New novels with new features
Is “Broken German” better than German Introspection?
By Michael Schmitt
When the shortlist for the 2018 German Book Prize was disclosed in September 2018, it was said that the state of the world seemed to be preying on the minds of German-language writers. A perfect example of this was Inger Maria Mahlke’s novel, “Archipel” (Rowohlt), which won the book prize in October 2018. The book revolves around the history of the island Tenerife, but is told in reverse as a kind of archaeological excavation that digs deeper and deeper across more than a hundred years. The small cosmos of world and regional history starts with the crisis in Spain in 2015 then moves on to the Franco regime and ends in the year 1919. Rich in detail, but more conventionally written, Stephan Thome’s “Gott der Barbaren” (Suhrkamp) leads the reader straight into the middle of the uprisings in China in the middle of the 19th century. In the novel “Der Vogelgott” (Jung und Jung), Susanne Röckel, writes in the style of Gothic novel, about a culturally and scientifically interested family that gets entangled in the cruel mythology of archaic communities. In 2017, Anna Kim relayed the little-known story of Korea in her novel, “Die große Heimkehr” (Suhrkamp). As a starting point for imaginative journeys into history and remote worlds, Judith Schalansky makes use of historical or scientific facts and curiosities in her book “Verzeichnis einiger Verluste” (Suhrkamp, 2018), which was awarded the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize.
But diversity also characterizes the rendering of German history in fictional works, particularly the consequences of reunification in the formerly divided Germany since 1989/90. To this day it remains an explosive topic for writers of all generations. Especially younger writers like Manja Präkels in “Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen aß” (Verbrecher Verlag, 2017) or Lukas Rietzschel with his debut “Mit der Faust in die Welt schlagen” (Ullstein, 2018) we see writers investigating the dissolution of social structures in eastern Germany and the emergence of the new, aggressive right, albeit without an automatic condemnatory kneejerk response; Gert Loschütz, on the other hand, evocatively relates the story of Germany’s division through the prism of his parent’s love, marriage and divorce story in his novel “Ein schönes Paar” (Schöffling, 2018). The couple who is first torn apart from each other resolves to live their lives on opposite ends of a city. In her novel, “Justizpalast” (Luchterhand 2017), Petra Morsbach tells the life story of a woman lawyer in Munich that emphatically reminds us of what could be lost if we rashly lose confidence in social institutions. And in her novel, “Gehen, ging, gegangen” (Luchterhand 2015) Jenny Erpenbeck examines the possibilities of dealing with refugees from the Arab countries and the self-image of German society.
Focusing on the world at large, as well as a constant preoccupation with one’s own origins, has been the outcome of years of “immigration” into German literature by authors who, for example, came to Germany, Austria or Switzerland as migrants in the first or second generation. Feridun Zaimoglu, who recently published “Evangelio: ein Luther-Roman” (Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 2017) (slotted for 2019: “Die Geschichte der Frau”, Kiepenheuer & Witsch) exemplifies this trend as does the Iraqi-born Abbas Khider, who circles around his escape and the conditions for his admission to Germany with a drastic sense of humor (slotted for spring 2019: “Deutsch für alle. Das endgültige Lehrbuch“, Hanser).
This trend has been particularly evident in the last few years by the televised Ingeborg Bachmann competition in Klagenfurt, which has captured the attention of the media.
The most recent winners have been texts written by authors who were not born in German-speaking countries, such as the writer and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo’s short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” 2016; or in 2018, the Ukrainian-born and Vienna-based author and journalist Tanja Maljartschuk, whose new novel about an unfortunate Ukrainian politician will be published in spring 2019 (“Blauwal der Erinnerung”, Kiepenheuer & Witsch). Tomer Gardi, who was born in Israel, also caused a sensation in 2016 with the text “Broken German” not only because it exaggeratedly portrays the experiences of immigrants, but also, to a certain extent, because it dismembers the German language into its individual parts and imparted it with an entirely new sound.
The writer and translator Natascha Wodin has also written in an unusually vivid manner about the fate of immigrants in her two most recent books: her mother’s life story set in her hometown Mariupol in Crimea (“Sie kam aus Mariupol”, Rowohlt 2016), and her father’s life story (“Irgendwo in diesem Dunkel”, Rowohlt, 2018), which deals with him growing up in the Soviet Union. These stories deal with the repercussions of constantly fleeing from one’s home country as well as the losses incurred from 1917 to the period after the Second World War; and ends in a life lived at the margins as a Russian-German in a Franconian small town at the start of Germany’s economic miracle.
Often thematically anchored in the everyday life of a younger generation and formally shaped by the short forms and oral presentations of reading stages and slam poetry competitions, the programs of relatively young publishers (Voland & Quist, Satyr, Mairisch, etc.) have also been very successful. A large number of younger writers, such as the poet Nora Gomringer or the writers Finn-Ole Heinrich and Marc Uwe Kling, have also made a name for themselves beyond the traditional distribution channels of German-language literature, turning to new digital forums ranging from e-publishing to Youtube channels. But it has often been only a first step towards a career that has led back to the traditional literary market.
Michael Schmitt is literature editor at 3sat-Kulturzeit and freelance critic for NZZ, SZ and Deutschlandfunk. His work focuses on German-language and Anglo-American literature as well as children's and young adult literature. Michael Schmitt was a member of the Litrix jury from 2015-2017.
Translated by Zaia Alexander
Story-telling for today
New trends in German-language literature for children and young adults
By Caroline Roeder
Whether it’s bite-resistant board-books for littlies or teenage novels focusing largely on the challenges of identity, whether it’s graphic novels for children or deeply researched non-fiction books aimed at readers ‘of all ages’ - the titles available on the German-language book market for children and young adults are exceptionally varied, and present a rich panoply of high-quality literary offerings. In economic terms, too, this sector is highly promising: some 9000 new titles appear on the market every year. Whilst a considerable proportion of these are translations, largely from English, the number of home-grown publications nevertheless shows up very well in any international comparison.
Some interesting new trends are worth noting here. One striking and quite crucial feature - continuing a trend evident since the 1980s - is that books for children and young adults are increasingly echoing developments in literature for adults. It is clear from best-sellers like Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Tschick (2010) and Bov Bjerg’s Auerhaus (2015) that the borderline between literature for ‘grown-ups’ and books for young readers is becoming increasingly exiguous. Books of this sort are termed ‘crossovers’ and reach a highly variegated readership - which is to say that they can be read with profit by young and old alike. This is particularly clear in the case of fantasy-based books, whether they be English-language mega-sellers by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, or German-language stayers such as Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (1979) and Walter Moers’ Zamonien series (Die 13½ Leben des Käpt'n Blaubär, 1999, followed by eleven further books), or more recent titles such as Cornelia Funke’s Tintenwelt trilogy (2003-2007).
Another striking feature is the shift in subject matter. A new sense of engagement is evident in contemporary literature for adults, with a more marked focus on socio-political issues of the day and on themes relating to contemporary history - and a quick glance at today’s literature for children and young adults shows that the same development has found its way into this sector of the book market too (cf. Grit Poppe’s Weggesperrt, 2009, or Christian Linker’s Dschihad Calling, 2015). In this regard it is interesting that in the picturebook field - traditionally aimed at the very youngest of young readers - a large number of books are now appearing that deal with relatively ‘weighty’ topics, including war, expulsion and transcultural issues. Kirsten Boie’s Bestimmt wird alles gut (2016) is a typical example here, as are books by Anja Tuckermann such as Nusret und die Kuh (illustrated by Mehrdad Zaeri and Uli Krappen, 2016). These highly relevant features of present-day society are presented not in a teacherly way, but in an artistic guise that invites discussion; they are transposed into parable-like stories that emphasise openness and tolerance towards people from other backgrounds (e.g. Armin Greder’s Die Insel, 2015). In this context we should also mention Rico, the ‘deeply’ (in contrast to ‘highly’) gifted protagonist in Andreas Steinhöfel’s Rico-and-Oskar series (which started in 2008), who took the hearts of his readers by storm.
It is precisely in the field of illustration that we find this thematic evolution further reflected, namely in the work of a new generation of artists in the German-speaking lands who produce graphic novels: here, too, alongside autobiographical elements, the chosen topics relate predominantly to socio-political concerns and other matters highly relevant to the contemporary world. Various authors merit special mention under this head: Reinhard Kleist with his books Der Boxer. Die wahre Geschichte des Hertzko Haft (2012) and Der Traum von Olympia (2015); Mawil - Kinderland (2014) - and Simon Schwartz - Drüben (2009) - who both focus on the German Democratic Republic; Flix, an artist who produces extremely interesting adaptations of classics, as in his Münchhausen, and whose Spirou in Berlin gives new life to a legendary classic of the genre.
More ‘on the run’ than ‘forever young’
Last but not least, there is another trend that deserves to be noted. More and more books written for young adults are proving immensely successful and scoring top places in best-seller lists. The turbulent period of adolescence, full of all the spectacular highs and lows that the young have to suffer and get through, appears to make for particularly popular reading matter, appealing not only to those who still have to face the challenges of teenagerdom, but also to those who have successfully got it behind them, or who seem to have settled into it on a permanent basis. As these books make clear, young people growing up in the twenty-first century often go through life-changing upheavals, for instance by experiencing violence within the family or through war, enduring traumas caused by fleeing their homeland or being driven out of it, or suffering exclusion or discrimination - as demonstrated for example by Alina Bronsky’s Scherbenpark (2008), Susanne Kreller’s Elefanten sieht man nicht (2012), or Julya Rabinowich’s Dazwischen: Ich (2016). What is also clear, however, is that the teenage years can take the young on all kinds of different journeys: some entail painful partings (Elisabeth Steinkeller’s Rabensommer (2015), Tamara Bach’s Vierzehn (2016); some may be read as ‘rite of passage’ stories (Nils Mohl’s Es war einmal Indianerland, 2011); others represent an unending search for a goal that derives from within the imaginative inner realm of the adolescent protagonists themselves (Nataly Elisabeth Savina’s Meine beste Bitch, 2018). All in all, then, the youngsters of the interactive age appear in these novels not to be cast in the mould of the ‘forever young’, but instead to be permanently ‘on the run’.
Caroline Roeder is Professor of Literature and Didactics of Literature at the Pädagogische Hochschule, Ludwigsburg. Her specialist area is literature for children and young adults, and the various media associated with it. She is a member of the German-Greek Litrix-Jury 2019-20.
Translated by John Reddick