First of all, the good news. The Ingeborg Bachmann prize is safe (Warning: Really creepy commentary by Jörg Haider supporters at that link). Though some still worry about the role of cultural programming in Austrian public TV in general.
What is more, Ukrainian born German writer Katja Petrowskaja has won the 2013 Ingeborg Bachmann prize. Petrowskaja’s text was one of those I heard and saw read live on TV. And I knew as soon as I heard the text that Katja Petrowskaja would win.
No, I’m not psychic. It’s just that German literary awards, including the Bachmann prize, are predictable as hell. And Katja Petrowskaja’s text is exactly the sort of text that wins literary awards. It’s a text about 20th century German history, in this case about the holocaust as perpetrated by the German army in the Ukraine, told as a family story. This text was even more of a surefire winner, because it’s narrated from the POV of a Ukrainian born narrator, whose Jewish great-grandmother was murdered by the Nazis and whose father only narrowly escaped death, because another Jewish family fleeing the oncoming Nazis on a truck threw a potted plant from the truck bed to make room for the narrator’s father and his family. The whole text may be read here BTW.
Now Katja Petrowskaja’s text is not a bad story. It wasn’t my personal favourite, but I liked it quite a bit, unlike Maja Haderlap’s similar 2011 winner (also a family tale of the Third Reich, though this time involving the Slowenian minority in Kärnten in Austria rather than Ukrainian Jews), which failed to hold my interest. Nonetheless, whenever yet another Nazi era family saga wins a prestigious German literary award, I think, “Oh please! It’s been almost seventy years since the end of WWII, so can we please start writing about something else?”
The two recent Nazi era family stories that won the Bachmann prize also illustrate another problem with the insistence of the German literary establishment that serious literature must either be about Nazis or Communist era East Germany, namely that almost seventy years after the end of WWII, writers with first hand memories of the Third Reich are getting thin on the ground. Maja Haderlap was born in 1961, Katja Petrowskaja in 1970. Neither writer experienced the events they are writing about. And so both stories are told from the POV of a contemporary narrator recounting the story of their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. It’s also telling that everybody – jury, journalists, audience – assumed that the stories in question were autobiographical, because the personal details of the author roughly match those of the narrator (Maja Haderlap is from a Slovenian family in Kärnten, Katja Petrowskaja was born in Ukraine), when there is no real evidence in the text itself that the story is autobiographic. Katja Petrowskaja doesn’t even mention the gender of her narrator. That said, I do believe that both stories are at least partly autobiographic, but the point is that we cannot know for sure. Nor do I have a problem with youngish contemporary German language writers recounting the story of their family during the Third Reich. Every family has these annecdotes about the Nazi era and/or WWII and many of them do make good stories. But it is kind of sad if writers born decades after WWII have to recount half-remembered second or third-hand tales about their family during the Nazi era in order to win literary awards in German in 2013.
Katja Petrowskaja actually does integrate the fact that those Nazi era family anecdotes are nigh impossible to verify into her story. The story is called Vielleicht Esther (Maybe Esther), because no one, not even the narrator’s father, remembers the name of the grandmother shot dead by the Nazis, because she was unable to walk and still reported for deportation, because she believed that Germans were civilized people and she wanted to show them that she was civilized and educated as well. And the anecdote about the abandoned potted plant that saved the life of the narrator’s father is incredibly important to the narrator, who always keeps such a plant in their appartment as a reminder of the plant that saved their father’s life and assured their existence, whereas the father claims not to remember the bit about the potted plant at all. Indeed, my initial reaction was, “A ficus tree? In the Soviet Union in 1941? Doesn’t seem very likely.”
And so Katja Petrowskaja’s story plays very cleverly on the fact that the Nazi era is gradually retreating from living memory and that while we all have these family stories, we have no way of knowing of those stories are really true, especially as older relatives keep contradicting themselves. I have a great-grandfather who may or may not have died in a shipwreck in approx. 1938 (a year there were no shipwrecks in the respective part of the world) while trying to return to Germany for his daughter’s wedding or who may or may not have been arrested by the Nazis upon his return to Germany (Because he was a Communist? Because he might have had information about the US military? Because he might have been mistaken for Jewish?) and who may or may not have been killed. The point is, anybody who might know the truth is dead and so the story (and it’s a good one – all versions of it) is impossible to verify. And believe me, I tried. For all I know, none of the many versions are true and instead my great-grandfather once again proved himself to be the flighty and irresponsible jerk he seems to have been (he had a habit of wandering across the globe from France to Germany to the US and back, opening shoemaker shops whereever he went, and abandoning his wife and four kids to poverty during the hard years of the early 1920s) and simply never came to the wedding, although he promised, and lived out his life in peace repairing shoes in what might have been New Jersey (but no one knows for sure, cause his daughter wrote down the wrong address). I actually hope he lived long and happy to repair shoes – it’s far better than either drowning or getting killed by the Nazis. Even if he was something of a jerk.
Still, the Nazi era is retreating from living memory. Instead of the visceral first-hand accounts written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (and sometimes written well into the 1990s – the literary mag I used to be involved with once published an incredibly powerful memoir by a then teenaged survivor of the Dresden bombing), we now have writers born long after WWII retelling half-remembered family anecdotes that may or may not be true. So why are those half-remembered anecdotes still the gold standard of contemporary German fiction? Why can’t we write more stories about the way we live now?
To be fair, there were plenty of stories about “the way we live now” read during the Bachmann prize readings. For some reason, most of them were about broken relationships. I think I heard three broken relationship stories from three different authors in a single day at one point. The reaction of the jury, particularly the male jurors, to the broken relationship stories was interesting. For example, all male jurors felt that Anoush Mueller’s story Falunrot about a woman finding the strength to break up with her emotionally abusive boyfriend was too hard on the boyfriend and demonized him too much. Duh, the story is narrated from the POV of a woman who has finally decided to dump her jerk of a boyfriend. Of course, she won’t be objective about the soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. The same male jurors were also shocked, shocked I’m telling you, that Heinz Helle’s text Wir sind schön (We are beautiful) talked about an abortion in a semi-frank way. Because writing about abortion in a literary text is apparently still controversial in 2013. Heinz Helle’s story is narrated in a first person plural POV (that is “we” rather than “I”) BTW, which is pretty rare. And in a world where certain readers will call a writer narcistic for writing in the first person and “uneducated” for using first person present tense narration, first person plural POV is probably more shocking than the abortion scene which lasts all of two paragraphs.
As a matter of fact, even the contemporary set stories all had a certain “autobiographic” feel. They were all written in the first person – I don’t recall hearing a single third person story in three days of Bachmann prize readings – and the narrators were mostly very similar to the authors in race, class, ethnic background, etc… I recall one text by a female writer which had an obviously male narrator (still first person, though) . Individually, many were good stories, but collectively, they tended to feel similar, more like personal essays than short stories. It’s also telling that none of the texts I heard dared to have a narrator that was significantly different from the author. And of course, Peter Wawerzinek’s 2010 winning text Rabenliebe (Raven love) was blatantly autobiographical (and made me want to yell, “Oh, just get over it already! Yes, it was awful, but it also was fifty fucking years ago.”). Now I don’t mind autobiographical texts, but having the whole contest comprised of nothing but autobiographical and faux-autobiographical texts is way too limiting in my opinion.
Those “broken relationship” stories did fit the formula (and there is one) for contemporary set texts competing in high prestige German language literary awards. For contemporary set stories do occasionally pop up on the shortlists of the German Book Award or the Award of the Leipzig Book Fair, as long as they conform to a certain formula. The protagonists must be youngish – usually in their late twenties and thirties, perhaps even early forties – and solidly middle class. If jobs are mentioned at all (often they aren’t), it’s some kind of vaguely defined creative field or finance. Cause everybody hates bankers. The stories are usually dripping with disaffectedness and ennui. The characters are too detached to be able to form meaningful relationships (hence the focus on broken relationships). They refuse to grow up, they make pop culture references intended to show us how shallow they are (the above mentioned abortion text by Heinz Helle included references to Sin City, 24, Super Mario Cart, football and Peter Sloterdijk’s philosophy discussion on German TV), they indulge in pursuits deemed overly extravagant by judgmental elderly relatives (who often pop up in the stories dispensing moral wisdom), whereby “overly extravagant” can be as trivial as going out to the local Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of Pho, and they never have children and seem indifferent towards having them (see the abortion in Heinz Helle’s text, which occurs largely because the protagonist and his girlfriend are unable to make up their minds whether they want a child and express their opinion that yes, they do want kids, so others make the decision for them). All of these are bad things BTW. Because the good people, the authentic people, marry at 23 and have kids at 25, they only read Goethe and Schiller and they never care about pop culture and never eat Pho. It’s the same sort of nasty cultural suppression that has been plagueing German cultural production for decades now, only dressed in slightly newer clothes. If you want to be a proper German, you must disdain all things foreign, whether it’s pop culture or food or travel, you must love your home, live a proper life, marry, have children, build a house. If you like fashion and pop culture and non-German food and foreign things in general, you are shallow and a bad person and will never find true happiness. This attitude, which pervades German cultural production from highbrow to lowbrow, is a large part of the reason why I don’t write in German – because I have hated it for most of my life. It’s also incredibly toxic, because whenever I have a character who genuinely wants to get married or have children or who genuinely loves their home, even if it is an alien planet, I find myself questioning my own work and fearing that it is too conventional and just like those stories I’ve always hated for being so limiting.
All this sounds rather negative, which would be unfair, because I liked many of the individual Bachmann prize texts. I liked Katja Petrowskaja’s rememberance of Jewish life and death in WWII Ukraine. I liked Anoush Mueller’s account of a broken relationship. I liked Heinz Helle’s first person plural story about a couple that watches 24 and Sin City and plays videogames like normal people do, even if he uses pop culture as a metaphor for shallowness (and isn’t it telling that the jurors latched onto the football references, but not onto the 24 or Sin City references, because they likely never watched either). I liked Philip Schöntaler’s text about a musical genius who is executed/commits suicide on stage at the end, because he cannot fulfill the expectations of his audience (probably the least autobiographical sounding text in the whole competition). I liked how Brazilian born author Zé do Rock played with the German language. But I still wish there were more stories we could tell to win literary acclaim than family stories set against the backdrop of German 20th century history or tales of modern ennui and shallowness.