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A German novel about a tortured love affair wins 2024 International Booker Prize

Author Jenny Erpenbeck's novel <em>Kairos</em> was named this year's winner of the International Booker Prize.
Thomas Lohnes
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Author Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Kairos was named this year's winner of the International Booker Prize.

Kairos, a novel about a love affair between a younger woman and older man in 1980s Germany, has won this year's International Booker Prize. The award is one of the most prestigious prizes for fiction translated into English.

The book, originally written in German by Jenny Erpenbeck, was translated by Michael Hofmann. The two will receive a prize of 50,000 British pounds (about $63,000), split evenly.

At the center of Kairos is a relationship between 19-year-old Katherina, and Hans, a married writer in his 50s. They have sex, they go on walks, they listen to music. But the relationship soon starts to turn violent and cruel. This feeling of loss and disillusionment maps onto the political shifts happening in Germany at the time. In praising the novel, Fresh Air critic John Powers writes that "Erpenbeck understands that great love stories must be about more than just love."

He continues: "Even as she chronicles Katharina's and Hans' romance in all its painful details, their love affair becomes something of a metaphor for East Germany, which began in hopes for a radiant future and ended up in pettiness, accusation, punishment and failure."

/ New Directions
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New Directions

Erpenbeck was previously an opera director. Her first novel was 2008's The Old Child and The Book of Words about a child who loses her memory. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for her novel Go, Went, Gone. She's a hugely acclaimed writer earning glowing reviews and glossy profiles from NPR, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, with critics often predicting a Nobel Prize win in her future.

Translator Michael Hofmann is a poet, essayist, and a previous judge for the International Booker Prize. Hofmann is the first male translator to win the award. He's translated dozens of books from German to English, including authors such as Franz Kafka and Hans Fallada. A 2016 interview in The Guardian noted his ability to "single-handedly revive an author's reputation," calling him "arguably the world's most influential translator of German into English."

In a press release announcing the prize, Eleanor Watchel, chair of this year's judge, praised the way the novel used the personal story as a way of examining the broader political machinations of Germany. "The self-absorption of the lovers, their descent into a destructive vortex, remains connected to the larger history of East Germany during this period, often meeting history at odd angles."

The other finalists for the 2024 International Booker Prize were Not a River by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott; Crooked Plow by Itamar Viera Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz; Mater 2-10 by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae; What I'd Rather Not Think About by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey; and The Details by la Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson.

Author Georgi Gospodinov and translator Angela Rodel won last year's International Booker Prize for the novel Time Shelter.

This story was edited for radio and digital by Meghan Collins Sullivan.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.