Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Even though the silly season morphed into the scary season, August still lacked news that had nothing to do with today's wars and frights. That shortage, and the perennial lure of the swastika, may help explain why Günter Grass's teenage fling with the Waffen SS in 1944 secured more mainstream coverage for a German writer in the British media than we have seen - well, since the Hitler Diaries fiasco. The author of The Tin Drum remains almost the only post-war German novelist, save for Bernhard Schlink and Patrick Süskind, that many British readers will know.

Last week I happened to share an Edinburgh book festival platform with Michael Krüger, distinguished as a versatile writer and equally so as a publisher with Hanser Verlag in Munich. Krüger despaired that British readers will ever bother much with authors from outside the Anglo world unless they win the Nobel Prize. I was rather more upbeat, but would never deny that German literature above all faces an uphill battle over here. Sadly, this resistance persists despite the work of our remarkably gifted translators, such as Anthea Bell and Michael Hofmann.

So how do you make a splash in a tough overseas market? Last year, despite widespread misgivings, the literary industry in Germany pulled together to create the German Book Prize. This centralised, high-profile fiction competition is designed to stir up a Booker-sized global hullaballoo, with the announcement of the winner timed for the eve of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

It kicked off with a surprise. Firm favourite Daniel Kehlmann failed to win with Measuring the World, his vastly successful novel about the explorer Humboldt and the mathematician Gauss (which we will see from Quercus Books next year). Instead, Arno Geiger's Viennese saga We're Doing Fine ("Inoffensive nonsense," sneered one disgruntled critic) walked away with the €25,000.

The 2006 long-list has just emerged. It includes The World Collector, a sweepingly ambitious novel about the Victorian adventurer, Orientalist and pornographer Sir Richard Burton by Bulgarian-born Ilija Trojanow. Michael Krüger reckons it "a masterpiece". Then again, he did publish it; but I still trust him. Among other long-listed titles I'd love to see make the perilous journey into English as fast as possible is New Lives, a big novel about the personal aftermath of German reunification by Ingo Schulze, whose quirky, haunting short fiction (in Simple Stories and 33 Moments of Happiness) you can find in Picador.

Then there's Leyla by Feridun Zaimoglu, one of an increasingly influential group of Turkish-origin German writers. In this novel, an author known until now for Kureishi-style urban intrigue delivers a Naipaul-like drama of family strife and change in the Anatolian provinces of the 1950s.

If Grass has whetted British appetites for Germanic controversy, then one name on this long-list should stand out. Now 79, and like Grass a young soldier in the final days of the Third Reich, Martin Walser also shares roots in the "Gruppe 47" set of post-war firebrands. However, recent years have seen him utter a series of sometimes gnomic and sometimes provocative statements about the Germans' connection - or lack of connection - with the Nazi past. They have led some enemies to denounce him as a fellow-traveller of the history-denying right.

Now Walser is back with Angstblüte, (almost, but not quite, "The Bloom of Doom"), a tale of sex, speculation and starlets among the brutal bourgeoisie of contemporary Munich. Think Roth (or maybe even Bellow) by the Bodensee. Walser offers tremendously rich pickings to the sort of pundit who has pounced on Grass. But before they sharpen their claws, someone has to make the effort of translating him into English again.