Thursday, 11 December 2008

Artur Becker Wins Chamisso Prize

I feel I've mouthed off enough about my quibbles with the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize "for exceptional literary achievements by authors writing in German, whose native language or cultural background is non-German". This year's main winner is Polish-born Artur Becker (see press release), and the prizes for up-and-coming writers go to Maria Cecilia Barbetta (see my review of her Änderungsschneiderei Los Milagros) and the poet Tzveta Sofronieva.

Becker, who cuts an impressive figure in person, walks away with a tasty €15,000 - and the Goethe Institut has posted a nice interview with him in English. He talks a lot about the emigrant/immigrant experience and about his love of writing, infectiously:

The greatest thing for me is when I can work on a book day after day, night after night. It’s as great as sex or a campfire by Lake Dadaj in Masuria. People who think literature and art are a kind of fiction don’t understand a thing. Literature is reality. Robinson Crusoe is really alive.

Having said that I wouldn't mouth off any more, I'm afraid I have to go back on my word. Because look at the jury's reasoning for awarding Becker the prize:

His texts have given the language of German literature new colours and new shades of colour, while strengthening the close ties between the Polish and German cultural realms in a poetically compelling way.

New shades of colour! These dear dear foreigners with their quirky customs, eh? A literary Karneval der Kulturen at which the Germans can marvel at their ethnic minorities like at Hagenbeck's human zoo while celebrating the country's diversity - kebabs! jerk chicken! curry(wurst)! Polish-style poetry! No matter that we only have one (stand-in) non-white newsreader, appalling educational statistics for children who speak other languages at home, and regular racist attacks.

Am I overreacting here?


Anonymous said...

Hi Katy - no, you're not overreacting. The Chamisso prize is a bit of an overhang from the bad old days when non-native speakers of German who chose to write in their adopted language had a hard time getting recognised by publishers and taken seriously. Not to mention all those "small" battles like not being entitled to a German passport. I don't like the language the Chamisso jury chooses to talk about this "type" of author at all. Such language does these writers a great disservice, because they are often great writers, not just mediocre writers who get some extra attention because they're writing in a language that is not their own. Having said that, the attention generated by the prize still comes in handy (not to mention the money), and this is especially the case if you're a poet like Tzveta Sofronieva, because unless you're Durs Gruenbein, I don't think there's much money to be made in poetry ... and I think Tzveta Sofronieva is a genuinely great poet. German publishers and literary critics can still be extremely snotty about Chamisso prizewinners and their ilk: Ulrich Greiner in Die Zeit often drives me dotty with his conservatism. So while these attitudes prevail, I think Chamisso winners should take their money, run for the hills, keep writing, and ignore pretty much everything the jury says about them.

kjd said...

Thanks so much for this, CMW. I agree all the way. Probably the Chamisso is as much a double-edged sword as every other literary prize, and a welcome cash injection for the talented winners. I just think everyone would benefit from a level playing field at this stage in German literature's development.