The German Book Prize was established in 2005 and, of the 11 winners, 6 have now been translated into English. (Why some, not others, I wonder?) I have an ongoing project to keep up to date and during GLM V I read the 1st winner of the prize and the 6th (and most recent addition to the translated into English shelves.) I found some surprising connections.
First spoils went to Austria with Arno Geiger’s We are doing fine, tramsted by Maria Poglitsch Bauer. Now you know with titles like that, that it just can’t be true, and, in fact it is anything but true. This is a multi-generational tale of woe (not misery, an important distinction) – a family’s gradual slide from the heights of respectability to – well – mediocrity and aimlessness. Apparently it hides a social commentary on the state of the Austrian nation in its narrative – ouch!
Philipp has just inherited a villa from his recently deceased grandmother, and has decided to renovate. Not from any familial loyalty, but simply because he has nothing better to do. The house also provides a convenient location for his trysts with his married lover, Joanna. Why does Philipp inherit the house and not his mother or his uncle? They are the missing generation. His uncle killed in combat and his mother in an unfortunate accident, and this, perhaps, explains Philipp’s distance – emotionally and idealogically – from his grandparents. That, and the fact that his mother had rebelled from her parents and married an entirely unsuitable man. A waistrel (from whom Philipp inherited most of his character traits), who sent her father (a womanising, but otherwise respectable politician at the time of the Anschluss) into apoplectic fits!
You see how the history is unravelled? It takes some piecing together as the narrative isn’t told chronologically, or even in reverse chronology. The three generational strands are fragmented nd it takes time and patience to piece together the significance of what is being told. For example there is a very moving description of a young boy’s harsh experience of the Second World War. Who is he and what is the significance of his story? It all becomes clear eventually. The reader must be patient.
Geiger’s empathy with the individual fates of his characters is expansive. Richard, grandfather and politician, and arguably the character with the strongest sense of purpose must make compromises to retain influence during the war. Afterwards, like all politicians, he eventually outlives his usefulness. He also loses his mind. His wife, Alma, stays with him despite his philandering ways and her loyalty contrasts sharply with that of Philipp, the representative of the younger me-first generation, who is a minor figure on all the walls of his life; everything he does ends up in footnotes while the text is missing. (And if that is a veiled reference to Austria ….it’s damning.)
The novel is not without humour – the biggest challenge Philipp faces is the clearance of the loft, which has for years been inhabited by pigeons. You can imagine the mess – more allegory no doubt, and a neat segue into
Melinda Nadj Abonji’s Fly Away, Pigeon, winner of the German and Swiss book prizes in 2010, translated by Tess Lewis. The pigeons in this case are homing pigeons, kept by the protagonist’s cousin in Vojvodina, present day Serbia, and unlike the protagonist and her family they stay put.
Just like Geiger’s novel, Fly Away, Pigeon is a multi-generational story, full of complexity. Written in the 1st person (Geiger’s is all 3rd) there is less detachment and the reader experiences Ildi’s confusion and indignation at first hand. Ildi’s parents have been dispossessed in Tito’s Yugoslavia – it’s complicated, really complicated – and have left to seek a new life in Switzerland, where they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. They leave Ildi amd her younger sister behind with grandma until they are settled. Ildi’s parents work hard to establish themselves until they can send for their young daughters. Years pass and emotional bonds are broken that never really reform.
For Ildi, Yugoslavia remains home and the trips back to visit her family and her beloved Mamika are the highlights of her childhood. When the Balkans war breaks out, and her relations endangered, her worry is palpable and justified. And it provokes a personal crisis, precipitated by an unsuitable romance. This pigeon must fly away yet again to find her own identity , much to the bemusement of her now naturalised parents.
Ildi is an outsider – torn between her no longer existing Yugoslav and her current but unloved Swiss identity. The novel doesn’t resolve the issue – indeed, it cannot. The in places almost stream of consciousness which switches between Yugoslavia and Switzerland mid-chapter, mid-paragraph at times, demonstrates hostilities and patronising attitudes towards the Kocsis family in both places. Switzerland certainly doesn’t come out of this unstained. A neat resolution would diminish the realism of the piece. In many ways this is Ildi’s Bildungsroman, but the Bildung – or education – is yet to come.
It was interesting reading Fly Away, Pigeon after reading Monica Cantieni’s The Encyclopedia of Good Reasons for GLM IV. I can’t say I loved it on first reading though I feel a second reading would reap rewards. Once I have a better grounding in Balkans history.
Winners of the German Book Prize translated into English (with hyperlnks to my reviews.)
2005 Arno Geiger – We are doing fine (Trans. Maria Poglitsch Bauer)
2006 Katharina Hacker – The Have-Nots (Trans. Helen Atkins) (in the TBR)
2007 Julia Franck – The Blind Side of the Heart (Trans. Anthea Bell) (My favourite)
2008 Uwe Tellkamp – The Tower (Trans Mike Mitchell)
2010 Melinda Nadj Abonji – Fly Away, Pigeon (Trans.Tess Lewis)
2011 Eugen Ruge – In Times of Fading Light (Trans. Anthea Bell)
2014 Lutz Seiler – Kruso (Trans. Tess Lewis – To be published 2016)