Where we come from
The search for identity, village tales, German lives: despite the corona virus 2020 is a strong year for books
By Christoph Schröder
Like everything else, the German book trade has been seriously affected by the Covid19 crisis. Although sales figures for June 2020 were unexpectedly strong, both booksellers and publishers will end up making a loss across the 2020 financial year as a whole. What with the cancellation of the Leipzig Book Fair and the ban on literary and other events, the reading public has had little opportunity to appreciate the full breadth of the unarguably high-quality output of new books this spring. As is evident from a new initiative launched by a countrywide network of literary event organisers, efforts are currently being made to re-launch these books - but the new autumn titles will already be in the shops by the end of July.
Once again this year readers will find themselves confronted with the theme of identity and the question of how individuals can establish a solid basis for their existence within a constantly changing and increasingly heterogeneous society - and they will also encounter the question of how the mounting ideological tensions and associated battle lines within society can be adequately reflected in literature. It is no coincidence that Saša Stanišić won last year’s German Book Prize with a work that bore the title Herkunft (‘Origins’) and through its autofictional mode of writing satisfied the growing desire for the literary processing of personal experiences. Olivia Wenzel’s novel 1000 Serpentinen Angst appeared in spring 2020. Born in 1985 in Weimar as the daughter of a punk mother and Angolan father, Wenzel undertakes a rhythmically structured, dialogue-based self-interrogation that repeatedly focuses on issues of institutional marginalisation and discrimination, and recounts the story of a stigmatised individual growing up in two different German polities - the GDR and the Federal Republic.
The debut novel of Ronya Othmann, born 1993 in Munich, also comes under the heading of autofictional works by authors with a migrant background. At last year’s Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur (the competition that determines the winner of the annual Ingeborg Bachmann Prize), the extract from Othmann’s novel submitted for consideration prompted an extremely complex discussion amongst the members of the jury centring on the problem of evaluating literary renderings of personal experience. Die Sommer, as her novel is entitled (‘The summers’), is due to appear this autumn, and tells the story of a life split between two different cultures. Leyla, the central figure, is the daughter of a German mother and a Yazidi Kurd - a member of the ethnic group notoriously persecuted as ‘infidels’ by ISIS and brutally slaughtered in 2014 in an act categorised by the UN as genocide.
It has to be acknowledged, however, that a migrant background is not indispensable to a convincing representation of the present-day world in this era of turmoil characterised not least by the disparities between people’s different experiences of reality. Thus for instance Elbwärts (‘Elbe-wards’) is due to be published in late August as the first novel by Thilo Krause, a writer known hitherto solely as a poet and as a winner of the distinguished Peter Huchel Prize for Poetry. Krause, born in Dresden, recounts in vivid, picturesque language the story of a couple who return to their home village in the region known as ‘Saxon Switzerland’. The past catches up with the first-person narrator in the form of guilt-stricken memories, while in the novel’s present nazis arrive and set up their summer camp, and the couple themselves are faced with rampant mistrust in the village. As is already clear from the title, Christoph Peters also focuses on village life in his Dorfroman (‘Village novel’), due out in August. In his fabulous 2012 novel Wir in Kahlbeck (‘We in Kahlbeck’), Peters - born in the Lower Rhein area of Germany - recounted the story of life in a Catholic boys’ boarding school near the Dutch border. Now, after a series of entertaining and highly intelligent forays into the detective-story world, Peters takes a new turn with his Dorfroman, in which the narrator goes to visit his parents in the village of ‘Hülkendonck’. Here again, returning home sparks a plethora of memories, and by the point where the novel’s main focus shifts to the construction of a nuclear power plant and the resulting ideological battles, it is already clear that ‘Hülkendonck’ bears a more than passing resemblance to Peters’s own home village of Kalkar.
Two of the most notable books published so far this year deal with East German lives and experiences. Ingo Schulze’s cleverly constructed novel Die rechtschaffenen Mörder (‘The righteous murderers’), which was nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize, reconstructs the story of a bookseller and antiquarian who in GDR days became a beacon of intellectual opposition, but lost everything once the wall fell: his means of earning a living, his standing within society, the entire basis of his intellectual life. No one needs him any more, no one wants to see him. Although it is left open whether he becomes truly radicalised and morphs into an enragé from the ranks of the well-educated middle class, Schulze’s novel nonetheless illuminates a pan-German problem, namely the ease with which someone who feels misunderstood can re-cast themself as an enemy of the system.
Turning now to Lutz Seiler, born 1963 in Gera and winner of this year’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize for his novel Stern 111: Carl Bischoff, the book’s protagonist and Seiler’s alter ego, arrives in Berlin from Thuringia in December 1989 and quickly finds fellowship in a commune in the Prenzlauer Berg district characterised by dreams of total freedom and a permanent state of quasi anarchy. At issue here is the crucial interstice between two contrary regimes - the GDR and the Federal Republic - and Seiler captures the full flavour of it by dint of great observational acuity and the use of powerful imagery. In parallel to this, Seiler also recounts the story of Carl’s parents, who start life all over again in West Germany and end up finding happiness on a completely different continent. Kruso, the protagonist of the earlier, eponymous novel that earned Seiler the German Book Prize, also pops up in Stern 111 as a radicalised street fighter intent on using erstwhile GDR border-guard dogs to defend squatted houses. This is a book of real literary and documentary merit - and it comes complete with a talking goat!
Self-affirmation, accounts of the coming-together of the country we live in, the experience of cultural heterogeneity - all those elements that we associate with the notion of ‘identity politics’ are still being richly reflected in current German-language literature. Despite the corona virus, 2020 is an excellent year for books!
Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.
Translated by John Reddick