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Book fair peace prize

October 18, 2009

Italian author Claudio Magris has been awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on Sunday. DW spoke with the literary giant about war, peace, the Cold War and the troubles between China and the West.

Italian author Claudio Magris
Magris spent most of his life living near the Iron CurtainImage: picture-alliance / Sven Simon

On Sunday, Claudio Magris receive the Peace Prize, awarded annually for the efforts of artists and scholars to overcome hatred. A native of Trieste, he is a retired professor of German literature who writes essays and novels. He had a brief political career as a Left Alliance senator in Rome for Trieste from 1994 to 1996.

His selection in June for the prize brought renewed interest in his philosophical ideas and incisive writing, and revived speculation that he was in line for the Nobel Prize for Literature. However some German arts commentators criticized the choice, saying his enthusiastic vision of European unity was out of date at a time when many EU citizens are bored with European Union politics and nationalism is rampant again.

Deutsche Welle: Claudio Magris, this weekend you'll be awarded the 2009 Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, let's talk about peace and war. War plays a big role in your works. Do we have to accept war as a part of our lives?

Claudio Magris: No. Of course there are different kinds of war, not just war where bombs are dropped. There are wars in everyday life – latent wars. There are two dangers. Firstly, that people think that war is unavoidable, that it's part of life. On the other hand, the false optimism that people think that in our world progress has eliminated wars like immunization has eliminated smallpox. This is a danger, because to fight a disease – and war is a disease – you have to know the disease. You also have to unfortunately be aware of how serious it is and how probable it is that another war will break out.

You've mentioned different types of wars, the Cold War, for instance. In Europe we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. You come from Trieste, one of the places where east met west. You were on the border during the Cold War. How did you experience the end of communism and how Europe grew together?

Italian author Claudio Magris with former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer (Source: dpa)
In 2008 Magris was awarded the Walter Hallstein Preis for his work in fostering European integrationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

First of all it was a big surprise for all of us. Nobody could believe in September 1989 that the Berlin Wall would fall so quickly. I couldn't have imagined it. Even people who were active in bringing down the wall, I talked with some of them, and right up until the day before they never believed that the wall would fall. And they were fighting for this to happen. This is a danger that we blindly believe. We believe that the reality and the situation we are currently in today can never change. This border that was impregnable up until the end – the Iron Curtain – was close to my house. I lived in the center of Trieste, but it's a small city, so I always felt that someone in spirit I was on the other side of the border. Not on a political level, but because these regions were divided for absurd reasons. Today we have other barriers; invisible, social barriers. Ethnic barriers within our towns that we can't or don't want to see. So the borders are still there.

You're an author, a storyteller, an essay writer, a journalist, and you were also a politician in a left-wing alliance in the Italian Senate. What is the role of the author today? Are they public personalities? Someone who explains the ways of the world?

No, an author is just like any person who fights for his values – with his own weapon, of course. I don't think an author has to necessarily know everything better than others. We must not forget that many of the greatest authors of the last century, who we have loved and learned from, made terrible mistakes. Not even writing a masterpiece is enough to guarantee that you won't do something stupid five minutes later. Authors are not some kind of priest who knows better than everyone else. These are people who fight for their values and their obligations and they should do this with the means that are available to them.

What does an author do in Berlusconi's Italy? This seems to be an almost permanent situation. From the outside it looks as if the artists and intellectuals have resigned themselves to the scandals and absurdity in Italy.

No, they are not resigned to it, not at all. The polemic is very strong. I've been an example of that, recently. You have to ask the question why has that been possible and why is that still possible? And we – and by we I mean the opposition that is against what I see as a completely unbelievable and unthinkable way of governing a country – have failed to understand how society, or a part of society, has changed. It was easy to hate a man like Berlusconi or trivialize him. You have to know a disease to fight it and I view this kind of politics as a disease.

Let's go from Italy to China. There has been a huge dispute here at the book fair. China is the guest nation and there has been heated debate about human rights and censorship, authors who couldn't come and authors in exile. Do you think it was right to invite China in an official way to the Frankfurt book fair?

I've asked myself this question a lot. The problem is not to focus on one dissident or another that wasn't allowed to come. That in itself is unacceptable. But I believe that despite everything, it wasn't bad to invite China. Not just to get to know them better, but also to go further with dialog. I don't think this weakens the dissidents.

Interview: Rainer Traube (mrm)
Editor: Ranty Islam