THIS YEAR’S Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s most prestigious literary award, has been given to one of Europe’s most provocative and prolific writers, the Swiss playwright, novelist, and essayist Lukas Bärfuss. The jury citation noted that “[w]ith great stylistic assurance and a wealth of formal variations, [Bärfuss’s] dramas and novels always find new and different ways to explore the fundamental existential condition of modern life.”
Indeed, his fiction and plays unflinchingly probe the soft underbelly of the complacent Western middle classes, exposing the moral abysses that yawn beneath and the unacknowledged violence perpetrated on the vulnerable in the interest of the status quo. His play The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, for example, calls into question conventional definitions of normality and the eagerness to medicate into tractability people who stray outside those parameters. In his novel One Hundred Days, David Hohl, an idealistic Swiss development worker, is stationed in Rwanda in the early 1990s and the veneer of benevolence is stripped off Hohl’s motivations and intentions as he is drawn into the genocide. Closer to home, Bärfuss seeks in his novel Koala to reconstruct and understand the internal and external circumstances that led his brother to kill himself with an overdose of heroin.
Bärfuss is not a writer to shy away from controversy, to look away from mass murder unrecognized by international powers out of political expediency, or to take refuge from his own blind spots in poetic subjectivity. He has spoken of the importance of historical memory, while acknowledging that remembering without questioning can lead to dangerous terrain, to the ritualization of national myths. “Remembering,” he wrote in 2015, “is not merely a confrontation with one’s own experiences but also with the experiences of others.”
— Tess Lewis
You have the freedom to bestow a great, a very great honor on me today and although you can rest assured that my joy is deep and sincere, I have to admit to feeling more than a little inclined to admonish you.
This can only be attributed in small part to the commotion that has pervaded my life. I’m unable to say with any certainty when or how this commotion will recede. I feel a much stronger emotion at finding myself included in such ranks, which brings me some satisfaction but also great doubt as to whether my work, as it stands, actually belongs in these particular ranks and to all those who, shamefaced, are now having second thoughts and hoping that this stylistic device, well suited to the present occasion, that is, my public display of modesty, will not overstep the fine line of coquetry, I would like to point out that not one of my books or plays now celebrated with this prize, has met my own standards. Because with every single attempt, life got in the way and kept me from having what was necessary to achieve my goal: time, first of all, peace and quiet, and often enough filthy lucre. And so, the work at hand represents merely the best that could be wrested from adverse circumstances and the artist in me — still waiting for the perfect conditions which will allow him one day to transform his aspirations, completely undiminished, into reality — this artist, modestly or not, wonders what prize will remain for him to win.
Furthermore, receiving this prize in my family’s presence, particularly that of my children, is a source of discomfort. As their father, I would like to offer them optimism and confidence, but my writing is to a great extent testimony of villainy and cruelty and, like it or not, I will have to explain to my children what exactly is being recognized with this prize.
Over the last few decades, I have fashioned an existence with, on, and through suffering, on murder and homicide, torture and rape. I have dedicated the prime years of my life to studying violence, not merely theoretically and in the abstract, no, I offered my characters an existence only to transform this existence into a torment. Each character who caught my attention deserves pity. I have provided ample opportunity for sympathetic readers who share this particular interest with me to study closely and in minute detail these poor creatures’ desperate attempts to escape their misery. Often these calamities were staged and illuminated by some of the greatest talents in theater, and this certainly did no harm to my works’ lucidity or verisimilitude. These scenarios of suffering, I can assure you, not only arose from vivid, extremely vivid, imaginings, but also preceded them. Thus I heard the crack — and it echoes in my ears today — when Hermann broke Erika’s fingers. I followed Dora into that hotel room and crouched next to David behind the emergency generator and surely spent 10 times 100 days in the cursed garden of Amsar House. I dug into archives and whenever I came upon a particularly striking perversion, I turned it into a scene, a chapter, or a paragraph as accurately as possible.
Very little was sacred to me, and I can’t even invoke fiction as an excuse. My own brother, that poor man, was material for me; I used his ashes, his pain, his suffering as my material, as my subject matter. I laid out his misery for public display, I led readers into the bathroom in which he spent his last moments, I offered up his naked wretchedness for show and, like every writer, I charged each spectator admission.
For all this you are presenting me today with a certificate and if, in other circumstances, it wouldn’t quite serve as a doctor’s certificate, a prescription, or a diagnosis, it still isn’t unreasonable to ask what the heck my problem is.
That question is easy to answer.
I am a writer from 20th-century Europe: whichever thread I take up, it will inevitably lead, around the next corner or, at the outside, around the one after that, to a mass grave. I grew up in an era called the Cold War, just another bleak era among many in human history. A border ran through the continent, from north to south, fortified with barbed wire, spring guns, and minefields. Hundreds, thousands of missiles were stationed on either side, each one armed with a nuclear warhead. Every day we feared the possibility of immediate and complete annihilation of what we call human civilization, either through an error or a decision, which comes to the same thing in the end. There wasn’t the slightest prospect that anything would change in our lifetime. The relations seemed cemented, the hatred of each camp for the other was existential and as insurmountable as the Iron Curtain.
And yet there came a certain autumn when something happened, an event that was completely unforeseeable and without warning. From one moment to the next, everything, absolutely everything changed, which is rather close to the definition of a miracle. People on the other side of the border, in the East, lost the fear that had held them bound and gagged and they rose up. An empire fell, without violence, peacefully, overnight. The walls fell as did the borders. The missiles became superfluous and everyone who experienced it would look back with great emotion and pride for the rest of their lives at this moment of glory for humankind exactly 30 years ago and they will, they must, they may be forever thankful to the people of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin.
But alas, that spring after the long winter was a short one because in the second April following this event — I was finally an adult — we again saw perfectly ordinary men with their perfectly ordinary beer bellies drive into the hills surrounding Sarajevo and indiscriminately shoot perfectly ordinary people — women, children, the elderly — standing in line for bread or water in the city below. We saw them morning, noon, and evenings for 1,425 days. Eleven thousand lives were prostrated in a single city; in Bosnia, a slaughterhouse unto itself, 100,000 dead; and this, my Europe, recently liberated, still drunk with joy, was incapable of taking any action against mass murder and expulsion. In the capitals of the free world, red carpets were rolled out for the murderers who justified themselves, like all the cowardly murderers before them, with claims of self-defense. This was nothing new, nor was the fact that the most cunning of these criminals were also among the most artistically gifted.
Thus I became an adult. This was my education in international politics. My first and most important educational trip at the time took me to Poland with my friend Michael. His family originally came from a place called Wadowice. A house still stood, and the Polish government wanted to know if his family had any rightful claim to it. So we took the train via Berlin to this small city, birthplace of Karol Wojtyła, the future pope. We quickly found the house, the Star of David still on the door. The owners, Roma, were ashamed of their poverty and didn’t want to let us in. Auschwitz was only a few kilometers away. We hadn’t planned on going, we didn’t have any itinerary, we never discussed it. We would never have forgiven ourselves for not having the courage to go. We took a bus there. I remember a river, people swimming, a bus station, the sign, the barracks, a pied wagtail, and myself, barely 20, asking how it could have happened and what the problem was with this continent, with Europe. I got no further, that’s where I still remain. In the same place, asking the same questions. It shaped me. I am indebted to it. It is thanks to the 20th century that I am standing here today, on this stage.
And it is this question that connects me to Georg Büchner. “What is it in us that lies, whores, steals, and murders?” asks the revolutionary Georges Danton when he is haunted one night by memories of the September Massacres, for which he was responsible. The man who asks this question is a butcher, one who is trying to justify his acts, just another one claiming legitimate self-defense, the curse laid on his hand that forced him to act. They always have recourse to this, the murderers, without exception. They present arguments about inherent necessity, superior orders, fate they couldn’t evade. It seems to soothe them. At any rate, Danton is appeased by it before he calls his wife, Julie, to his assassin’s bed.
But no, at least we’ve come far enough since then, since Büchner, to understand that what is at the heart of that question is not in us, it’s between us, before us, it’s there, you can read it, you can hear it, it’s in the resolutions, in the orders, in the service regulations, the functional interconnections, the entry formalities, the timetables, the transportation regulations. Whoever travels by train requires a ticket, as I learned reading Raul Hilberg. Adults pay full fare, adolescents reduced fare. Only children under six traveled at no cost according to the Reichsbahn’s fare regulations, a free ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s not in us, it’s between us.
There is no murky metaphysical pool that drives us to commit these acts. That would, actually, be good news. We don’t need a surgeon to excise evil from our bodies. With alert senses and sensitive hearts we could recognize violence and verbalize it. And if we had enough courage and did not fear for our lives, we could oppose it and overcome it.
If we really do want to give men and women the possibility of learning from history, the first condition would be that they remember this history. Unfortunately, however, human beings forget so quickly and they often forget the most important lessons. I, for example, had forgotten that there hadn’t been any such thing as denazification. It took an Esther Béjarano, the musician and survivor of Auschwitz, to remind me of that one January day two years ago on a Sunday talk show about Holocaust Remembrance Day. In fact, I was aware, naturally, but at some point, it’s difficult to say how or why, it slipped my mind that the continuation of the National Socialist elites after 1945 was uninterrupted. I had forgotten that in May 1945, the NSDAP had seven and a half million members and I had forgotten that until 2006, there had only been 6,500 convictions of Nazis in German courts — 999 of 1,000 members remained unpunished. They were useful in the army, in education, in the arts, in politics, each in his or her own way. No public office, not even the highest, was denied them.
Given that now, this year, the German constitution is being celebrated, I have to admit that I also forgot how one of the country’s most influential commentators, a man by the name of Theodor Maunz, a legal scholar and for many generations until today, personally and through his writings, a preeminent teacher of future lawyers and judges, had justified the totalitarian state in the 1930s and continued to promulgate his view of the world privately and anonymously in extreme right-wing publications until his death. He led a veritable political double-life, a democrat on weekdays and in his free time a fascist. By what standards were his children raised?
And when I, merely as an example, look in the direction of Saxony, I have to acknowledge another gap in my memory, into which had slipped the father-in-law of the first Minister President of this Free State, an industrialist who had run his factories with slave laborers in Auschwitz and elsewhere. I’d also forgotten that, like most industrialists, he was allowed to keep his fortune after the war and I’d forgotten his generosity to political parties, especially his son-in-law’s.
What is the significance of all this? A good question that should be discussed calmly and in great detail. And yet, the precondition is that we remember. There is no sudden return — the Nazis and their ideology had never disappeared and all those democrats who are astonished by them should perhaps ask themselves why they had forgotten and above who will remind us of all this in the future.
Because soon, now, these days, the last witnesses are disappearing. The day will come when we will have to manage without Esther Béjarano. Ruth Klüger and Primo Levi and Imre Kertész and Richard Glazar were not just my teachers. They not only showed me the way, they offered guidance to every democrat beyond all political and ideological differences. We will have to make do without them in the future and this is one of the sources of the unrest, arbitrariness, and inner disintegration that characterizes our time and which we all experience. It’s the fear of forgetting, the fear of losing direction. It remains the duty and responsibility of my generation to keep memory alive. He who forgets the last war is preparing the next.
My poetics, my dramaturgy, were never ends in themselves. I saw every sonority as a form of mnemonics, as a way of vividly recalling, of sensing with immediacy what humans are capable of doing to each other but also of remembering that it’s not a matter of fate, it’s not inexorable. We are not puppets as Danton had hoped. There are no unknown powers pulling the strings. True, liberty and empathy are never free, but they are always possible, at every moment. That is what I wanted to talk about and do want to talk about. I feel connected to those like Georg Büchner, for whom cynicism and resignation are simply other words for cowardice, those who, in the face of all setbacks, never abandon the possibility that one day we will turn away from the lying, whoring, stealing, and murdering and live together in peace. And because I see that through this prize your academy not only honors this effort but shares and proclaims it publicly, I have much more to thank you for than the honor and the laurels. What you are presenting me with today demonstrates that I am not alone. The gift for which I offer you my heartfelt thanks is the encouragement, the confidence, and the hope.
Translated by Tess Lewis
Born in Thun in 1971, Lukas Bärfuss is the author of 26 plays, three novels, two collections of essays, and one volume of short stories. His plays have been performed throughout the world and his novels translated into almost 20 languages. Several of his plays and his first novel, One Hundred Days, have appeared in English. His second novel, Koala, which won the 2011 Swiss Book Prize, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2021. He is a member of the German Academy of Language and Literature. Bärfuss will be appearing at events in New York City and Chicago in April and at the Bay Area Book Festival in May.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Walter Benjamin, H. M. Enzensberger, Christine Angot, and Philippe Jaccottet. She was awarded the 2017 PEN Translation Prize for Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion and her translation of Lukas Bärfuss’s One Hundred Days was shortlisted for the Oxford/Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and will be co-curating the German-language literary festival, Festival Neue Literatur, for the third time in April 2020.