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Language of integration

October 5, 2010

The Swiss writer Melinda Nadj Abonji, who was born in Serbia, has won this year's German Book Prize. In her moving narrative about emigration, she addresses yearning for one's native country.

Melinda Nadj Abonji during her acceptance speech for the 2010 German Book Prize
Nadj Abonji surprised even herself by winning the prizeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"I thought it was raining, but it turned out to be my tears." This line from a Hungarian song sprang to mind when author Melinda Nadj Abonji was giving her acceptance speech for the German Book Prize in Frankfurt on Monday evening.

The prize-winner, who was visibly moved, said she liked the song as a child and her novel "Tauben fliegen auf" (Falcons without Falconers) pays homage to her grandmother, with whom she lived during the first few years of her life. Born in 1968 in Vojvodina, a Serbian province with a Hungarian minority, the author emigrated to Switzerland in 1974.

Growing up in a foreign country

Books with a "nominated for the German Prize Prize" tag
Many authors on this year's Book Prize long list write about living in different culturesImage: Nicole Hoehne

Nadj Abonji has a similar fate to that of Ildiko, the protagonist in her novel, whose family turns its back on socialist Yugoslavia under Tito to try to establish roots in a Swiss village. The parents doggedly work in their restaurant in order to take care of their two daughters - and to be acknowledged in society. They adapt to the culture and pass the test to gain Swiss citizenship - at first glance, it's a success story about becoming naturalized.

And yet, the Kocsis family remains the "people from the Balkan states" among many of their fellow Swiss. When one of the "guests" in the restaurant smears feces all over the restaurant toilet, Ildiko throws in the towel with being eternally friendly as a waitress. She leaves for the big city and starts her own life - without much security, but a lot of confidence.

Nadj Abonji's book is about the calamity of communism. It's about war and the Hungarian minority in Serbia, but - more than anything - it's about living life in several cultures at once and the confusion that comes along with it. In "Falcons without Falconers," for instance, when Ildiko leaves her hometown, she notices that the name is written three times on the sign: in Serbo-Croatian, Cyrillic letters and Hungarian. The author's writing reflects her love of languages - of both Hungarian and German - and conveys the positive power of memory.

Language as home

The German Book Prize has been awarded each year since 2005 by the German Publishers and Booksellers Association just before the Frankfurt Book Fair kicks off. It's intended to draw attention, especially abroad, to books originally written in German. And it has done just that - with countless television cameras aimed at the author on Monday evening at the award ceremony, and plenty of press about the six finalists in the lead up to the announcement.

Thomas Lehr sitting in a chair in front of bookshelves
Thomas Lehr was one of the favorites for the prizeImage: picture-alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Writer and musician Nadj Abonji was more of an outsider in the run-up, with Berlin-based author Peter Wawerzinek and his book "Rabenliebe" (Motherless Child) considered the favorite. Wawerzinek's novel is a reckoning with the traumas of his childhood, which saw him orphaned when his mother fled East Germany for the West. Thomas Lehr's book "September. Fata Morgana" also had good chances at grabbing the prize.

Nadj Abonji, for her part, was not alone in having multi-cultural roots. Three of the six candidates on the short list are children of immigrants; it was a similar ratio on the long list of 20 candidates. Many of the authors spoke their first words in a foreign language, yet write their books in German.

Jan Faktor, the son of a Jewish communist, describes a childhood in Prague during the Cold War; it's a look back that is both tragic and humorous. Doron Rabinovici, who was born in Tel Aviv and moved to Vienna as a small child, has his characters argue about Jewish identity and remembering things correctly. It's intellectual humor reminiscent of Woody Allen.

Those narratives reflect the larger trend currently being discussed in the culture pages of German newspapers: of new German literature and especially that of this season being written by authors who are at home in several cultures.

"Let's tell each other our stories, so we can understand each other better" - that was a common saying when the Berlin Wall came down over two decades ago and people realized how foreign East and West Germans were to each other. Now, that invocation can be positively applied to all of Europe and beyond.

Author: Gabriela Schaaf (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen