Laudatory speech on the awarding of the 2019 Internationaler Literaturpreis to Fernanda Melchor and Angelica Ammar

By Robin Detje

I’m overwhelmed. To say anything else would be a lie.

I think we in the jury were all overwhelmed by Saison der Wirbelstürme (Hurricane Season); we all had to stop and couldn’t continue reading for a while. And yet we awarded the prize to this book and its translation with great resolve against really uncommonly strong competitors.

Maybe this is also a bit of a confession about being overwhelmed as a criterion of literary quality. What should we do with literature that doesn’t overwhelm us? What else can we expect of the world over the coming decades than to be overwhelming, and how can literature that doesn’t overwhelm us do justice to this world? Why should we trust any literature that doesn’t overwhelm us?

“That’s the way out of this hole.” This is the last sentence of the novel, this chronicle of a death that is constantly re-announced and renegotiated. The hole is the world that the novel’s characters live in. They are, as a prefaced quote by Mexican writer Jorge Ibargüengoitia suggests, fictitious. But “some of the events described here are true.” The author reenacts real events with her characters.

“That’s the way out of this hole.” This promise comes at the very end because there is no way to get out alive – neither from our world nor from the world of the novel. The speaker here is a gravedigger placating corpses, mutilated, some horribly mangled corpses, and the way out he is recommending to them is a star in the sky. He can do no more for them, and he is afraid that they will come back if he doesn’t show them the way out.

Then those who perished from a lack of food or love, the dismembered, the slaughtered, would mingle with those who let them perish, the dismemberers and the slaughterers, and then they would have the opportunity to kill, dismember, or slaughter their murderers.

There are no pure victims in this book, only people crowded together in tiny spaces who are thrown around by their impulses and passions, by their fears and their superstitions, who experience violence, escape into violent fantasies or into violent behavior. Because for a brief moment, violence creates clarity, it creates relief, and, seemingly, a conclusion.

The setting of this novel, the village of La Matosa, is located near Veracruz, Mexico. A witch lives there on whom the villagers project their fears and hopes, overloading her with them until the witch is found murdered. The novel takes place in the twenty-first century; the scene is an archaic world like the one that must have encouraged the birth of the Stoa which made the hope of freedom from passions and serenity the basis of culture.

All feelings, all passions are fierce, love is fierce, fear is fierce, bloodlust is fierce, and fear helps transform love into bloodlust. The characters are exposed to their emotions like they are exposed to the weather, they work their way through them, they want to get away, to escape their village, escape that hole, escape themselves, they are always one step behind their urges, don’t want to go where the urges take them, but they have to, and they leave a trail of devastation behind.

The characters in the village are exposed to centrifugal forces, rather coincidentally, of the oil industry, of the world markets, and the world markets care little whether the people they exploit are cultured. They care little whether the people they exploit perish or not. While they themselves consider themselves highly cultivated.

Saison der Wirbelstürme is not a novel that overtly takes up the cause of criticizing capitalism. But it still deserves this award as a political novel. Here, a state of emergency is painstakingly described without the state of emergency ever being explicitly named.

Fernanda Melchor’s characters have no access to culture, no access to education, no access to the money that could provide them with both. They have no way of freeing themselves from their hole and living in dignity. Still worse: It was a sophisticated, highly developed civilization what’s pushed these people back into this pre-civilized state and holds them captive there.

A civilized world beyond the Mexican village of La Matosa does not appear in the book. Those responsible for the misery there are not part of the cast and are not named by the author. A huge void gapes in the middle of her ultra-dense novel. The responsibility to fill it is left up to us. That’s the job given to us.

This void in the novel is, basically, even crueler and even more gruesome than all the pain and suffering that it so mercilessly shows us. And at the same time, basically, those responsible for all these reported atrocities have been realistically described through their absence, their non-occurrence. This is how they act in real economic life: by evading their responsibilities through a thousand loopholes and making themselves invisible.

Fernanda Melchor has written the novel of poverty in twenty-first century global capitalism, the novel of poverty-born violence against women, against homosexuals, against those who are weaker. The novel of the merciless struggle of the weakest against the even weaker and against themselves. The novel of a kind of destruction that doesn’t care if it becomes self-destruction because the difference doesn’t matter anymore.

The pitilessness with which Fernanda Melchor describes these characters, not only in their forsakenness but also in all their cruelty and malice, hides a higher form of pity, hides true mercy. Precision is a form of love. Looking away would be truly merciless. These characters in the novel are in search of dignity, in search of happiness, and their poverty drives them to crime, into the arms of police torture, into the pit of the gravediggers. “That little light that looks like a star? That’s where you have to go, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.”

The author makes the situation inescapable also for us. She ensnares us in long, never-ending sentences; she knots us into her story until we don’t know where to go either. It gives the unbearable shape: The beauty of these sentences makes the horror of what they tell – almost – bearable.

But a translator who opens this book abandons all hope. Endless sentences, hardly any paragraphs, no dialogs that offer breathing space. A flow of words in ever-constant density that must be simultaneously placed under the microscope and viewed from outer space, perhaps from the gravedigger’s star, so that neither the fine details are lost, nor the violence of the whole. You can only translate this book if you are a mole and an eagle at the same time.

In her translation, Angelica Ammar has spread out a carpet of words and meaning that readers can always trust; its solidity never fades. This is a tremendous achievement. She had to spread her carpet wide; it encompasses all human passions, even the filthiest – though there may not be any pure passions anyway. Unfortunately, she had to translate it into German, a language whose culture of cursing is not very robust and that has a hard time conveying lusty, almost fervent curses. And there’s plenty of fervent cursing going on in Fernanda Melchor’s book.

In a courageous dive Angelica Ammar evaded some of the challenges of the original with great elegance and skill, always fully understanding the text, which is the only way to avoid suddenly stressing the acrobatics of translation itself. With her, translating is a miraculously inconspicuous high-performance sport.

Great literature always hides a few metaphors for the writer’s method somewhere, immortalizes them, sometimes unnoticed, in a dark corner. Near the end of Saison der Wirbelstürme we learn who murdered the witch. The police suspect and torture the offender and throw him in a cell with other tortured people suspected of other crimes. A fellow prisoner shows him something:

“His gaze followed the guy’s skinny index finger, which pointed to the cell wall Brando was sitting in front of and in which names and nicknames and dates and hearts and pricks and cunts of mythological proportions and all sorts of deviant scenes had been scratched, from which a drawing of the devil made up of red lines arose. How could he have missed that when he entered the cell? That huge demon who was watching over the cell like a ruler.”

It’s not hard to see the cell wall as a metaphor for the whole novel, containing names and nicknames and dates and hearts and pricks and cunts of mythological proportions and all sorts of deviant scenes, and Fernanda Melchor accepts them all equally in their passion and in their pain. And would I like to interpret the drawing of the devil as a self-portrait of the author; this huge demon who watches over the world of this novel like a ruler. How better to describe the authorship of a novel?

We fear nothing more than the naked truth. We hate no one more than the bearers of the naked truth. We demonize or kill them. Fernanda Melchor’s acknowledgments include the journalists Yolanda Ordaz and Gabriel Huge, who were tortured and beheaded in Mexico in 2011 and 2012 for fear they would tell the naked truth. Those who want to tell the truth can soon be in peril for their lives. Violence clarifies power relations, it creates relief and, seemingly, a conclusion.

To paint oneself as a devil on the wall, as a demon, as a ruler of dates and hearts, to me seems wise in the face of such violence.

Today we are awarding the Internationaler Literaturpreis in the capital city, overrated by all the travel guides, of a country on a small, increasingly insignificant continent, whose historical hubris has mythological proportions and has led to all sorts of deviant scenes. Here in our little capital city, we have the privilege of shaking our heads in disbelief and indignation at such violence, as if we could wipe it away with that shake of the head. We don’t have to deal with it, even though we sometimes graciously condescend to do so.

We are awarding the Internationaler Literaturpreis to a book – and its translation – that puts violence, real events, into a form while at the same time expecting us to take it in without restraint, in almost unbearable mass and intensity. A book – and its translation – that forces us into a present that is also our present. A present in which we can no longer afford to be condescending to violence on distant and more important continents.

We hope that the prize strengthens the demonic powers of this author – and her translator – and also, as a good counter-spell of enlightenment, deters all those who wish them ill.