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Culture

An unflinching look at post-war Germany

With "Landgericht" by Ursula Krechel, another historical novel has been awarded the German Book Prize. Rightly so, since the book provides a brilliant and unflinching portrait of postwar Germany.

In the end it was the only woman, Ursula Krechel, among the six finalists on the shortlist who was awarded the German Book Prize 2012 for her book "Landgericht" ("District Court").

That the seven-person jury chose to award the major German literary prize to Krechel's mix of family novel, historical fiction, and collage of documentary and fiction shows that the time was ripe for an unvarnished examination of post-war German history.

Unfamiliar place

Landgericht by Ursula Krechel

Ursula Krechel's novel is a study of post-war German society

The novel "Landgericht" begins with a return that is not really a return at all. The protagonist was never at the place where he now steps off the train: Lindau, an idyllic town on Lake Constance.

It is the German-Jewish lawyer Richard Kornitzer who, as a Jew, was banned from practicing law in 1933. After 10 years in exile, Kornitzer returns to Germany in 1948. His wife, a protestant named Claire, awaits him. She found refuge there during the war after it became clear that she could not accompany her husband in exile to Cuba.

It is a return to a woman who had not seen her husband for 10 years, to a country in which the people surprise him: "When he considers that these people were the losers of the war, the defeated, they held their heads astonishingly high."

But above all, it is a return to system in which he is still unwelcome.

"Landgericht" tells the story of Richard Kornitzer and his personally corrosive fight for justice, retribution, recognition. His weapons are letters, applications and complaints written on a typewriter saved by his wife. But they are blunt weapons.

He may be able to return to the legal profession, but anti-Semitic sentiments still reverberate through the young German Republic - without shame and without remorse. Krechel has produced a novel which identifies the German's unsuccessful handling of the past.

Only five percent of exiled people return to German after the war, mainly because nobody there was interested in them.

Recognition and atonement

Her work on the book "Landgericht" was also a personal method of atonement for the victims of National Socialism, Krechel said during her acceptance speech on Monday evening in Frankfurt. Many victims are still waiting for at least legal recognition of their suffering, not to mention material compensation.

The book is based on the personal archives of a lawyer who died in 1970 - a gold mine for Krechel. A German civil servant must be dead for at least 30 years before his or her files can be made accessible. Already during the research for her previous novel, "Shanghai, Far From Where" (2008) - which also deals with the destinies of émigrés, exile and homelessness - Krechel stumbled across the lawyer's files and continued her research until she got hold of his personal archive.

Krechel herself compares her working method to rummaging in an antique store. "If you go in and ask an intelligent question about a Biedermeier bureau, then you'll get a good answer. If you ask: 'What's this for a piece of furniture?' then you get a bad answer."

Ursula Krechel

Krechel spent 10 years researching the book which earned her the German Book Prize

And that is exactly the main strength of her novel: how competently and meticulously the author handles the historical documents, just as her ability to tell one man's destiny through the history of an entire generation.

"They are the victims who are, as it were, embedded in the foundation that is secure today, and who are naturally forgotten, obviously," Krechel explained. That's why she wrote the book.

A decade-long project

So the title "Landgericht" has a double meaning, describing a concrete place but also the condition of a country - West Germany - that is brought to justice.

More than 10 years of research came prior to the 26 months it took to write the book. The almost 500-page "Landgericht" is an ambitious project that will affect Krechel's future work.

But for now, the famous poet, dramatist and essayist celebrates her win, which includes over 25,000 euros ($33,000) in prize money and a good deal of publicity.

That has been the case in previous years, for example in 2011, when Eugen Ruge's family saga set in the German Democratic Republic won the German Book Prize for its portrayal of post-war German history. "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" ("In Times of Fading Light") went on to become a bestseller.

The German Book Prize not only honors the best German-language novels, but novels which cut through difficult issues and debates, those which are greeted thankfully, zealously even, by readers.

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