Features » Literature

Here we introduce the most talked about (for better or for worse) books of the spring season 2005. The German newspapers have long and (for us) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here a key to them.


Books this Season: Fiction and Poetry

Spring 2005

Experience beats youth, this literary spring at least! Established talents like Orhan Pamuk, Juri Andruchowytsch or Jorge Semprum divide the credits between them. But there's a strong crop of home-grown second novels from Martina Hefter, Andreas Maier and Rainer Merkel, all vying for attention. On the poetry front, Thomas Kling shines brilliantly from the grave. And as for nonfiction, the Second World War features so heavily that we've had to devote an entire section to it alone.

Novels: Everybody's darlings

A great, European novel: it is rare for the critics to be as united in praise as they are about Orhan Pamuk's "Snow". Pamuk, born 1952 in Istanbul, has won Turkey's Orhan Kemal Novel prize (1983), the Independent Foreign Fiction Award (1990), the Prix de la decouverte Europeene (1991) and the International IMPAC Dublin literary award (2003). In "Schnee", a poet travels to a remote Turkish village where strange things are afoot: girls are committing suicide because they've been forced to take off their veils and an actor has staged a coup which turns out to be much more than theatre. Nobody can leave town due to the endlessly falling snow. An extreme narrative but far from a "market-driven shocker" writes the FR. For the SZ Pamuk's work is all things at once: social study, love story, political parable, inspiration for poetry and a close-up picture of contemporary Turkey. The taz sees in the novel the national drama of Turkey and the NZZ enjoys the "bitter humour of a moralist".

"Zwölf Ringe", (twelve rings) the latest novel from Yuri Andrukhovych (homepage), born 1960 in Ivano-Frankivsk, ensures the author remains the critic's postmodern Ukrainian favourite. In "Zwölf Ringe" Austrian photographer Karl-Joseph Zumbrunnen travels through Ukraine in the 1990s, observing the teething pains of the new state: the crass commercialisation, the persistence of Huzulen folklore, the re-Sovietisation, and the nostalgia for the Habsburg era. The photographer finds Ukraine much more exciting than life in the West, especially after falling in love with his interpreter. While staying at the "Inn on the Moon" in the Carpathians, he meets oligarchs, intellectuals, striptease dancers and, in the end, his maker. According to Ilma Rakusa of the NZZ, the narrative, which in retrospect seems almost "trivial", leaves her free to concentrate on the many "literary (and other) allusions". Her colleague Hubert Spiegel is reminded of the "magic realism" of Italo Calvino and Bram Stoker and observes with fascination how Andrukhovych makes his characters dance.

To Martina Hefter, one of Germany's most prominent young women novelists, the high expectations raised by her celebrated first novel "Junge Hunde" (young dogs) were obviously water off a duck's back. Her new book, "Zurück auf Los" (back to the start) is a woman's detailed account of the night her partner leavesher, a night in which memories and events are densely interwoven. The tale of loss plays exclusively in the protagonist's imagination; the FR cannot get enough of Hefter's "poetological finesse" and the SZ praises her "fine-pored", regulative language which curbs the strong emotions, heightening them further. (here an excerpt in German). Rainer Merkel likewise presents his second novel: "Das Gefühl am Morgen". The FR writes that the story, which involves two people silently falling in love in a shell-shaped bar, is "thought through to the last detail" and makes Merkel one of the "most exciting German-speaking authors". The FAZ is fascinated by Merkel's penetration of the "psychological centre" of the 1980s, the decade in which the novel is set. The reviewer was highly impressed by the description of the narcissistic father in whose shadow the protagonist struggles to grow up. And Die Zeit sees the book as a coming-of-age tale, "more arduous and interesting" than just a love story.

Jorge Semprun's novel "Zwanzig Jahre und ein Tag" (twenty years and a day) has also been received with great enthusiasm. Semprun, born 1923 in Madrid, has lived in France since the Spanish Civil War. While the novel centres around the murder of an estate-holder's son who is shot by rebelling farmworkers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the actual action is set in the 1950s during the Franco regime. The NZZ is impressed by Semprun's successful creation of a "magically melancholic atmosphere" around a "hard political core". Die Zeit calls David Bezmozgis' debut "Natascha" ("Natasha") a "great novel about a near-gone century". Bezmozgis' account of the arrival of a Latvian family in Canada in the 1980s is based on his own experience. He describes the awkward attempts to fit in, to learn a new language and to get the family business - a massage practice - off the ground. Die Zeit's summary: "It is easy as a Jew to lose oneself in the world, but it's not quite so easy to escape Mummy's love." The NZZ wallows in the "lucid melancholy and laconic humour", while the taz enjoys the complete absence of Soviet nostalgia.

Novels: Opinion dividers

Uwe Tellkamp's long-anticipated "Der Eisvogel" (the ice-bird) has set a cat among the critical pigeons. The taz calls it the "disappointment of the season" while the SZ sees in it "an enormously vivid society portrait". "Der Eisvogel" tells the story of a group of young far-right terrorists who want to erect a caste- and class-based state in Germany (here an excerpt in German). Tellkamp, born in 1968 in Dresden, served his army service as a tank commander in the East German national army. After refusing to take the offensive against a political demonstration in October 1989 - his brother was among the demonstrators - Tellkamp was charged with "political sabotage". He was jailed and forced to abandon studying medicine. By the time he was released, the Wall had fallen. Tellkamp completed his medical studies and today works in an emergency clinic in Munich, writing on the side. In 2004 he won the most prestigious award for young German authors, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.

Has Andreas Maier reached a "new heights of achievement", as Die Zeit claims, or does his latest novel "Kirillow" reflect "arrogance and a hunger for fame", as the SZ taunts? In the 1980s, the anti-atomic movement is gathering steam and a group of students at the university in Frankfurt are becoming increasingly radical in their political convictions. After much theorising, speculating and intransigent discussion, talk turns to action. For an enthusiastic taz, it's a political novel that "deconstructs with relish" all attempts to be political. The SZ asks indignantly: "Why all the blabber?"


The critics' elegies for Thomas Kling's volume of poetry "Auswertung der Flugdaten" (flight data analysis) were overshadowed by the news of the poet's premature death. Kling, born 1957 in Bingen, winner of the Else Lasker Schüler Prize for Poetry (1993) and the Huchel Prize (1997), long ago started to incorporate his illness into his texts, which, writes Hubert Winkel of Die Zeit "sparkle coldly in technical blue hues". Winkel describes the third part of the work, in which Kling cleverly combines essayistic and poetic forms as "outrageously successful". The NZZ is warmed by the heat Kling generates by rubbing together parts of speech from the past and the present and is awed by the "imagery of such intense brilliancy".

Fiction and Poetry / World War II / Politics / Nonfiction - let's talk european