I have a very brief window so these will only be unstructured thoughts before I leave for Frankfurt.
Melinda Nadj Abonji has won the German Book Prize, surprising pretty much everyone on the planet (except maybe those few people who don't follow these matters). She's Swiss, born in the part of former Yugoslavia that is now Serbia and grew up speaking Hungarian. Tauben fliegen auf is her second novel - she's also a performer and musician. Apparently she's not quite as much of an insiders' tip in Switzerland as she is in Germany, where everyone's going: "Melinda who?" But in fact she's been around for about ten years, keeping a fairly low profile whether voluntarily or not. I haven't read anything she's written, apart from the sample from her novel (pdf) and the sample translation by Rafael Newman.
What I know about the book is this: a family with two teenage daughters visits Serbia from Switzerland, where they have now settled. They are part of the Hungarian-speaking minority and the two girls long for everything to have stayed the same in their former village. In Switzerland they face prejudice but run a cafeteria, the mother employing all sorts of nationalities who argue among themselves. The father has problems coming to terms and turns to the demon drink. I will read it, because I very much hope there's more to the novel than this.
One of the judges, Jobst-Ulrich Brandt of FOCUS magazine, has written a nice piece singing its praises, which gives some grounds for optimism. Apparently Abonji writes in a very musical style and keeps the narrative tension up throughout.
But this novel is not harmless. It's about war and violence, racism and disrust – and about what our roots mean to us, and how difficult it can cometimes be, despite all willingness, to "integrate" into an unfamiliar society. As such, Tauben fliegen auf is also a very contemporary book – not a bad thing when it comes to choosing the "novel of the year".
FOCUS, I have to add, is not exactly a spearhead of left-wing politics, so I think we can safely say that literature by people writing in their second languages has officially made it. The judges have made a political choice at a time when the German-speaking world is chattering a great deal about the down side of immigration. I'm pleased about that, even though there were books on the shortlist of greater literary sophistication - to wit: Thomas Lehr's September and Peter Wawerzinek's Rabenliebe.
I'm also very pleased indeed for Abonji's publishers Jung und Jung. Based in Salzburg, they're an independent publisher with an excellent list of outstanding literary titles, mainly German-language. This is also the first time a Swiss writer has won the award, which I can't say gets my heart racing either way. I'll read and review the book and try to catch Melinda Nadj Abonji live at the book fair.