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Books

Money, Mumbai, Marathons: 3 tips for the Leipzig Book Fair

German literature is sometimes dismissed as too insular and intellectual to be readable. But, reporting from the Leipzig Book Fair - which opens today - DW's Jefferson Chase found three authors who defy that cliché.

I was quite daunted when I scanned the list of hundreds of authors scheduled to perform in various functions at this year's Leipzig Book Fair. Once regarded as a very poor relative of international publishing's main schmooze-a-thon in Frankfurt in autumn, Leipzig - as the fair is known for short - has developed into a sprawling springtime fun fair that encompasses five days and pretty much the entire city. Where to go and whom to listen to?

A reading by Clemens Meyer, that was a must. The former youth prison inmate, forklift driver and construction worker is anything but your stereotypical ponderous, humorless, pretentious German author, and it's a shame that the English translation of his works haven't found more readers.

But who else? When it comes to books, I'll give pretty much any genre a whirl, but I will not abide being bored by would-be wordsmiths who think that plot and characters are optional and that the essence of style is being difficult to read. So I asked people I knew - publishers, writers, the woman behind the counter of my local bookshop - for recommendations. And I was pleased to find authors who break the stereotype of German literature while retaining some of its unique traditions. Here are three of them:

Camel riders in Tunisia. Copyright: Christophorus Schule.

Jonas Lüscher's 'Springtime of the Barbarians' takes place in the desert of Tunisia

Financial collapse in the desert

38-year-old Jonas Lüscher is actually Swiss, but has lived in Munich since 2001, where he studied philosophy, specializing in the American pragmatist Richard Rorty. His literary debut "Frühling der Barbaren" (Springtime of the Barbarians) was published by the CH Beck publishing house and immediately nominated for both the German and Swiss Book Prizes.

Lüscher harkens back to that most German of literary forms, the novella, which can be roughly defined as a shortish narrative about an extraordinary event in which the telling of the story is part of the plot. In "Barbarians," a Swiss businessman in a psychiatric hospital tells of a trip he made to Tunisia to visit a supplier.

But what begins as a desert adventure tale morphs into a story of financial apocalypse. As the protagonist reaches an oasis hotel complex, where a lavish English wedding is taking place, the British pound is tanking in a major way.

At five minutes past nine, trading was suspended in London. Simultaneously the Chancellor of the Exchequer became the first person to acknowledge what was patently obvious: that for the foreseeable future, his country would not be able to service its horrendous state debt. Marc and Kelly, for whom the time was five minutes after ten, were still sleeping in their Bedouin tent. At this point, the bill for their wedding, due in Tunisian dinars, surpassed the value of their semi-detached London house, eighty percent of which still belonged to a bank whose lawyers were just then filing for bankruptcy and composing an email to employees suggesting that they bring a cardboard box with them to work that day.

This is a book in the tradition of the too-often-neglected novellas of 19th century German writers like Theodor Storm. The style is fussy and antiquated, but intentionally so. You can hardly accuse a book tackling a topic this big in only 125 pages of being wordy. On the contrary, the old-fashioned feel of "Barbarians" drives home the message: Isn't the truly extraordinary thing the fact that we today utterly depend on an impenetrable economic system that is always threatening to collapse? Without giving too much away, let me just say Lüscher's answer isn't a happy one - especially if you're one of his fictional camels.

Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Copyright: Disha Uppal.

Ulla Lenze's 'The Endless City' introduces readers to Mumbai's slums

Of Berlin hipsters, Istanbul kebabs and Mumbai slums

41-year-old Ulla Lenze is from western Germany and went to university in Cologne, where she also studied philosophy and wrote her final thesis on Hegel's theory of poetry. She lived for many years, at least partly, in India, although she's now part of Berlin's ever-growing population of authors.

Lenze's travels are on obvious display in her novel "Die endlose Stadt" (The Endless City), which revolves around two protagonists, an artist hopping from one stipend/city to another and a journalist to whom she sublets her Mumbai apartment. The two major themes are the differences between Berlin, Istanbul and Mumbai - the bigger the city, the rawer and less civilized it is - and the problems Westerners have communicating, which expresses itself in a love affair the artist has with a kebab-shop owner while on a grant in Turkey.

Hadn't she always thought she needed someone to talk to, to exchange thoughts with? Celal put her in the sort of state talking was supposed to produce, that of being understood and cared for. You want sleep? Are you sad? You want to go home? he would ask in primitive English after long monologues on her part. He was answering the feelings that had inspired her to talk, feelings of which she often only became aware when he asked such questions. They fact that they were unable to talk was liberating.

In many respects, Lenze's book is the opposite of Lüscher's. Whereas he focuses on society, illustrating the effects of global problems on individuals, she hones in on individual emotional responses as a way of exploring global issues. This isn't the sort of novel I usually like, but Lenze's gets original results. She has a great talent for reversing clichés - the cast of "City" even includes some reasonably sympathetic real estate developers - and maybe that reflects her affinity with Hegel. Every thesis contains its antithesis, and so, almost in spite of its serious self, "City" is a page-turner.

An image from the Berlin Marathon 28. Sept. 2014. Copyright: Reuters/Hannibal.

Matthias Politycki's '42.195' offers an intellectual but humorous take on marathons

Pounding the pavements of the mind

59-year-old Matthias Politycki is an oldie-but-goodie, who grew up in Munich but lives in Hamburg and who studied - you guessed it - philosophy. I met him more than a decade ago at a novel-writing seminar in which he served as our benevolently sharp-tongued mentor. Rarely have I ever been so entertained by someone telling me my characters were boring, my plotlines illogical and my style better left to mature in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Having taken up jogging a few years back, I was intrigued by Politycki's new book "42,195: Warum wir Marathon laufen und was wir dabei denken" (42.195: Why We Run Marathons and What We Think About When We Do), a self-professed phenomenology of long-distance running. Politycki's musings come complete with footnotes citing Novalis, Kleist, Schiller and Nietzsche, and his answer to the title question is that people run because they are trying to escape death.

Does that sound utterly heavy and tedious? It's not at all. "42.195" is as entertaining, digressive and unpredictable as the trains of thoughts one has as the mind wanders during a marathon or just a jog. In audio-book form, I can imagine it will become a huge hit in the running scene. "42.195" is divided up into kilometers rather than chapters, and Politycki has a keen, self-deprecating eye for the absurdity of his chosen discipline.

Where there are clowns at the start line, you're well-advised to gird yourself with good cheer. Not everyone is content to don lilac, violet and orange running gear. Others feel the need to dress up like Hansel and Gretel, cowboys and Indians, bees and Batmen...No, this is not the innocent world of a child's birthday. These are adults pursing an endurance sport whose involuntarily inventor dropped dead after finally arriving at his destination…Men in suits, men in tutus and panty hose, half-dozens of them as blue-painted Smurfs, Seven Dwarves and bone-wielding cavemen…At the start of the New York Marathon, I even ended up behind a man who ran half-naked while carrying a giant wooden cross.

I take Politycki's point to be this. If running (and writing for that matter) is an (ultimately unsuccessful) antidote to death, then what makes us alive are precisely such flights of imaginative fancy we experience while running or writing. That rings true to me, even though I am "jogger" with little desire to expend the same amount of time and effort as the “runners” that populate Politycki's pages.

Still, "42.195" made me feel a twinge of desire to try a marathon someday - although, admittedly, I read most of this book lying on my couch.

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