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Culture

German Book Prize shows which books matter

In its eighth year, the German Book prize is a relative newcomer. Yet it is already possible to predict which stories will matter most to German-speaking countries.

The Suhrkamp Verlag in Berlin had good reason to have high hopes at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year. Of six novels shortlisted for the prestigious German Book Prize, three came off its own presses. If Suhrkamp wins, it will match the Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt in terms of overall prizes; Fischer has taken two of the seven German Book awards. Suhrkamp does not publish "single books," it claims, "but rather the total literary or academic physiognomy of its authors."

Whatever the publishing house has been doing in the years leading up to 2012, it has been doing it right. Three of its authors are guaranteed to walk away with a minimum prize of 2,500 euros ($3,250). One might even take the grand prize of 25,000 euros.

Eugen Ruge

Eugen Ruge took home last year's Book Prize

But what is "right"? The publishers' task is no less than to recognize, edit and publish "the best novel in the German language" - which in this case includes Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The jury of seven, selected from the upper echelons of literary criticism, rotate yearly. Doing so ensures an independent judiciary, ever-changing criteria and, from the publishers' perspective, a target that never stops moving.

How, then, did Suhrkamp in Berlin manage to snag 50 percent of the shortlist? It could be a fluke. Or it could be that this publishing house, like its cousins in the US and in the commonwealth, is already able to glimpse from previous prize-winners which books are - and will be - shaping the cultural debate for speakers of German.

Prize winners

In 2005, the first German Book Prize was handed out to Austrian author Arno Gieger. The title of his novel, "We Are Doing Well" was meant ironically. A man named Philip inherits a villa in a suburb of Vienna and, while restoring it, makes unpleasant discoveries about his family. In one illustrative passage, a main character interacts with a real-life Austrian foreign minister who, on May 15, 1955, struck from the preamble to Austria's constitution any mention of "guilt" for the war.

In 2006, Katharina Hacker's "TheHave-Nots" took unrelated families and couples from both Berlin and London and simply confronted them with one another. In 2007's "The Blindness of the Heart,"by Julia Franck, a woman's life traverses Bautzen to Berlin, where she marries, has a son, and then leaves him at a train station in the aftermath of the war.

"The Tower"by Uwe Tellkamp, follows three characters in a well-to-do quarter of Dresden during the last seven years of the communist East German regime. Last year's winner, Eugene Ruge, relates the downfall of a family of German communists in the GDR while also describing the loss of a socialist utopia "In Times of Fading Lights."

German Book Prize logo

The 2012 nominees are all established writers

So far, so historical. Perhaps the two most atypical inclusions came in 2009 and 2010. Kathrin Schmidt's semi-autobiographical "You're Not Going to Die" opens in a hospital. The woman is without control of her body, unable to speak, yet remembers the name Matthes. Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji's "Falcons without Falconers"follows a Serbian family that immigrates to Switzerland after the breakup of Yugoslavia. This book, too, is autobiographical, and, as many German reviewers noted, is about war and concentration camps - but not in Germany.

This year?

World War II, East Germany, loss, love, movement - together the seven previous prize-winners have created something of a pattern, at least thematically. At the very least they provide a better predictive capacity for future winners. Whether their success has served as a guide for German publishers, or even can serve as a guide, will be seen once more on October 8.

Click on the link below for the complete 2012 shortlist.

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