Thursday 29 October 2009

November Thrills and Spills

November is not quite the cruelest month in Berlin, as February is worse - the dull winter seems to have been going on forever, the pavements are encrusted with grit and brown snow, and since coal heating has gone out of fashion even the comforting smell has all but disappeared. But November's pretty bad as months go - you still feel inclined to shrug off those pre-Christmas displays as humbug, it rains non-stop and there's nothing on the telly.

To counteract this depressing atmosphere, the Germans invented the 9th of November. Or rather, they reinvented it, as it already existed as the date of their last major pogrom in 1938, before murdering Jews was rationalised. Of course commemorating that was kind of a cheerless enterprise, so instead they knocked down the big wall they'd built through the middle of the capital - and Bob's your uncle, a nice new occasion for fireworks and speeches. Not unlike Guy Fawkes' Day, in fact, but without burning effigies of Catholics.

But as the literary industry loves nothing more than an anniversary, we can in fact rejoice along with the Germans at the fall of the Iron Curtain twenty years ago. For November sees a veritable feast of publications marking the date - or just plain taking the opportunity to shower us with German writing while a few more people might be interested than otherwise.

Already out there is gangway #39, with original English pieces and a sprinkling of translations marking twenty years since the Berlin Wall collapsed. Then November's Words Without Borders will be a special on contemporary German writing. no man's land issue #4 should be up there any day now too, our annual extravaganza of fine German writing not strictly marking the anniversary but not dodging the issue either.

And two fantastic books come out in early November, starting with my personal baby City-Lit Berlin - a "wonderful anthology" according to The Guardian. A couple of days later comes Words Without Borders' The Wall in My Head, a collection of writing and art with a slightly broader remit which I'm eagerly awaiting too.

So although it's not quite the right time of year to get snowed in with a book and an attractive member of the opposite sex - at least not in Berlin - you could always plead a rain allergy and barricade the doors for a few days of undisturbed reading.

Update: Should you feel inclined to leave the house after all, there are a good few events coming up too. The no man's land launch (see below) next Tuesday, City-Lit Berlin launches on the 19th in Berlin and the 27th in London - and see trade mag Buchreport for a list of November literary festivals around Germany and Austria.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

no man's land #4 launch reading

no man’s land # 4 launch reading
with fiction by Emma Braslavsky, Claudius Hagemeister and Julia Schoch
November 3, 2009
8 p.m.
Saint Georges Bookshop
Wörther Str. 27, Prenzlauer Berg
Free admission

no man’s land is proud to launch Issue # 4 with a bilingual reading of fiction by three very different young writers. Just in time for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Emma Braslavsky traces the crisscrossing arcs of pre- and post-Wall friendship, while Julia Schoch’s “Capturing in Passing” evokes the GDR as brutal summer camp. And Claudius Hagemeister’s Grim Reaper escorts us unceremoniously from post-Wall to posthumous reality.

Emma Braslavsky will read with her translator Andrew Boreham, Claudius Hagemeister will read with translator Nicholas Grindell, and Zaia Alexander will read her translation of Julia Schoch.

After the reading, we hope you’ll stick around for a celebratory beer from Saint Georges’ reasonably-priced bar! We look forward to seeing you.

no man’s land # 4 will appear on November 1, 2009 with translations of fiction by Emma Braslavsky, Claudius Hagemeister, Sudabeh Mohafez, Julia Schoch and Keto von Waberer and poetry by Carl-Christian Elze, Hendrik Jackson, Adrian Kasnitz, Nicolai Kobus, Birgit Kreipe, Christoph Wenzel and Harald Weinrich at

The Editors, no man’s land

Monday 26 October 2009

City-Lit Berlin: Michael Wildenhain - Russisch Brot

Having been rather distracted by all these prizes, book fairs and the like, I'm now going to make a mad dash to cover a few more of the titles that made it into the City-Lit Berlin anthology. Starting with another fiction favourite, Michael Wildenhain's Russisch Brot. The title, incidentally, is a kind of rather dull biscuit in the shape of letters of the alphabet, combining childhood nostalgia with political reference.

I chose the book because I find Wildenhain writes very well on everyday life in Cold-War West Berlin. I particularly enjoyed his Träumer des Absoluten (review here) on the squatters' movement and what came out of it. Russisch Brot is a very different book but just as well done - one reviewer even compared Wildenhain to Alfred Döblin, that master of observation whose Berlin Alexanderplatz has branded itself onto collective literary memory. It's the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall, a very common fate. The narrator Joachim is a young boy, an only child growing up in the West. But his most exciting experiences take place in a run-down Kleingartenkolonie in the East, where he visits the rest of his family at their weekend garden home. This is where Wildenhain excels, describing the heat, the scent and the emotions his narrator feels up in the dusty loft with his female cousin.

We learn forgotten facts about the divided Berlin - how pensioners were allowed out of the East, how people in the West had to queue for a day pass - the cruel passage we used in City-Lit Berlin. And we learn how families nevertheless managed to stay together. There is a secret lurking in this family's past, one that plays on Joachim's mind until the final page and propels the novel along at a sturdy pace. A photo of a strange boy, a strange man his mother seems to know. In the background glowers the war, casting its long shadow over the family's history just as it does over the city itself.

But what I loved was the sensual details from the child's point of view:

...Every visit was more than just an outing, it was a little adventure. Only the presents my relatives from East Berlin gave me for my birthday or Christmas were a disappointment. I threw away the sweets that tasted of colouring or too much sugar and made lumps on the roof of my mouth when I chewed them. I felt sorry for the toy Indians I often unwrapped. The Indians in the East were made of carefully painted clay. Their arms or legs often broke off, a calf or a hand dangling down and slightly moveable on a wire that emerged beneath the coloured clay tubes.

A beautifully written portrait of Berlin in the 1960s, told from an unusual perspective.

Friday 23 October 2009

Breon Mitchell on The Tin Drum

At Two Words, Scott Esposito talks to Breon Mitchell about retranslating Günter Grass' Tin Drum. He pretty much covers all the bases, except for asking whether Breon is a cat person or a dog person. Maybe I should try and get an interview with him too.

I'm currently immersed in the new translation, savouring every page. I'm using the Charlie Bucket reading method, which I'm sure you're familiar with: nibbling a tiny bit at a time, then shutting the book again, closing my eyes and enjoying the taste for as long as possible. I am so impressed. There's so much rhythm and texture in there all of a sudden!

In fact, this would be the perfect book to run one of those online joint reading ventures on like with Infinite Jest, don't you think?

Thursday 22 October 2009

Günter Wallraff Blacks Up

The German investigative reporter Günter Wallraff is known beyond national borders, predominantly for his groundbreaking 1985 book and film Lowest of the Low, for which he disguised himself as a Turkish "guest worker". And now he's been out and about exposing injustice in Germany again for a new book, Aus der schönen neuen Welt - and a film by the name of Schwarz auf Weiß (black on white). And yes, the film does what it says on the tin: Wallraff blacks up, dons an afro wig and travels around Germany as a Somalian, predictably enough encountering shocking examples of racism, near-violence and unfairness.

So far, so good. That's what Wallraff does - he disguises himself as a homeless man, a call centre agent, an alcoholic, and exposes the grimy sides of life in Germany. But it seems it's not just me who finds the guy's gone a step too far in this day and age by creating Kwami Ogonno. As Der Spiegel points out in its photo gallery:

Black Germans are on the fence about the film. "We find the mindset behind Mr. Wallraff's film very problematic," says Tahir Della, a spokeswoman from the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD). "As is so often the case, someone is speaking for rather than with us."

Della's being rather diplomatic there. The blog Black NRW puts it more directly:

Just what we needed: an almost 70-year-old white man, "camouflaged as black" using carnival face-paint, hops and skips around Germany and then, his make up off and white again, makes a sensational announcement via book, film, tour and talk show, naturally only for money: "Yes, it's really true, racism exists. Believe me, I'm white. You should behave in a friendly and humane manner towards all black people – they could be me."

The blogger goes on to recommend that people read a book written by a genuine black author, such as Noah Sow's Deutschland Schwarz Weiß (which I found revealing if irritatingly written). And the woman herself has given a stonking-good angry interview to the news programme Tagesspiegel, pointing out that it seems to take a white man to make the Germans sit up and listen to what she and many others have been saying for decades. Asked to list common prejudices against black people, she replies:

If you're interested try reading a good book on the subject. There are plenty of them. It's not okay or "normal" to have such a huge blind spot on a subject as important as this, that's present everywhere and affects us all. And otherwise I'd like to turn that ethnological gaze around: racism isn't a black tradition, it's a white tradition.

What amazes me is that Wallraff hasn't learned his lesson. As Tom Cheesman writes in his Novels of Turkish German Settlement, there were very mixed reactions to Lowest of the Low within the Turkish community. The book is often experienced as "unwittingly condescending" and playing on a stereotype of Turks as ignorant, unskilled, pitiful - and male, and has been subject to a fair amount of literary parody. Cheesman quotes Petra Fachinger, who relates an episode from the 1980s when the Turkish feminist novelist Aysel Özakin came to Germany:

Özakin "wanted to leave the Federal Republic when she first saw Ganz unten displayed in a bookstore window." The "sullen, despondent dirty face" of Wallraff as Ali "drove her into an identity crisis," as it seemed to force her into a position of ethnic identification "with each and every Turk she saw in the street."

So now we have Wallraff championing black people in Germany – not black Germans, but once again a hapless and pitiable foreigner, as if nothing had changed since 1985. The unwitting message? Black people are victims - and it takes a blacked-up Günter Wallraff in a ridiculous shirt to attract any attention to racism.

Update: See Noah Sow's blog for photos of her dressed up as a white male journalist for Halloween. Apparently she's also willing to spill the beans on her sociological experiences during the evening - for a large sum of money.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Literary Leprechaun

I go to a lot of readings - not a difficult thing to do in Berlin, what with its combination of the German reading culture and a huge number of excellent venues. Most of the time this is a wonderful pastime, with fantastic writers talking and reading their great literature out loud, the chance of (gasp!) eye contact, snaffling a few titbits of information which at least seem intimate and exclusive, although I've no doubt true professionals say the same things over and over in Bielefeld, Birmingham, Bangkok and Berlin. I'm always in seventh heaven when there are informal drinks afterwards, occasionally actually speaking in person to that writer I've just been gawping at for an hour and a half.

But there's one part I always, always hate: questions from the audience. Last night I was sitting in an overheated, overcrowded room, longing to go home, when the moderator said the dreaded words: Any questions from the floor? And then it descended - that collective need to make ourselves look incredibly clever, even at the cost of making ourselves look incredibly stupid. Your previous work has mainly been set in the city - why have you now chosen the locus of the Syrian village? How much of the spiritual do you allow to flow into your work? Why do Spanish intellectuals find it so difficult to speak about the post-Franco period? What is your assessment of the Namada dam project?

Is it just me, or does anyone else have a literary leprechaun squatting on their shoulder at this point? Last night I was overcome by a barely repressible urge to ask dumb questions, the kind you might really ask at the end of a long evening:

What's your favourite colour?
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
What's your star sign?
If you woke up as a woman/man one morning, would you try to change back?
Do you prefer long walks in the fresh air or curling up with a good book?
Where's the best place you've ever been on holiday?

I'll let you know if I ever give in to that leprechaun. And any further suggestions gratefully received in the comments section...

Monday 19 October 2009

Window Cleaners, Rich Kids, Dwarves - Prizes

Three big awards have gone out over the past few days. Number one, the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Prize for translation of English literature, went to Ulrich Blumenbach for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. According to Börsenblatt, Blumenbach compared the work of the translator to that of a window cleaner in his acceptance speech for the €15,000 award - because books are "windows on the world". I don't know, I can't help thinking of George Formby... "for a nosy parker it's an inter-estin' job."

The exciting new would-be independent award, the Hotlist 2009, went to Alexander Schimmelbusch for Blut im Wasser, a novel about rich kids coming to terms with the finite nature of life. I missed the slightly scary-looking author's reading by a whisker in Frankfurt, but I'm sure he'll be glad of the €5000 prize money.

And then there's the Deutscher Phantastik Prize for fantasy fiction, like the Hotlist voted for by actual readers. Best German-language novel went to Markus Heitz for Das Schicksal der Zwerge, best international to Patrick Rothfuss for Der Name des Windes (trans. Jochen Schwarzer). I don't think they get any money though, just eternal glory.

Herta Müller: Atemschaukel/Everything I Own...

I had the presence of mind to buy a copy of Atemschaukel before Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize and it sold out, as it was originally my favourite for the German Book Prize. I didn’t start reading it, however, until the international press started Herta Who-ing. Peter Englund described it as “absolutely breathtaking” – and I would tend to agree.

The novel is narrated by Leopold Auberg, a young homosexual from the German minority in Romania, and opens early in 1944. Müller kindly provides the bare facts in an afterword, telling us that all Romanian-Germans between the age of 17 and 45 were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Red Army arrived in fascist Romania, which capitulated and declared war on Germany. The poet Oskar Pastior and Müller’s own mother were among these deportees, but their experiences remained taboo in Romanian society. Pastior and Müller had planned to write the novel together, based on his memories and interviews with ex-prisoners from Müller’s village in Romania. His sudden death in 2006 threw her off course for a year before she could settle down to translate her copious notes into the novel. Atemschaukel details five years in the camp and a short period afterwards, finally relating Leo’s escape from a loveless marriage in Romania to Austria.

I’ve recently read a few comments to the tune that Herta Müller was only awarded the prize because a) she’s a German revisionist or b) she’s a rabid anti-communist beloved of conservative politicians. I shall dismiss b) outright as ridiculous – as if anyone would expect her to stand up for Ceausescu’s regime, and as if she had any sway over who reads her books (or instructs their aides to read her books, as I find it difficult to imagine Merkel and Couchner curling up with Herztier). Stupid accusation a), however, that Müller is in some way making Germans into innocent victims in Atemschaukel, is refuted in the very first pages of the novel.

The narrator, as yet incognito as we learn of his first illicit sexual encounters, tells us how the prisoners travelled to the Soviet camp: in cattle trucks, instantly evoking the fate of the Jews under the Nazis. Yet these cattle trucks are equipped with makeshift benches and toilets, and the Romanians give them food to eat on the journey – a frozen goat, which they initially mistake for firewood and laughingly burn. As we learn later, the Germans in Romania led a kind of charmed life during the war, a time of cucumber salad in the garden, porcelain and fur coats, largely unaffected by world events. Indeed, for the narrator, the Soviet camp initially seems like a route to escape from his petit-bourgeois, nationalist family. These are not innocents but Nazis or at least turners of blind eyes, and Müller treats the family itself with little love, just as they give little love to their lost son.

Given this situation, it would be almost impossible to create a sober account of life in the gulag, as we are familiar with from Solzhenitsyn or Margarete Buber-Neumann. And this is anything but a sober account. It is a dizzying, poetic, punch-drunk account that sent me reeling, shocked at what was being told but constantly marvelling at the writing.

The narrator’s voice is strangely naïve, and the language has a slight patina – this is the 1940s after all, but I imagined I heard the old-fashioned German of the Banat Swabians and the Siebenbürger Saxons too, dialects frozen in time since German settlers moved to Romania centuries ago. And he describes the camp as a budding poet, a young man who packs Faust and poetry in his suitcase but never reads them, instead trading them page by page as cigarette paper for salt and sugar, flour and a lice comb.

Yet as Leo tells us about this place of grim survival where the words on the paper count for nothing, Müller’s language creates images of extraordinary beauty. There are nature poems here, odes to Ukrainian weeds, there are poems dedicated to hunger and release. Leo finds escape and comfort in words, unfamiliar Russian sounds that take on new meaning to German ears – a device Müller has played with in the past. A particular type of coal is referred to as “hasoweh”, which reminds the narrator of a wounded hare in German. This poor creature crops up at various points, its effect gradually becoming more and more cynical as Leo loses his capacity for compassion.

Another device familiar from Müller’s earlier work is her use of curious compound nouns, such as the Atemschaukel of the title (breath-swing). I have to admit I found this aspect rather opaque and certainly can’t attempt to explain why the book has this title. As such, I don’t share the criticism of the deviating titles of Müller’s English translations – I find they make the books more accessible at first glance. Everything I Own I Carry With Me is a key sentence in the novel, occurring at the beginning and the end and summing up both Leo’s life and the itinerancy present – I’m told – in much of Müller’s previous writing. Here and elsewhere, suitcases are packed and unpacked, playing a major and symbolic role.

As the suffering reaches its peak in the “skin-and-bone time” towards the middle of Atemschaukel, the narration becomes increasingly erratic. Leo introduces us to a world ruled by hunger angels, where everyday objects take on extreme significance: crusts of bread, lumps of coal, combs, shovels, scarves, photographs – many of the chapters bear the names of these objects. Life revolves around them, losing all sense of time, just as the novel’s structure is only loosely chronological. By a certain point, all human relations have broken down and survival depends solely upon insentient objects.

This is, there are no two ways about it, a great novel. I think Herta Müller made a wise decision to move further away from her previous writing, which was mainly autobiographically tinged. I get the impression people were starting to write her off as the woman who only ever writes about Germans under Ceausescu. In Atemschaukel, she has more than proved that her range is wider, and that her curious linguistic slant can be just as well applied to matters further afield.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Clubbing in Berlin

In today's Observer, Stephen Emms goes on a tour of Berlin's nightlife, from the Rauchhaus to Kaffee Burger to Kreuzkölln. He doesn't get past the bouncers at Berghain, though. Perhaps he should head over to the City-Lit Café for a taste of Tobias Rapp on the subject, in my translation, from the forthcoming City-Lit Berlin anthology.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Badge Fun at Book Fair

So, I went to Frankfurt - and let me tell you, wearing a badge proclaiming that you love German books is a sure way to win friends and influence people - at least at a book fair it is. The most frequent comment was: So, you love German books, do you? Answer: Yes, I certainly do. Which is kind of a conversation killer. Second most frequent: Where did you get that? Answer: I've got a whole bag full of them right here. Would you like one? Which sounds a bit like: "Would you like to see my puppies?"

It would appear nobody else takes their own badges to the book fair - not even the guy with orange carpet all up the walls of his booth, whose cheerily-named press has published two books by himself and his wife, in the standard version and the hand-bound gold-lettered deluxe edition, was pressing badges on innocent passers-by as he waylaid them by the independent publishers' stage.

There are many advantages to wearing a badge proclaiming your love of German books, though. You know those awkward meetings when you don't know what the person looks like beforehand? When you're scanning the many, many faces coming towards you, wondering how a German one-woman publisher who lives in London might be dressed? Worry no more, for if you wear a badge announcing the name of your blog, she can spot you instantly in the crowd outside the agents' centre.

Or those times when you've come across a "friend" from Facebook and they've forgotten about your very existence, even though it was them who foisted their warm and caring undying allegiance upon you in the first place? Don't fret over the state of interpersonal relationships in the internet age, just point at your badge to jog their memory.

Or what about when you hardly know anybody at the only champagne reception you've been invited to, except for someone you once wrote something scathing about on your blog? Hey, it's the perfect opportunity to grovel, because there's no hiding when you're wearing your blog on your chest.

Or, say, you come across a very busy American blogger and publishing type as he's racing to catch an Argentinean writer in action, shout gleefully, Hey, you are XX! and he looks completely and embarrassingly blank? It's OK, you can prove you're not a stalker by proudly displaying your love german books badge and then managing not to fawn quite so much as last time you ran into him.

And of course, for those long minutes in line for the ladies' lavatory, there's no better way to root out other German-to-English translators with a similar bladder capacity to yourself than by wearing a rather large badge displaying your common literary passion.

I highly recommend it.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

No man's land Scots-Franconian Translation Project

Far be it from me to merely rip off links from the Literary Saloon - but in this case I have something to add. Michael Orthofer links to an article on the Deutsche Welle website: Dialect poetry in translation connects regional cultures across Europe. And I have to point out that you can read the original Scots and Franconian poems in question, English versions, and their matching dialect translations at no man's land - just click on Issue 3.

And in no way am I doing so merely because my friend and co-editor at nml, Isabel Cole, herself a very talented translator, is mentioned in the article and went to great trouble to organise the translation workshop last year between poets writing in dialect from Scotland and Franconia. No, I just want to help you to appreciate the entirety of the project, including its outcome.

Monday 12 October 2009

German Book Prize Goes to Kathrin Schmidt

And you can read an English extract from her excellent book, Du stirbst nicht, on sign and sight. The translator is John Reddick, and the book tells the story of woman recovering from a ruptured aneurysm, who struggles to regain her memory in hospital only to find that everything is not as rosy as it seems.

Schmidt is a trained psychologist and studied at the renowned Johannes R. Becher literary institute in Leipzig in the GDR. She experienced her character's fate herself seven years ago, which may well be one reason why her novel is a very sensitive and touching piece of writing.

In her brief speech at the awards ceremony, she said she was very surprised and it hadn't yet sunk in - and she was actually much happier about Herta Müller's Nobel Prize than her own award so far. Schmidt was just half a percent behind Müller's Atemschaukel in an online poll by the trade mag Börsenblatt.


Frankfurt Here I Come

My fairy godmother has waved her magic wand and told me, You shall go to the book fair. If anyone's interested in a beautiful love german books badge, tap me on the shoulder at the official opening of the Translators' Centre at five on Wednesday afternoon.

And if you spot anyone wearing one beforehand, that probably means they're one of the lovely Frankfurt Fellows with whom I spent Saturday night drinking Jägermeister. They're on a whistle-stop tour of German publishers, who are lavishing them with roast venison and book recommendations. By the end they'll no doubt be suffering from exhaustion - but they'll be so much wiser and richer in experiences.

Oh, and Jürgen Jakob Becker has one of my badges too. Jürgen runs the Deutscher Übersetzerfonds, which organises events and seminars and provides financial support for translators' work. He's also in charge of events at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin - just about my favourite place. And he runs the translation workshops there, which invite translators of German literature to meet writers, critics and publishers in Berlin, a genuine boon for anyone who has the honour of taking part. For all this and, I suspect, for his general all-round niceness and enthusiasm for all things translation, he's being awarded the German translators' association's Übersetzerbarke prize at the opening ceremony. Unfortunately, it's not quite as financially rewarding as a Nobel Prize, but it is a great honour, which Jürgen richly deserves. I shall expect him to be sporting his love german books badge provocatively as Queen Elizabeth lowers her sword onto his shoulders for his services to translation. Or whatever happens at the opening ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.

Friday 9 October 2009

Chalmers and Marven, Berlin Tabloids on Herta Müller

Amidst the no doubt predictable tidal wave of semi-informed comment (which is why I'm not saying much), a couple of voices actually have something to say about Herta Müller.

Starting with Martin Chalmers, one of her previous translators. He has a very touching piece in the Guardian books blog giving some background information and a taste of her work. Martin, one of those fantastic translatorly curmudgeons (and I mean that in a good way, honest) who points out all that is wrong with the Anglo-American publishing world at regular intervals, closes his piece:

(...) the Swedish Academy is, I think, doing two things. It is once again challenging the self-satisfied Anglo-centrism of the English-language publishing business, with its rather narrow definitions of what constitutes good writing, and it is widening our ideas of Europe. And it is perhaps in its failure to engage with European literatures that the English culture, for all the advantages of the global reach of the English language, shows itself at its most provincial.

Then you can listen to another translator and Germanist, Lyn Marven, on BBC Radio 3 - if you're quick, that is. Go to around the 16th minute to find out all sorts of stuff about Herta Müller, only online for the next six days, unfortunately. Lyn tells us about some of Müller's motifs and motivations, corrects the presenter's assumption that only one of her books has been translated, and so on.

Berlin's tabloids are even more enthusiastic than Lyn, claiming Herta Müller as the city's own. It helps that she shares a name (almost) with one of Berlin's beleaguered football teams. The reporters for Berliner Kurier and BZ all went to last night's press conference and all bang on about how small Herta Müller is. Presumably this is a triumph for short women living in Friedenau. What's interesting is that both pieces link to reactions from Germany's household-name critics. Find out in the Kurier that Marcel Reich-Ranicki is not amused that his favourite Philip Roth didn't win - and pulls the "token female" card currently doing the rounds. And get all the gossip about what she's really like from Elke Heidenreich in the BZ.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Herta Müller Takes Nobel Prize

It's official! The Romanian-German writer Herta Müller gets this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. I'm thrilled. They tell us she "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed." I couldn't agree more.

You can read her in English online at sign and sight, on reading her securitate file and an extract from her new novel Atemschaukel translated by Donal McLaughlin - himself no stranger to ethnic persecution in a totalitarian system, seeing as he moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland as a child. Rights have been sold to Britain and the US, so look out for the book on a shelf near you in the future.

You can read five of her previous books in English translation as well. See the Complete Review for an overview.

Update: Apparently, Müller's reaction was "Damn, now I won't get the German Book Prize."

Felix Droste on Withdrawing Offensive Title

There has been a minor scandal in Germany over a publisher withdrawing a crime novel dealing with "honour killings" (a term that doesn't seem to warrant quotation marks in German any more). The publishing house, Droste Verlag, had commissioned a regional crime novel - a very popular genre in federalist Germany - but rejected the writer Gabriele Brinkmann's book after she refused to make editorial changes.

That much is clear. What isn't clear is why they requested the changes. There was initially talk of them commissioning an expert to check whether the book would offend Muslim sensibilities, thus presenting a security risk along the lines of The Jewel of Medina. It seems this is what Felix Droste wrote to the author in emails, which she then released to the press. She argued, as far as I understand, that the allegedly offensive passages were part of the local colour, written in the words of the rough-tough detectives involved rather than reflecting her own or the publisher's opinion.

Now the publisher has reacted, issuing a press release and giving an interview in the TAZ newspaper. Felix Droste claims it's actually more a case of refusing to offend religious sensibilities:

A crime novel that slanders Islam and contains xenophobic passages doesn't fit into our programme. I don't publish books that hurt the feelings of people living among us. And it would be too cheap a trick just out of provocation. (...) The manuscript was so xenophobic in places that it sent a shiver down my back to read it.

He also questions the quality of the book itself and says he has since received murder threats from right-wingers.

This is such a loaded issue that it's hard to comment. But I have to say that I commend the publisher's decision, at least based on my knowledge of the case. He has a right to refuse to publish something he considers racist and offensive, and that's what it comes down to. He may be mincing his words slightly, using terms like ausländerfeindlich, Mitbürger and that Ehrenmord without quotation marks, all rather euphemistic for just plain racist, Muslims and "honour killings". But his motivation seems very noble to me.

It's unfortunate, though, that he set himself up in his emails to be presented by Spiegel and so on as a lily-livered liberal scared of Islamist attack. Had he told the author in the first place that her novel was offensive rather than a threat to his family, the scandal may not have broken. But arguing first and foremost with the Islamist terror card is foolish, if not actually just as prejudiced as he is painting the author. Because if you instantly equate insulting Muslims with suicide belts and incendiary devices through letterboxes, you're kind of ignoring the vast majority who, you know, don't resort to terrorism.

German Verdict on Literary Translation Royalties

Yesterday the German Federal Court of Justice - the highest legal instance in the country - ruled on a case over pay and royalties for literary translators. There have been ongoing disputes between publishers and the translators' association for years now, especially since the government amended copyright law, stating that the existing situation was "inadequate".

The verdict sets a legal precedent, awarding translators royalties of 0.8% for hardcover and 0.4% for paperback titles - from the 5000th copy sold. It doesn't address the issue of page rates, which are notoriously low. In fact in the case in question, the translator was paid only €15 per standard page, a very low rate indeed but not unusual in German publishing. However, the judges did award translators 50% of revenue from subsidiary rights such as sales of the translation for paperback editions, film rights, audiobooks, etc. Which is apparently well above the current norm.

I'll update with a link to the VdÜ press release once it's available in English.

Friday 2 October 2009

Translated Shortlist Extracts

At sign and sight you can now read English extracts from the six titles shortlisted for the German Book Prize - a mere 10 days later than announced.

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.

BBC Radio 4 Writes it on the Wall

Listeners can tune in to three readings of East German writing next week, on 6, 7 and 8 October at 15.30 British time.

The short series features extracts by Christa Wolf, Stefan Heym and Monika Maron, three genuinely excellent writers who wrote before and after the Berlin Wall came down. I assume there'll be an opportunity to listen to the pieces online for a while too.