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International Lit Prize shortlist in touch with the times

Sabine Peschel kbm
May 29, 2017

Six books are in the running for Germany's International Literature Prize. The shortlist tackles today's hot-button issues and bucks the trend of long novels with short, challenging texts.

Hamed Abboud
Hamed Abboud Image: Nina Oberleitner

Contemporary literature from all over the world, in top-notch German translation, is honored each year with the International Literature Prize. The accolade is being presented for the ninth time in 2017 by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Germany's center for international cultures, and the Elementarteilchen Foundation.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize or the German Book Prize, there is no long list for the International Literature Prize - at least not one that is made public. Instead, the seven-person jury announced a six-book shortlist chosen from the approximately 150 submitted titles.

This year, all six shortlisted books deal with current hot-button issues impacting the world today. Two are technically not novels, but collections of stories that still manage to create a new universe. And all but one of the books have small but daring publishing houses to thank for being published in German.

Hamed Abboud: Death and a birthday cake

Der Tod backt einen Geburtstagskuchen by Abboud Hamed
Abboud Hamed gives death a personality in his shortlisted bookImage: edition pudelundpinscher

The universe in Hamed Abboud's short collection of prose, titled "Der Tod backt einen Geburtstagskuchen" in German (Death Bakes a Birthday Cake), is fragmented and divided between Syria and Europe. The story is held together with spite and sarcasm and the author's use of particularly visual language.

Born in 1987 in Syria, Abboud fled his home country in 2012, traveling to Austria via Egypt, Dubai and Turkey. He now lives in Vienna. But the death that encountered many of his friends and acquaintances in Syria or en route is still alive. "Death has found many new friends, which must be celebrated - and that's why it bakes a birthday cake," writes Abboud.

Also a lyricist, Abboud's text links a seemingly absurd reality with perspectives that make life bearable. The monstrosity of war is juxtaposed with the cheeky beauty of emotional images. "The youths died when they were trying, with a great deal of professionalism, to throw a wadded up poem into the goal, so that it would be snapped up by an open window or open purse or other opening created by a deep breath between a bosom and cotton blouse."

Abboud's black but life-affirming humor keeps him going in the isolation of an Austrian village. The coolly told but heartwrenching story "What Became of the Migratory Birds?" recounts "the beginning of a new world, until I get my first world back, my world which consists of a room that lay just a few meters from my family."

Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Alberto Barrera Tyszka Image: imago/ZUMA Press

Alberto Barrera Tyszka: Venezuela from the inside

"Perhaps it was Chávez's special talent that people would listen to him, clearly moved, when he cried. What he said was the truth, the truth of the feeling. This relationship was his charisma," writes Alberto Barrera Tyszka in "Die letzten Tage des Comandante" (The Comandante's Final Days). 

For some, Hugo Chávez is a liberator who brings dignity to the poor and suppressed. For others, he is a populist dictator who led Venezuela into chaos.

A deep rift runs through the family of oncologist Miguel Sanabria. When the "Lider Máximo" is operated on in Cuba in late 2012, Hugo Chávez's presidency seems to be coming to an end. The wealthy let out a sigh of relief and return to Caracas - but the country is approaching an apocalypse.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka's novel about the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez reveals an inside look at a divided society. But the 57-year-old author, who is very popular in his home country, chooses not to take sides. The stories in his novel are extremely current and find their sequel in the dramatic socio-political events taking place in the country today.

Amanda Lee Koe
Amanda Lee KoeImage: Kirsten Tan

Amanda Lee Koe: Getting past censors in Singapore

Amanda Lee Koe, 29, was a rising star on the literature scene when her debut book was released in Singapore in 2013. The young author and publisher lives both in Singapore and New York, writes in English, and also works as a literature editor for "Esquire."

Her book of stories with the odd title "Ministry of Moral Panic" (Ministerium für öffentliche Erregung" in German) has already received numerous awards and was even added to Singapore's list of 10 best English-language books from the past 50 years.

Singapore is known for its cleanliness, but less so for its literature. That certainly has to do with the authoritarian politics and strict media censorship. The moral boundaries are stringent and sexually explicit content is taboo.

Amanda Lee Koe knows how to stretch these invisible boundaries in her text. Deddy Haikel may be old, but he remembers the past, when he fell in love with Ling Ko Mui and didn't care about the laws governing interracial partnership. Lee Koe's stories are cheeky, but tender, cool and empathetic. They are imaginative and full of odd characters - yet nevertheless realistic. She presents an impressive literary debut.

Han Kang
Han Kang Image: picture-alliance/Yonhap

Han Kang: Man Booker winner

Han Kang's disturbing book about a woman that does everything she can to turn herself into a plant first appeared in Korea 10 years ago, where it was a bestseller. In its English translation, "The Vegetarian" won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

A woman wants to become a tree. She was never anything particularly special in the eyes of her husband. She stops eating meat and uses disembodiment to withdraw. "Yeong-Hye no longer wants to belong to the human species," the author told DW in an interview.

She is viewed from a variety of perspectives and forced into roles - as the raped wife, the castoff daughter, the pitied sister - and is admired as a lover turned into a work of art. It's a novel about power and obsession, a cross between Kafka and traditional Korean ghost stories.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Fiston Mwanza MujilaImage: picture-alliance/Francesco Gattoni/Leemage

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Congolese nightlife

"Tram 83 isn't really anything special. All black, like the Lascaux Caves. Men, women and children with cigarettes in their hands. Further back there is a band, uninhibitedly mistreating a piece by Coltrane, probably 'Summertime.'"

But the infamous jazz club is a magnetic location, its own universe in a world in which "the government army and defectors fight each other all day long." The city has separated itself from the back country and "people from all markets of the world" storm "the world's smallest capital," which consists only of Tram 83 and the train station. Prostitutes, students, organ dealers and child soldiers dance on the volcano, along with Lucien, the wanna-be theater author with ambitions to go to France and his erstwhile friend Requiem.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila's novel "Tram 83" is set in a mining city that is reminiscent of Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the capital in a resource-rich region. Diamonds and cobalt can also be found in the city - along with gangsters who are interested in French cinema.

Mwanza Mujila was born in Lubumbashi in 1981, but had to flee when he began publishing his works. He now lives in Graz, Austria, where he writes poetry, prose and plays and teaches African literature at the university. His first, award-winning novel offers an abyssal look at neo-colonialism and a humorous, surreal, linguistically virtuous improvisation about late-night debauchery.

Ziemowit Szczerek: A Ukrainian 'fairytale'

Mordor kommt und frisst uns auf by Ziemowit Szczerek
Ziemowit Szczerek's shortlisted novelImage: Verlag Voland & Quist

Ziemowit Szczerek is a historian specialized in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Born in 1978 in Poland, the author and journalist has spent a great deal of time in Ukraine. His book, "Mordor kommt und frisst uns auf" (Mordor Will Come and Eat Us Up) is his travel report from the past 20 years. The text, however, has little in common with typical reportages or narrative commentaries. Szczerek's unconventional book is a parody on usual representations of post-Soviet Eastern Europe and consists of personal experiences and impressions, visions while high on drugs, and dangerous adventures.

Szczerek's book represents a radical form of narrative journalism. His travel reports are fake; he distorts and exaggerates reality in Ukraine, bathing it in alcohol  - turning it into excessive monsters, like the Mordor in the title. Szczerek's book was published in Polish in 2013 and his grotesque mystification has proven to be prophetic.

The International Literature Prize jury

Among the members of the 21017 International Literature Prize jury are Verena Auffermann, Jens Bisky, Frank Heibert, Jens Hillje, Michael Krüger, Marko Martin and Sabine Scholl.

The award ceremony will take place on July 6, 2017 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. The prize is endowed with 20,000 euros ($22,370) for the author and 15,000 for the translator of the winning book.