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Seiler: 'My book mirrors the downfall of the GDR'

Jochen Kürten/ hjhOctober 7, 2014

Author Lutz Seiler has just bagged the 2014 German Book Prize for his debut novel "Kruso." In an interview, he tells DW what his book is all about: a friendship between two men at a special time in a special place.

Shortlist Deutscher Buchpreis 2014 Lutz Seiler
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Arne Dedert

DW: Mr. Seiler, congratulations on winning this year's prestigious German Book Prize. Your winning novel is called "Kruso" - a deliberate play on the tale of "Robinson Crusoe," just with a German accent. Your protagonist is also marooned on an island, but instead of a Carribbean island, you chose the island of Hiddensee in the former communist East Germany (GDR) as a setting for your debut novel. Why did you choose this setting?

Lutz Seiler: It wasn't a long-term plan that the novel would be set on the island of Hiddensee. Originally I had planned to write a totally different novel, but then I failed. It was only later, and through detours, that I started to get into the Hiddensee island theme.

You may not necessarily think something that happened in your life is an interesting enough topic for a 500-page novel. But in my case it was at least a starting point. "Kruso" is not an autobiographical novel, but I worked as a dishwasher on Hiddensee for a summer and I think that's how I got interested in the location as a setting for my novel.

Kruso von Lutz Seiler (Buchcover)
"Kruso" is Seiler's first novel and just won the German Book PrizeImage: Suhrkamp

A big part of the plot evolves around the friendship between two men: the younger Ed and the older Kruso.

Exactly. The book tells the story of a friendship between two best male buddies. The main character is Ed. He always talks about how he is longing for a real friendship between men. Kruso is like a godfather, a guru, who offers to take Ed under his wings. Ed always thinks back to how things were and he continually says: 'I always had a best friend in my life.' And he wants to have that again. There is this longing in him.

Hiddensee was a popular destination for GDR dissidents, who would work seasonal jobs at bars or hotels - just like the main character Ed in the book. Some would then even try fleeing East Germany altogether. But you said before that your book is not necessarily about the GDR and rather about freedom and specifically freedom in the GDR, which is a really special place.

Yes, it's a book about a very, very special place and the book tries to ask questions by utilizing this special place. It maybe also raises questions about the time period, which is connected to our concept of freedom. It’s also a book which mirrors the downfall of the GDR. If I did a good job it even symbolizes the downfall of a country. The decay of the restaurant "Klausner," where Ed works, can be seen as a symbol for the decay of the entire country. But that wasn't my intention, the story just developed like that.

Why did you include real-life stories of people who died in the Baltic sea fleeing the GDR into your epilogue?

I didn’t plan on doing this research. I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Hiddensee and eventually ended up finding these escape stories that really took place.

31.08.2013 DW TV Hin und Weg Aktion Hiddensee
The Hiddensee island evolved into a refuge for East German castaways

I read an interview about the dead bodies that were washed up to the shores of Denmark. I read they were all brought to Copenhagen for forensic examination. And immediately I thought about a museum for the drowned victims and I wondered what happened to them. Where did they go? Do they still all lay there? Once I had this question in my mind, I just had to travel to Copenhagen and find out. And my research basically ended up in this very detailed epilogue.

The novel needed the epilogue. The end of the book may even be the anchor for the majority of the storyline. And the protagonist keeps the storyline together.

Lutz Seiler is a 51-year-old German author who was born in former East Germany. He studied German philology and published several award-winning stories before writing his first novel, "Kruso," which just won the 2014 German Book Prize.