It was Saturday midday in Klagenfurt, and in the little garden of the ORF studios, some people must have been sitting with their thoughts on their bikes towards Wörthersee when the last two authors in the competition ensured a real Bachmann Prize high, after a lot of mediocrity, okayness and some blues.
The Hanoverian writer Juan S. Guse, born in 1989, first sparked enthusiasm with his text “In the event of a pressure drop”. It’s about a strange expedition group in the Taunus in search of the last undiscovered people who are hiding from civilization: “How long have they been there? How long have you been watching us? Did you see the arrival of the Romans, the Merovingian expeditions? (…) And what does an Airbus A 380 on approach mean to you?”.
On their search, Guse’s expedition discovers the original replica of Frankfurt Airport, boards a mini-plane themselves and realizes that they themselves are being observed, searched for and made into a test object, culminating in the feeling of one of their protagonists, the last sentence of this story : “She’s never been so scared of a stick of Toblerone.”
Guse’s text is original, ambiguous, absurd, also stylistically sovereign, uses his not so remarkable linguistic means skilfully, in short: great fun.
But Elias Hirschl, who followed him and was born in Vienna in 1994, was also able to convince with “Staublunge”, an equally satirical and tragic story about the world of work in the 21st century. Food and grocery drivers rehearsing the uprising, they don’t work with gorillas here, they work with rabbiz; then the start-up “Some Day Crew” and its founder, who bears the evocative name Jonas, as well as a journalist who portrays him. Drugs and language games, speed and desperation – there is a lot in Hirschl’s story.
And how does Jonas exclaim after the death of his mother, almost as well as Guse’s last sentence: “If only I had tried to reduce my company’s delivery time to just five minutes back then! If only I had known something about algorithmic process optimization back then!”
So it was only logical that Guse and Hirschl were awarded prizes; Guse received the prize of an Austrian electricity company, endowed with 7500 euros, third place. And Hirschl, surprisingly, not the jury, but the audience award. Instead, Leon Engler received the 3-Sat prize, which is endowed with 5000 euros, for his subtle, relaxed text about a moderately successful actor during an advertising shoot. An acceptable choice.
There was another significant innovation at these 46th Days of German-language Literature: the spatial division of reading and discussion, of authors and the jury. Outside in the garden, the readings, on a stage with imitation Persian carpets and rickety bookshelves. Moderately original, but still: an extra stage for literature.
And inside, the jury debated. Which did not detract from the communication between the jury and the author, as Mara Genschel and Elias Hirschl proved. The Bachmann competition is anyway a multimedia, digitally interactive one. You are there in the small ORF studio as well as in front of the TV in a hotel room in Klagenfurt or in front of a laptop in Berlin or at the Wörthersee.
However, all the innovations and the beautiful holiday weather in Carinthia could not distract from the basic problem of the competition this year either: that the texts that are read, presented and performed here often hardly deserve so much media and literary criticism attention.
The competition is bigger, more important, more glorious than the latest vintages. This is his capital, it protects him from being hired. And that literature per se is given such a dimensioned, high-profile stage, with live broadcasts lasting for days, is of course great.
But just as numerous, now highly decorated literary celebrities can be named who were not allowed to receive a bouquet of flowers from ORF officials and local politicians after their appearance in Klagenfurt, there are many more authors, including those with Bachmann Prize honors, whose careers have turned out to be modest are.
So year after year you find yourself in a quandary. The further you are out there, the more you compare the respective year with the authors by whom the publishers will publish books in the following autumn, the smaller the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, which is endowed with 25,000 euros, becomes.
However, the more you get involved and immerse yourself in the parallel world of Klagenfurt, whether on site or day by day in front of the screen, the more relevant the whole thing becomes, the more excited you can become: for example, about the formally interesting but full of clichés grandmother- dies text by Eva Sichelschmidt with unsuccessful sentences like: “In the past, back then, that’s how it was always… The tenses have now been removed like teeth. Without anesthesia, with bloody roots.” Or about Behzad Karim-Khan’s prison and gangster tale, which is just as clichéd but so unusual in terms of content.
Or about the very simple business magnate portrait by Clemens Bruno Gatzmaga, which the jury almost consistently celebrated.
But also about the jury. Although there can hardly be any talk of enthusiasm with her: It now fits well with the antipodes Vea Kaiser/Philipp Tingler here, Klaus Kastberger/Insa Wilke there, and in between the untouchable, beautifully analyzing Mara Delius, the calm one, unlike Kastberger or Tingler Brigitte Schwens-Harrant, who never tends towards self-portrayal, and the solid Michael Wiederstein.
A team of literary critics has come together here, despite or precisely because of the many animosities, sometimes fake, sometimes real; a team that represents all facets of criticism, right down to the interpretive aberrative ramifications of the jury chairmen. Insa Wilke was even able to see the current socio-political changes in Chile reflected in the Guse text, what a political text! – just because it features a Chilean geologist who was involved in rescuing the miners in the 2010 San Jose mining accident.
And then on Thursday the poet Alexandru Bulucz, born in Alba Iulia in western Romania in 1987, read a linguistically very precise, extremely poetological, wonderfully meandering text. It is about the loss of home, of time and childhood, and Bulucz skilfully undermines expectations and does not exhaust himself with memories.
Bulucz’s text is not easily deciphered, retains its mysteries, is an aesthetic delight throughout. His text was the best of this year. He was wrongly only awarded the second Deutschlandfunk Prize, worth 12,500 euros.
Ana Marwan, born in 1980 in Murska Sobota, Slovenia, won the Bachmann Prize. Her text “Green Toad” is told by a woman who is alone, who, as it turns out, is expecting a child from whomever, and whose social contacts are reduced to the postman, the gardener and the “pool man”. In the evening she looks at herself in the mirror and says to herself: “Today I was free”. Her closest companions are toads and mosquitoes, which draw much of her attention.
“England Toad” is quite stubborn, linguistically flawless, but anything but breathtaking, an unspectacular, sometimes boring first-person text that has often been heard in Klagenfurt in recent decades. With Marwan as the winner, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize brings you back to yourself. Whatever happens in literature and anywhere in the world.