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Books

Why Frank Witzel unexpectedly, but deservedly won Germany's highest literary accolade

Despite strong reviews, Frank Witzel wasn't considered a favorite for the prestigious German Book Prize - until he won. His 99-chapter oeuvre offers a rich, enigmatic look at Cold War Germany - through a boy's eyes.

He was shocked. The favorite candidate, Jenny Erpenbeck, did not win for her moving novel about refugees' waiting game. No, the German-language book of the year is Frank Witzel's "The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969."

Witzel's book is as gigantic as its title, weighs a kilo and contains 99 chapters that mix all kinds of genres. Mini portraits meet short biographies mixed with dialogues and interrogations, not to mention delusional passages and theoretical reflection.

It's no surprise that the magnum opus took 15 years to write. Witzel, who was born in 1955 in Wiesbaden and is also a musician, examines the 1960s in West Germany - a country that no longer exists - from every possible perspective.

The history of German mentality

The main protagonist and narrator is 13 years old in the summer of 1969 and tries to understand the complicated, ever more confusing world in his neighborhood of Wiesbaden-Biebrich, in south-western Germany.

He founds a gang called the Red Army Faction, copies the logo from the local sports club, fights about pop music, speeds around in stolen cars and plans to rob the local kiosk with water guns.

Then this boy sees on television that his clique is being shown up by a serious, grown-up gang that uses real ammunition. Unable to grasp the reality of the terror group RAF, he flees into his own imagination and his music with heavy lyrics. He has a mental breakdown and lands in a psychiatric clinic.

"Frank Witzel's work is, in the best sense, a boundless novelistic construct," said the German Book Prize jury. The coming-of-age story of a boy from the countryside is woven together with the political awakening of what was then West Germany, in the process of freeing itself from its post-war slump.

A book that's easy to rave about, it's a furious attempt to appropriate the world with imagination. It's also an unbelievable funny story about the mentality of former West Germany, which reveals the curious preferences and peculiarities of the post-war years of economic boom - from Geha ballpoint pens to Cottanova shirts and Fix and Foxi school notebooks.

The length of Witzel's sentences changes more quickly than the weather and the reader flies through the years so fast that the wind buzzes in your ears. Witzel, of course, doesn't let himself be bound by chronology. It's best to read the book multiple times to decipher everything and take apart what was so ambiguously pieced together.

Prize-worthy in every way

"The German Book Prize honors a brilliant linguistic work of art that is a vast quarry of words and ideas - a hybrid compendium of pop, politics and paranoia," announced the jury Monday.

Considered the most prestigious literary award for the German language, the German Book Prize is awarded every year on the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair and is endowed with 37,5000 euros ($42,600): 25,000 euros go to the winner and each of the other five shortlisted authors receive 2,500 euros.

The prize is awarded by the Foundation of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association and is intended to honor German-language authors from any country. An independent jury spent the past five months reviewing 199 submissions. They'd narrowed the candidates down to the following shortlist before selecting the winner: Jenny Erpenbeck "Gehen, ging, gegangen," Rolf Lappert "Über den Winter," Inger-Maria Mahlke "Wie Ihr wollt," Ulrich Peltzer "Das bessere Leben," and Monique Schwitter "Eins im Andern."

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