• Swiss Book Prize Winner 2017
  • Translated from German by Tess Lewis

Richard Kraft, Professor Of Rhetoric at the prestigious University of Tübingen, is invited to participate in a contest. The challenge is to write and present an essay on the topic “Why Whatever Is, Is Right and Why We Can Still Improve It.” The prize is $1 million.

Philosophers will recognise the subject is centred on Leibnizian optimism. Well, I’m no philosopher, so that’s quite enough of that! I did recognise, though, that this was going to be a tough call because there is an awful lot wrong with Kraft’s life. He is a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis, trapped in a dire second marriage. With his wife’s “encouraging”words – Go, win, and come back with the prize money, so we can all have our freedom again – resounding in his ears, he leaves to take up residence at Stanford University to produce his piece.

Naturally his thoughts flit over his life : the interesting times he has experienced (Berlin, before and after the fall of the wall), his friendship with Istvan, a Hungarian refugee, his failed relationships with women and his lackadaisical performance as a father. Thus professional triumphs morph into personal doubts and uncertainties with the professor’s rock-steady confidence stumbling on shifting sands. This psychological development is cleverly mirrored in a comic set-piece in which the overconfident Kraft goes rowing. His daily exercise rowing on the Neckar at home makes him overconfident and he ignores the strict instructions of the local guide. The adventure turns sour with the result that Kraft is tossed around, expelled from his boat, before being found naked, covered head to toe in mud. Stripped of all pretensions, you might say. A journey that is mirrored in the intellectual sphere as Kraft comes to terms with a career built on mucky theories in which he no longer believes. Writing an essay with an assumption he can no longer swallow is, at this stage, beyond him. I found the ending, which has shocked and angered others, an inevitable consequence.

There is obvious symbolism in the final scene, which I haven’t quite fathomed, like much of the philosophical reasoning that fills the pages as Kraft grapples with his essay. So the going is heavy at times (and I may have skimmed here and there) but this is more than offset by comedy elsewhere and the fascination of watching Kraft’s tortured relationships reveal his vanity and selfishness. He’s a flawed creature like us all. Lüscher, a philosopher himself, is, I think, parodying his own kind and the irony runs deep. For Richard Kraft (Power) is ultimately powerless in the face of almost everything, even his own intellect.