Kathrin Schmidt neatly picked up this year’s German Book Prize with Du stirbst nicht, a novel about a woman who wakes up from a coma and has to piece together her memory. The FAZ blogger Andrea Diener happened to sit in front of someone from the jury and overhear an impromptu discussion of why she won – hair-raising stuff. Apparently some of the other books on the shortlist were thought too clever for their own good, and some of them were set in villages. Kathrin Schmidt, on the other hand, gave us a book about a woman struggling with a blow of fate in Berlin – a sure winner. Not to forget that she’s a woman herself, which means the rights to her novel will sell to the US/UK, as I pointed out a while back. Good people of the jury – that advice I gave you to choose a nice unthreatening lady author was a joke.
I hope all this hasn’t put you off – because this is by no means a nice unthreatening lady of a book. It’s a zinger, a humdinger, a fabulous shock of a novel. It’s told in chapters, divided up into very short passages that submerge us in the writer Helene Wesendahl’s hospital routine from the very outset. As she has to rebuild her vocabulary, the language starts simple and becomes increasingly complex – Schmidt wrote poetry and prose before she herself suffered a ruptured aneurysm. She too has now regained her language but apparently doesn’t feel capable of writing poetry any more. I’d disagree – at times her prose crosses that boundary and slips almost inadvertently into poetry. And the sheer exhilaration Helene feels when she rediscovers a word is infectious.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as that’s another side of the novel that makes it so impressive. As Helene remembers details of her past life, we feel her shock, joy and sadness. She mourns anew for people she has lost, has to befriend old familiars all over again, and relives moving moments – all the while going through therapy to repair her body and mind. As it turns out, all is not as rosy as she thought when she first woke up and encountered her devoted husband. Although in essence the novel could be set almost anywhere, Helene’s memories are of East Germany, and there are fascinating elements of political reflection on the events of 1989 and what came after them. All in all, Kathrin Schmidt does actually tell an inspiring life and love story as you might find in more conventional “women’s fiction” (how I hate that label) – but she does it so expertly that the book is much more than that.
I don’t know whether the translation rights really have been sold yet, but one thing’s for sure: the novel will be a wonderful challenge for some lucky translator. John Reddick’s English extract is from the simpler beginning of the book, but it’s excellent, dealing well with some of the wordplay puzzles Kathrin Schmidt builds in every now and then. Let’s hope he gets to do justice to the rest of the book.