By Siobhan O’Leary
This year’s International Literature Award has gone to Russian author Mikhail Schischkin for his novel Venushaar [Maiden's Hair], published in Germany by DVA. The ceremony was held last week at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.
The prize, which was launched in 2009, is awarded to an international work of prose that has been translated into German for the first time. It receives substantial support from the Stiftung Elementarteilchen and features a 25,000 euro prize. Schischkin’s book beat out 111 titles submitted by German-language publishers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland that had been translated from a total of 24 languages by writers from 50 different countries. An additional 10,000 euro prize was awarded to the book’s German translator Andreas Tretner. Venushaar, Schischkin’s first novel, which was published in Germany six years after its initial release, has already received several awards in Russia.
The author was born in 1961 in Moscow, but has lived in Zurich for 16 years, working as an interpreter for the department of immigration. Venushaar tells the story of Chechen refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland, of their fate, their interrogators and interpreter, and offers a look at a century of Russian history. Schischkin added that the book is not intended to be understood as a novel about cruelty, but about overcoming cruelty.
The jury praised Schischkin as a “wordsmith of the highest order,” adding that he has “not only…developed a unique form of novel, [but] also plays with perspectives and settings, with the most diverse verbal registers and stylistic positions, has mastered poetic, satirical, elegiac and sarcastic tones and surprises the reader with brilliant details.” According to Buchmarkt, jury member Lothar Müller, literary editor of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, also commended Berlin-based translator Andreas Tretner for his work, adding that he had found a German lid for every Russian pot.
Both author and translator offered words of gratitude to publisher DVA for its willingness to take a chance on the book. Several German publishers had rejected the manuscript for being too challenging, but the persistence of Munich-based agents Bettina Nibbe and Thomas Wiedling ultimately paid off — in more ways than one.