the various mishaps. Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon had complained in advance that the shortlist wasn't international enough. But as far as I understood, the judges went to some effort to make sure their very long reading-list was very international. I personally feel that by choosing to write in a particular language, authors automatically place themselves within the literary tradition of that language, regardless of their origins and any other influences they bring with them. So I would agree that the shortlist was a little heavy on the American side.

Yet the German view, no doubt coloured by the jus sanguinis understanding of nationality here over so many years, seems to be - very clearly in this case - that writers are first and foremost defined by their country of origin, sometimes even going back several generations. So for the jury, the shortlist consisted of writers from Peru, Iran, Lebanon, Bosnia, Argentina and Ethiopia, even though four of the six write in English. Of course, the list reflects the fact that most books translated into German are originally English - and that writing in English, at the very least when living in the USA, is a more lucrative activity than writing in what we call "smaller" languages.

When it comes down to it, though, this is all nuts and bolts. The purpose of the prize is to single out one international book of the year, and quality can surely be the only criterion. What struck me last night was that the event was very much about quality - there was no feeling that reading "foreign books" was in any way a worthy activity reserved for do-gooders and hippies. There was no talk of "opening up new worlds" or "discovering hidden delights". International literature is a fact of life in Germany, and that's a great thing.

One last tiny grumble: the evening was a little low on translators, in several ways. Unfortunately scheduled to coincide with a whole fun-fest of translation events on Saint Jerome's Day, the ceremony wasn't very well attended by translators, as would otherwise have been the case. And as one colleague remarked, the jury members each managed to summon up only a single adjective for the translators' work - not an unusual phenomenon, but one might have expected more on this occasion. To say nothing of the fact that the author got more than twice as much prize money as the translator... I stand corrected, by the way, thanks to an anonymous commenter - Alarcón takes €25,000 home with him.

For photos, see the trade mag Börsenblatt.

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