If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I have a bit of a thing for all things Germanic.  You may not know that the most important literary festival in Germany takes places in Leipzig.  I may one day go (if I can brace myself to withstand the winter temperatures of Leipzig in March – average daily temperature 4C).

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival  it is possible to attend many festivals during the fortnight; for example, if crime is your thing, create yourself a crime festival from the hundreds of events on offer.  This year there are a multitude of prize-winning German authors appearing at the EIBF.  During the first week I attended all these events and the EIBF became Leipzigburgh (pronounced Leipzigborough).

Tuesday 16.08.2011 Nicol Ljubić

It was the EIBF program that brough Nicol Ljubić to my attention.  When I discovered his book was published by Vagabond Voices, a small Scottish publisher based the island of Lewis, I became more than curious.  The book arrived – and what a lovely book it is – pure white paper, clear font, bound so as to fall open without the need to crack the spine. 

Stillness of the Sea is in parts autobiographical.  Ljubić was born in Croatia, although his family moved from there when he was 2. He experienced the Bosnian war of 1992 solely through German television coverage and, as a teenager, he remained unaffected.  10 years later, he feels ashamed of that and has been impelled to explore his roots.  His discoveries along with his observations of the war crime trials in The Hague form the basis of his novel.

His protagonist, Robert, is the author’s fictional alter-ego.  Everything stated in the paragraph above relates to him.  In addition, he has fallen in love with Ana.  It’s not a straightforward relationship.  Robert cannot tell his Croatian parents the truth about his girlfriend for Ana is a Serb whose father is on trial  for war crimes in The Hague.  The crime is a true one involving the horrific massacre of 41 members of the same family.  There was one survivor.  The details are revealed early enabling the text to focus on its consequences and to explore the differences between moral and legal guilt.

As I was reading the book, I found myself  comparing it – favourably – to Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.  Schlink’s novel is a contemporary German classic, dealing with similar themes arising from the Nazi past; coming to terms with war crimes and their effects on the younger generation.   It has sold millions of copies though I don’t understand its appeal.  The serious themes are undermined by the salacious details of the affair of the young protagonist with the older woman.  Nor is it entirely honest by rendering the war criminal illiterate.

The love affair in Stillness of the Sea is between two from the same age group and feels sincere.  Ana’s father is highly-educated; he teaches literature.  Not only does his intellectual background increase the moral conflict, it also reflects reality, Ljubić said.  Vojislav Šešelj, currently standing trial at the Hague,  was a Shakespearian lecturer at the University of Sarajevo.  In one interview he was asked if he compared himself to Macbeth. This angered Šešelj, Ljubić said, and he replied, I am Titus Andronicus.  References to Titus Andronicus, the most bloodthirsty of Shakespeare’s plays, are interspersed in Ljubić’s text.

There is no historical explanation for the war. I’m talking to my own generation, Ljubić explained and ethnic extraction is not an issue for us. He is more concerned with the legal processes at The Hague and whether it can deliver justice. That’s a huge question that centres on seemingly absurd details. In the novel,  a traumatised war victim relives the experience of watching her family being massacred.  Can she place the accused at the scene?  An identification of the man is insufficient.  It’s imperative that she remember the colour of his hat.

Is that fair and reasonable?  I’ve been debating that with myself ever since completing the book.  I’m sure that will please the author who, when asked if he found writing the novel difficult, said no.  His job was not to answer the questions, simply to raise them. 

Stillness of the Sea was translated by Anna Paterson.  It won the 2010 Verdi Prize for Literature Berlin-Brandenburg and in 2011 Ljubić was awarded the Adalbert-Chamisso Prize.

Stillness of the Sea:

Wednesday 16.08 – Clemens Meyer

All The Lights is Book #2 from new publisher And Other Stories. As an object, the book is as delicious as Ljubić’s, yet I confess I’m having problems with the contents.  The Germanophile in me is not appreciating the view from the losers and criminals who are the protagonists in this collection of 15 short stories. (Perhaps I should pretend they are set somewhere other than the highly romanticised Germany of my single and carefree 20’s?)

I won’t write much about the event as Rob from Rob Around Books has provided a comprehensive summary here

Meyer’s writes in the vein of dirty realism.  I learned at the event that Richard Yates and Patrick Hamilton are associated with  it also.  As I love Yates and Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is in the running to be my book of the year,  I left the event more hopeful of completing the collection, which won 2008 Leipzig Book Fair Prize.  All the Lights was translated by Katy Derbyshire, the lady responsible for more books in my TBR than any other blogger.    Katy blogs at Love German Books and one of this year’s highlights was meeting her at the book signing following the event.

Coming up:  The Ladies of Leipzigburgh:  Jenny Erpenbeck and Judith Schalansky