The jury's verdict on the Top 12 in the European Union Prize for Literature

The jury's verdict on the Top 12 in the European Union Prize for Literature
By Euronews
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Anna Kim, Austria

The war in the former Yugoslavia left behind many wounds. More than 30,000 people were reported missing by the International Red Cross. To date, only about 15,000 bodies have been found and identified.
Using this historic background, in ‘Die gefrorene Zeit’, (Frozen Time), Anna Kim tells the story of a Kosovar searching for his missing wife. The narrator takes the reader into the human consequences of his trauma, and also into the traditional agricultural world of Albanians living in Kosovo. At the same time, the author introduces the reader to the work of the forensic doctors and anthropologists in an emotional way.

This novel’s strength lies in its ability to convincingly portray the act of remembrance, capturing all its personal and social implications. The stylistic complexity and sensibility of the work is captivating, highlighting an important European topic, namely that of communication across ethnic and religious differences.

Lada Žigo, Croatia

Everything in winning novel ‘Rulet’ revolves around the motif of roulette: one can win or lose at it, it causes despair and exultation, people can study and attempt to outwit it, to try and define its laws and guess its philosophy. But above all, as one critic wrote, “The roulette in this novel is a global metaphor”. The author herself says in a foreword to the novel: “Roulette, this metaphor of Croatian society and human life… summarises contempt, hope, disappointment, and fury. A futile cry for a win over injustice and one’s own destiny. However, is it at all possible to defeat the cursed roulette which plays with one’s hope just as our society plays with one’s existence?”

One could hardly find another metaphor that could better and more expressively describe the state of contemporary Croatian society than the one offered by Lada Žigo. The disintegration of society is increasing, with rampant unemployment, a lack of vision, an omnipotence of money and impotence of justice, and cheap showbiz philosophy – these are among the signs of our time which are too strong not to be picked up on by writers, not in order to judge people, but to describe these dominant social trends. A skilful stylist and brilliant storyteller, Žigo has successfully joined a group of writers of her generation who dissect aspects of contemporary Croatian society, revealing its virtues as well as its vices to the eyes of readers.

Laurence Plazenet, France

Laurence Plazenet lives and teaches in Paris. She is an expert on 17th century French literature, and has written three published books. The first one, ‘L’amour seul’, (Love Alone), published by Albin Michel, is a novel inspired by the passion between Mademoiselle d’Albrecht, a 15-year-old girl, and her tutor Agustin Ramon y Cordoba, Monsieur Ramon.

For those who love the French language, ‘L’amour seul’ is dazzling, written in a classical style reflecting 17th century French. Between sensuality and dereliction, the novel displays modern passionate relationships in a historical context. That ambiguity gives ‘L’amour seul’ its uncanny charm and grace, and its sense of absolute tragedy.

Her second novel ‘La blessure et la soif’, or ‘The Wound and the Thirst’, is nourished by the same powerful creativity of her first, and is also set in the 17th century.

But Plazenet has chosen modern times for her third novel, ‘Disproportion de l’homme’, which talks about male-female relationships. Using an affected writing style, the author goes well beyond the usual vaudeville cliché of the husband/wife/lover triangle to reach a mystical sense of love, the transcendence of missing someone and the enjoyment of absence. The main character does not love an absent or present woman; he loves love itself. Our 2012 jury loves Laurence Plazenet, a name to remember with a body of work well worth investigating.

Viktor Horváth, Hungary

A young Turkish boy, Issa, the grandson of a high-ranking official of the Ottoman Empire, lives in the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul when his father suddenly dies and his mother disappears under mysterious circumstances. The orphan moves to Hungary, to the freshly conquered border zone of the Empire, and grows up in the town of Pécs, fostered by his uncle, the military governor or Bey of Pécs county.

This southern town, at the border of the Hungarian and Croatian parts of mediaeval Hungary, was at that time a mosaic of nations, cultures and religions. Issa learns, with the inquisitiveness of an adolescent, how to live and communicate with Hungarian and Croatian peasants, German bourgeois, Bosnian craftsmen, Bulgarian gardeners, Serbian soldiers and Turkish ulemas. He also learns how to find common ground with believers of the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, Shi-ite dervishes and Italian adventurers, and with all kinds of outcasts living in a wartime border region.

The plot of ‘Török tükör’, (Turkish Mirror),
is abundant with playful digressions. One such example is an ancestral tale, originating in the legendary past of the Arabic Caliphates, interwoven with episodes of the 1001 Nights and the cultural history of the Mediterranean region. We discover that one of Issa’s ancestors translated Dante’s Divina Commedia into the Arabic language, and another bought the Atlantic Codex containing Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastic machine designs. This codex then reaches the family in Pécs, where one of the Shi-ite dervishes will construct Leonardo’s flying machine and will test it above the city at the most inappropriate moment.

At the end, the secret behind Issa’s mother’s disappearance is revealed, and Issa encounters his step-brothers, an Italian adventurer and a Hungarian outlaw.

Viktor Horváth’s work promotes one of the most important values of European culture, the idea of tolerance and coexistence, and looks at issues of cultural difference, all in a playful and amusing way.

Kevin Barry, Ireland

The Irish jury of the EUPL chose ‘City of Bohane’ by Kevin Barry as the eventual winner for a work by an emerging author of fiction. This decision was reached by a majority of four out of the five jury members. ‘City of Bohane’ was chosen from a shortlist of five novels which included two other Barry works, ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ and ‘Dark Lies the Island’, both published by Jonathan Cape, ‘The Apartment’ by Greg Baxter, published by Penguin Group, and ‘On the Floor’ by Aifric Campbell, published by Serpent’s Tail.

The winning novel is a tour-de-force which depicts a world which is familiar yet threateningly apocalyptic. In a biting commentary on post-Celtic-Tiger Ireland, its brilliantly-drawn characters stride through the streets of a modern Gomorrah, where dark deeds are everyday events.

In summarizing the decision of the Irish jury, its President Liz Carty said that Kevin Barry is undoubtedly destined to become one of the most important Irish literary figures of the 21st century. Although City of Bohane is a dark comic novel which casts a cynical shadow on contemporary Ireland, the writing displays humour and poetic richness in unexpected places. It is this diversity, together with the inventiveness and creativity of language which is almost Joycean in its richness, that reflects the best of contemporary Irish writing.

Emanuele Trevi, Italy

The ambition of Emanuele Trevi, fully realised in this book, has always been to write in an original literary style that is out of the ordinary. ‘Qualcosa di scritto’, according to Pietro Citati, “is not an autobiography, a biography, an essay, or a philosophical treaty: but it is all of these things together”.

The author draws from time spent on an internship at the Fondo Pasolini, working with the very wild Laura Betti, who tries to make life difficult for him, both insulting him and courting him at the same time. Meanwhile, the reading of Pasolini’s unfinished and posthumously-published novel ‘Petrolio’ becomes an initiation, meaning much more than all the comment made about the book. Trevi, instead of simply re-reading the book, experiences a meeting with Pasolini himself, with his obsession for sex and with the duplicity of his characters.

‘Qualcosa di scritto’ confronts the unknown aspects of life, (both ours and others), leaving aside what is already said and welcoming pleasure and pain as thresholds of death. With the help of Pasolini, Trevi tells us of a time in which nobody seeks the truth, and in which nobody – academics and critics included – wants to find the words to express the truth.

Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Lithuania

On the 29th of May, the Lithuanian Jury selected the winner, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, for her collection of short stories ‘Šiąnakt aš miegosiu prie sienos’, (Tonight I Shall Sleep by the Wall), published by Baltos lankos in 2010.

A couple of her short stories appeared in a periodical in the late 1980s, but went largely unnoticed. After a long gap, her breakthrough came in the early 2000s when she started publishing semi-autobiographical, fictionalised essays in the cultural weekly Šiaurės Atėnai.

This type of short first-person narrative is very prominent in recent Lithuanian literature. They are usually called essays, but can also be treated as short stories.

‘Šiąnakt aš miegosiu prie sienos’, her latest book, establishes her as one of the key emerging Lithuanian authors. Her work mostly deals with everyday occurrences, seemingly insignificant experiences and perceptions. Their sophisticated sensibilities reveal a rich existence, a deep sense of every daily moment. On the other hand, they are very readable, devoid of any pomposity or exultation, often tinged with irony, dealing with such experiences as illness, physical fragility, loneliness, inability to pursue stable relationships, the burden of domestic chores, and so on.

Some of the stories deal with the circumstances of a middle-aged woman, living with her daughter in a small flat in the Old Town of Vilnius: the insights cut deep into everyday experiences, at the same time the exquisite literary quality of the text contributes to a rewarding reading experience.

One of the sections of this book, ‘The Allure of the Text’, was included in an anthology from the respected American publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, called Best European Fiction 2010. An American reviewer wrote: “Radvilavičiūtė not only lays out five exceptionally sound criteria for a worthy text, she gracefully illustrates them in the story she tells.” Dalkey Archive Press is now preparing to publish a selection of Radvilavičiūtė’s stories.

Gunstein Bakke, Norway

‘Maud and Aud’ consists of short chapters that alternate between narrative flashes and poetic descriptions, containing reflections on traffic and the physical aspects of human life in a society where technology has become an increasingly important part of our bodies as well as our lives.

At the centre of the plot is a family which is devastated by a car accident: the mother dies, the father can only live on supported by artificial body parts, and the twin sisters Maud and Aud survive with bodily and mental scars. As it turns out, the sister with the lesser physical injuries is the one who cannot shake off the trauma of her family’s encounter with death, and she is drawn to the thrill of reckless driving, both in her job as a traffic reporter and secretly during nightly drives to scenes of recent car accidents.

From this starting point, the author creates a net of reflections on thematically connected topics. These include how the first heart transplant operation performed in Cape Town in 1967 expanded our possibilities of fighting physical death, and how Princess Diana in 1997 was chased to her death as her car crashed in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Furthermore, he dwells on how cars represent one of the greatest threats to human life in modern civil society, but they are still perceived as a smaller threat to man than wild animals hunted to near extinction, arguing that evolution has not caught up with the rapid development of modern civilization.

In short, Gunstein Bakke touches on questions of existential importance in a country where oil fuels not only the cars, but also a large part of society’s development and possibly also environmental developments that may eventually pose new threats to human life.

Piotr Paziński, Poland

This book from a small publisher has gained considerable popularity and brought the author, Piotr Paziński, a prestigious prize from the magazine Polityka.

On the surface, the plot of ‘Pensjonat’ is fairly straightforward, describing a day trip to a boarding house outside Warsaw by a young man. As a small boy, he often spent time there with his granny, and he now encounters several elderly guests who remember him as a child. But it is no ordinary boarding house: the residents are Jews who survived the Holocaust, and so everything that occurs here is like a dream about the past, a summoning-up of ghosts, a resurrection of not just people but also events, debates and ideological arguments from long ago.

Thus the plot only appears to be simple, but in fact it is set on several time scales and is bursting with typically Jewish anecdotes and parables. The past meets the present in the book – the old people see the past as something so close as to be almost within reach, but their recollections are also distorted by their obsessions or gaps in memory. They are the last living witnesses to the pre-war world of the Polish Jews, and the author shows in what form the Jewish tradition exists in Poland today. The book has an atmosphere full of warmth and gentle irony. It paints sensually rich images, and at the same time shows the diversity of the Jewish heritage: on the one hand it is a dialogue between different fates, and on the other it is an endless dispute about the ultimate questions, about the existence or non-existence of God, and about the issues facing the Jews. This dispute permeates the everyday world in a comical way, but provides meaning even when it is going through drastic changes, and most of the people taking part in the argument are dying. At that point it is taken up by the survivors, who resurrect the dead as partners in the debate.

Afonso Cruz, Portugal

The Portuguese Jury of the European Union Prize for Literature has unanimously chosen writer Afonso Cruz and his novel ‘A Boneca de Kokoschka’, (Kokoschka’s Doll), as the winner of this award, because it considers that both the author and the work are representative of the best literature currently being created in Portugal, in line with the Prize’s definition of literature’s emerging values.

The novel, published in 2010, reveals the imaginative and narrative talent of a versatile author who has also been establishing himself in the fields of illustration, music and cinema.

Cruz, who started his career as a fiction writer in 2008 with the novel ‘A Carne de Deus’, (The Flesh of God), is one of the most innovative literary authors of his generation, with a fictional universe that is enriched by his experience as a plastic artist. ‘A Boneca de Kokoschka’ is an early high point in a career that is only just beginning, a talent that the European Union Prize for Literature is expected to consolidate and promote on an international level, while showing that his work has already reached maturity.

Jana Beňová, Slovakia

On 15 May, the jury decided the conditions under which the Slovak candidates for the European Union Prize for Literature ought to be selected. Each jury member suggested five writers who met the recommended criteria and checked the availability of the suggested titles in book shops. On 25 May, the jury met to select and approve five authors for the shortlist. On 1 June, the jury selected Slovakia’s winning author.

The procedures and system of voting of the Slovak jury included a points system, whereby an author would gather five points if they were on a shortlist of all five jury members; four points if on the shortlist of four jury members, etc. Authors on the same number of points were further ranked through discussion, followed by voting. The top five authors were placed on the final shortlist.

Each jury member then made his or her own rankings of the five shortlisted authors. The winning author was the one who reached the highest score. Through this process, the jury gave the award to Jana Beňová’s ‘Seeing People Off’.

Sara Mannheimer, Sweden

Sara Mannheimer´s 2008 debut novel ‘Reglerna’, (The Rules), created a claustrophobic linguistic space to depict its main protagonist, a woman who tries to exercise manic control over her daily life. In her follow-up ‘Handlingen’, (The Action, 2011), she continues to explore vulnerable mental states. The central character is driven by a desire to conquer The Library, containing the educated world and the entire global collection of literature.

Underlying this neurotic need, and her urge to control everyday life and master the theoretical complexity of Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva, is an overwhelming grief at a lost pregnancy. Stylised and weighted with symbolism, ‘Handlingen’ is a portrayal of a human being’s obsession with spiritual purity, and with replacing the weakness of the body with an unassailable intellectual identity.

With her highly personal blend of subtle humour and underlying sadness, Mannheimer creates a literary landscape that is both deeply original and always interesting.

For more information, check out the EUPL website.

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