Currently, in the literary world, everything seems to be revolving around the past: the weight of it, how one can come to terms with it, learn from it, fret over it, or move beyond it.
In Britain, for instance, the historical novel has been experiencing an unprecedented renaissance for the past decade, with authors like Hilary Mantel at the forefront. In the United States, retellings of ancient sagas are popular and frequently climb up the bestseller lists. Likewise, this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to author Abdulrazak Gurnah, who writes about Europe’s colonial past on the African continent in a humane, humorous and candid manner.
German author Antje Ravik Strubel, who has taken home this year’s German Book Prize — one of the most important literary prizes in Germany — delves into this realm in her novel Blaue Frau (literally: Blue Woman).
The protagonist in the novel is Adina, also called Sala or Nina, who has sought refuge in Helsinki. As a child, she longs to leave her village in the Krkonose Mountains in the Czech Republic where she grew up. There she sells mulled wine to German tourists. One of them kisses her against her will because she won’t serve him alcohol. His friends call him Ronny.
Antje Ravik Strubel’s book ‘Blaue Frau’ addresses violence, power hierarchies and female empowerment
Power structures are examined
The encounter has a profound negative effect on Adina. In the first few pages, Ravik Strubel elegantly and artfully maps out the major themes which her novel addresses. Above all, it focuses on how unequally power is still distributed today between men and women; between Eastern and Western Europe. It also deals with the power of the past: How can we use it to move forward into the future? What can we learn from it? What can we do with it? What does freedom enable us to do in Europe and elsewhere — especially as women?
Despite the bad experience, Adina moves to Germany and takes on an internship in a cultural center in the Uckermark region in the northeastern part of the country. There she is raped, but no one takes her seriously. As a result, Adina becomes an “invisible” woman, moving on to Helsinki where she works under the table in a hotel. she begins a relationship with Estonian professor Leonides, who is a member of the EU Parliament.
The jury of the German Book Prize described the novel as a “major book” that develops into a “story of female self-empowerment” and is a “reflection on commemorative culture in East and West.” Ravik Strubel succeeds, according to the jury, in “giving voice to what appears to be inexpressible.”
Both poetic and exciting
The jury also noted that Ravik Strubel’s book is one that confronts violence through literature. The novel is an example of what storytelling can achieve.
With great skill, Ravik Strubel interweaves various narratives, languages and settings such as a Czech village, Germany and Helsinki. The book reveals the fates of people who meet on a continent on which they are allowed to move freely, with all the dangers and joys that this entails. It is a book about our present that is as poetic as it is exciting. That makes Blaue Frau both the novel of the hour, and the “book of the year.”
Book prize boosts sales
The German Book Prize is not only one of the most important literary prizes within Germany, it gives a noticeable boost to the sales of the prize winners’ books. Internationally, too, awardees receive a great deal of attention, leading many works to be translated into other languages.
This year, five other authors were nominated: Norbert Gstrein, Monika Helfer, Christian Kracht, Thomas Kunst and Mithu Sanyal. The German Book Prize is awarded as part of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens this week. It is modeled after the British booker Prize. Last year, author Anne Weber won the prize for Annette. A Heroic Epic.
This article has been translated from German