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A short story with a dense narrative: German Book Prize winner Bodo Kirchhoff's 'Widerfahrnis'

German author Bodo Kirchhoff won the 2016 German Book Prize with a novella that combines a love story and an encounter with a young refugee woman in Sicily.

Among the six authors shortlisted for the German Book Prize, Bodo Kirchhoff is the most experienced. He has won the award with his book "Widerfahrnis" (Encounter), the story of two lonely people: a retired publisher and a hatmaker who has given up her business. To follow their longing for love, red wine and adventure, they spontaneously decide to head to Sicily.

Well in their fifties, the two completely disconnect for a while until they meet a young refugee woman who brings them back to the world's current events.

"Love is an extremely endangered thing," said Bodo Kirchhoff. "It needs the truth of the world to avoid becoming stale."

The book is about a late-life love that fails when it meets present-day realities - all the while offering the possibility of a new beginning.

Deutscher Buchpreis 2016 - Bodo Kirchhoff (picture-alliance/dpa/Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt)

The title, "Widerfahrnis," is an uncommon word in German - meaning "encounter"

"Kirchhoff succeeds in dealing with the great themes of his literary oeuvre in a small format, through a dense narrative," said Heinrich Riethmüller, head of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, after announcing the prize. "'Widerfahrnis' is a complex text that interweaves existential personal and political questions while leaving them open for the reader to answer."

Refugees: a short story rather than overwhelming numbers

"I believe this concrete short story shows exactly where failure is located. More importantly, this parable tries to deal with something that has been overused in our public language by using another simpler and perhaps more appropriate language," the author told DW in reference to the refugee crisis. Facts do not always become more imposing through huge numbers, he added.

Italy was the setting of Kirchhoff's last two novels "Verlangen und Melancholie" (Desire and Melancholy) and "Die Liebe in groben Zügen" (Love in Rough Traits).

That last prize-winning book was also written during a stay in Italy after he met a begging girl. "It left such an impression; there was something embarrassing about it for me. I simply couldn't do anything. I was at loss. That's how the writing began," he explained.

At just over 200 pages, the book was marketed by the publishers as a novella - but the jury of the German Book Prize didn't care about the distinction, declaring it the best German-language novel of 2016.

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