Seiler's debut novel "Kruso" picked up the German Book Prize and 25,000 euros ($31,500) as a reward, with 2,500 euros also going to each of the five runners-up. The novel was considered the favorite prior to Monday's announcement.
The 51-year-old author Lutz Seiler intentionally plays on the tale of Robinson Crusoe in his title. Instead of documenting the exploits of a colonial explorer shipwrecked in unfamiliar Caribbean surroundings, protagonist Edgar Bendler ("Ed") flees to the island of Hiddensee in the former communist East Germany (GDR).
Set in the summer of 1989, Ed's new island home - where he meets Kruso - is in the process of irreversible change itself, with the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification. Hiddensee was a popular destination for GDR dissidents, who would work seasonal jobs at bars or hotels, for instance, or as lifeguards. Some would then try to flee East Germany altogether on the Baltic Sea.
"Lutz Seiler employs lyrical, sensual language with a hint of magic to describe the summer of 1989 on the island of Hiddensee - a 'gateway to evanescense'," the jurors wrote in their explanation for the award. "The island was a gathering place for eccentrics, mavericks, freedom seekers, individuals looking to flee the GDR. One can read this compelling Robinsonade involving the eponymous Kruso and the young dishwasher Edgar as an eloquent tale of both a personal and historic shipwreck - and as a poet's coming of age novel."
A group of such eccentrics and mavericks come together on Hiddensee, only to disappear one-by-one until just Kruso and Ed remain. Critics were particularly glowing about Seiler's ability to make complex themes accessible, with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper's Lothar Müller saying the novel serves more as "a lighthouse" than an "ivory tower."
A little of Lutz in Ed
Seiler's novel beat Thomas Hettche's "Pfaueninsel," Angelika Klüssendorf's "April," Gertrud Leutenegger's "Panischer Frühling," Thomas Melle's "3,000 Euro" and Heinrich Steinfest's "Der Allesforscher" to the prize, with those six chosen from an original longlist of 20 titles published in German between October 2013 and September 10, 2014.
Seiler grew up in the former GDR's westernmost state, Thuringia, and once worked - just like main character Ed - washing up dishes on Hiddensee.
"I believe, even today, that Hiddensee is the world's most beautiful island," said the writer, whose poetic language in "Kruso" has been particularly praised. The 51-year-old now has homes near Berlin and in Stockholm, where he started work on his book in 2010. Although "Kruso" is his full-length novel debut, Seiler has won several prizes for his poems, essays and short stories, many of which poignantly describe industrial regions in East Germany.
The German Book Prize is awarded each year to kick off the Frankfurt Book Fair, Germany's largest.
msh/nm (epd, dpa)