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Culture

Büchner Prize winner plays with truth and fiction

German author Felicitas Hoppe has won this year's prestigious Büchner Prize for her off-beat stories, which daringly merge time and space, reality and fiction with virtuoso panache.

"Hoppe" is the short title of a unique book. In writing a "fictional autobiography," author Felicitas Hoppe created a literary stand against a tide of unwelcome biographies.

The book caused a sensation. And with total immodesty, the author describes herself as an "exceptional talent."

But her self-confidence is justified, her books fly off the shelves and now she has won the highest honor of the German Academy for Language and Poetry: the Georg Büchner Prize, endowed with 50,000 euros ($65,000).

She can now take a place alongside Günter Grass, Wilhelm Genazino, Elfriede Jelinek and other prominent contemporary German writers.

Her first novel was published in 1996 and Hoppe quickly became one of the most important authors of her generation, winning literary prizes and grants. Her books have been translated into over 10 languages.

Light footed, comical and off-beat

The cover of Felicitias Hoppe's Hoppe

'Ficitional biography': Felicitias Hoppe's "Hoppe" has been heaped with praise

In her novels, stories and essays, Felicitas Hoppe has explored "the world of the adventurer and the conman, the discoverer and the ne'er-do-well," the jury said.

"In a time in which talking tends to dominate literature, Felicitas Hoppe's sensitivity and sense for the comedic revolves around the secret of identity."

It's difficult to summarize her work in just a few words: The travel book "Pigafetta" (1999) describes the world in a container ship, full of dreams and absurdities. The modern legend of "Johanna" (2006) is a strange but light-footed interpretation of the story of Holy Johanna of New Orleans, in which space and time merge.

Literary critics heaped praise on the novel; Felicitas Hoppe is a "poetic prose wonder," said one.

What Felictas Hoppe writes, the Büchner Prize jury said, "slips with virtuosity between the borders of truth and fiction, self-awareness and role-play."

Who is Felicitas Hoppe?

Change scene to Hoppe's home in downtown Berlin. Teaming with construction sites, heavy traffic and elegantly suited businessmen, the Mitte district is no place to find peace: It's where politics and money making meet, where cold hard reality sets the pace.

But somewhere in an old house between the Reichstag and Berlin's main train station, fantasy reins supreme. Erich Kästner wrote his children's classic, "Emil and the Dectective," in there very house where Hoppe now lives.

The diminutive 51-year-old was born in Hameln, Lower Saxony, the third of five children. She studied, among other things, Russian and Italian, taught German at the Goethe-Institut and taught poetry at an American university.

So much for the facts. Far more interesting, however, is the life story delivered by the author herself in the fictional biography "Hoppe."

"What if... everyone knows the feeling [of wanting to rewrite the past]," said the author in a crystal clear voice. "I wanted to write about these dreams. About what I would have liked to have become."

Hoppe is an adventurer traveling through a magical world where nothing is impossible.

Felicitas Hoppe at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009

Felicitas Hoppe at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009

Playing with perspective

"All the facts have been changed in this book and despite that the story is much more authentic than any autobiography I could have written," she said.

In the book, Hoppe is an only child, speaks fluent Polish and is a talented hockey player. The imaginary Hoppe grew up in Canada, discovered the delights of the conductor's baton, and later became a celebrated musician in Australia.

Hoppe dovetails her own experiences with a large portion of fantasy. She quotes real critics who have torn her books to shreds, allows fictional school friends to speak and analyzes her own books in the third person.

If you ask Felicitas Hoppe about her favorite book, she grins and says, "'Pinocchio.' I love that book, because it's not just about big dreams but also a story of creation."

A man makes a puppet out of wood and suddenly it begins to talk, to have a life of its own. It's exactly this type of daring that colors Hoppe's texts.

It's not the kind of literature that guides readers along a safe path or in a particular direction. Moreover, readers stray between paragraphs, discovering unexpected magical niches.

Back in the real world, Felicitas Hoppe will officially accept the Georg Büchner Prize on October 27 in Darmstadt.

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