Hungarian-born writer receives German literature prize | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 04.03.2010

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Hungarian-born writer receives German literature prize

Terezia Mora overcame language barriers to capture the human condition in her award-winning German novels. The Hungarian-born is recognized with this year's Chamisso Prize for non-native German authors.

Terezia Mora

In her books, Mora likes to touch the subject of human communication

It is a freezing cold afternoon in Berlin. Outside, people are trudging through the snow with shopping bags; others are hurrying to crowded trams. Terezia Mora is taking refuge in a small courtyard movie theater. The window panes are fogged up and the interior is glaringly empty.

To lose herself in a film, to have the whole screen for herself while everyone else is working, to disappear in a hectic rush - for Terezia Mora, this is a pleasant distraction from writing. And it reminds her of the 1990s, when she left Hungary at the age of 19 to study in Germany.

"I went to the movies almost seven times a week because that's what I had missed the most in my little home village," explained Mora. "Here in Berlin I could really feel free."

Bleak no-man's land

Terezia Mora was born in Hungary and her family belonged to the country's German minority. For her, being in Berlin shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall was a form of liberation - away from a strict communist society, submerged in an unfinished city open to experiments. She began to study screenwriting - probably a reason why many of her later stories have a cinematic verve to them and contain precise dialogue.

She wrote her first literary text in German and gave a reading at a public event, more out of curiosity than anything else. Soon after that she received a contract with a renowned publishing company.

Cover of The Only Man on the Continent - German edition

"The Only Man on the Continent" wants to escape his reality

She named her book of short stories "Seltsame Materie" ("Strange Material") - a collection of raw, somber tales from her own childhood. They are stories from a no-man's land, somewhere between Hungary and Austria.

"Maybe if I had stayed there, I would have never become a writer," said Mora.

For Mora, German is the language of her own books - Hungarian is the language of others. Her other job is translating Hungarian literature into German. For her, writing has something to do with time, the ordering of memories and the relaxing of the mind.

This is a slow process, which is why Mora only publishes one book every five years. Often she writes from the perspective of strange male characters.

"If I were to write about women, I would reveal more about myself than I want to," said the author.

Lost in the net

A recurring theme in Mora's books is communication - people who are linguistically uprooted and cannot find emotional stability. In her debut novel "Day In Day Out" she tells the story of a Balkan refugee in Western Europe, a brilliant man who speaks 10 languages but somehow cannot make himself understood in any of them.

Her last novel "The Only Man on the Continent" describes a week in the life of an overweight computer nerd, Darius Kopp. He works for an international company, but then the collapsing global economy affects his job, leaving him insecure and depressed - a man with no control over his feelings or his finances.

Through his character, Mora wanted to depict "someone who flees to this artificial internet world," which is "both tragic and comical."

Outside the box

Terezia Mora

Mora achieves self-expression in German

Mora can walk the literary tightrope like few others can. She can alter moods and perspectives virtuously and suddenly; passionate inner monologues collide with sober comments, flowing out of detailed observations. She dissects the German language, exploiting its potential to the full.

Despite her talent, Mora was labeled a foreigner at first, a common experience for authors with an immigrant background.

"That irritated me for a long while," said Mora. "Now, authors like me are so present that people just have to get used to us."

Mora's books are praised by critics and distinguished with awards like the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and now the Chamisso Prize, which is awarded annually by the Robert Bosch Foundation to non-Germans who publish literary works in the German language. Despite this, she can deal well with people's high expectations of her.

"I know that all of things cannot change the substance of who I am," said Mora confidently.

Nevertheless, the money that comes from awards - including 15,000 euros ($20,300) from the Chamisso Prize - is important to her, since with the distinction alone she "can't buy any flower pots" for herself, she said.

After all, Mora lives from her writing. She has her feet firmly on the ground, both as an author and as the mother of a young daughter. She does not fit the cliche of the dreamy writer distanced from the world around them. For her, writing means taking a close look when certainties evaporate and borderlines disintegrate.

Author: Aygul Cizmecioglu (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen

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