Books that bind Europe together: This year’s EU Literature Prize

Ferries cross the Bosporus. Istanbul, 2011. [Moyan Brenn/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report 2014 EU Prize For Literature.

SPECIAL REPORT: Can a majority Muslim state, on Europe’s southernmost periphery, be considered not just European, but even worthy of an EU prize for literature?

It seemed unlikely after May’s European elections, when the far-right enjoyed sweeping gains at the polls.

In that context, the choice of the winner of the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) is a rebuke to that more intolerant interpretation of what Europe really is.

An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello by Ben Blushi, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Albania, an EU candidate country, took the top prize. The idea that a Balkan writer, from a predominantly Muslim state, could remake the English classic in his national vernacular, is of course a statement in itself

The novel, Otello, Arapi, i Vlores (Otello, Arap of Vlora,) is set in medieval Venice and Vlora (Albania’s second port city, after Durrës).

Few, on the European right, of course, would care to remember that Albania was once a part of the Kingdom of Venice, in the early 15th century.

The novel could not be more timely. For critics of EU enlargement, Otello is a poignant literary reminder of Albania’s natural place in European culture and politics, and why it advanced to EU candidate status in 2012.

Not only is this Muslim country European. It is worthy of the cultural imprimatur of the EU.

Blushi is not alone. One of three non-EU member prize winners, this year’s selections are as reflective of current enlargement initiatives as they are a cultural vision of the EU.

Serbia and Montenegro, both of which started the process of Accession, as a unified state, in 2005, are represented by  Ognjen Spahic and Ugljesa Sajtinac, respectively.

Their novels are appropriately outward looking, reflecting their home countries’ transitional status, before becoming members of the Union. To that end, Spahic’s Puna Glava Radosti (Head Full of Joy) published earlier this year, recounts the collision of the outer and inner worlds of modern man, an allegory for the reconciliation of the local and the universal.

Sajtinac’s 2011 novel, Sasvim Skromni Darovi (Quite Modest Gifts) deals in equally philosophical ideas about commonality, but from the vantage point of two brothers trading emails about life in Serbia, and the United States.

Emphasising the ordinary, the story reconciles the idea of the national not being especially distinct from the foreign, something which, given Serbia’s recent history, has its own political significance. It also speaks to the country’s growing sense of itself as a European country. Though Montenegro and Serbia are now on separate accession tracks, the inclusion of these ex-Yugoslavian authors among this year’s prizewinners is its own reminder of their former – as well as future – association with each other, and the EU.

Novels by Greece’s Makis Tsitsas, and Turkey’s Birgül O?uz. both emphasise themes such as decline and powerlessness. The subject of their books speaks reams about their complex national situations, and the ennui they inspire in their protagonists.

Tsitas’ God is My Witness (2013) narrates the plight of a middle-aged man trying to maintain his dignity, despite being unemployed and ill. Repeatedly rebuffed by his circumstances, it is an unmistakable reflection of the experience of powerlessness Greeks have felt since the financial crisis first started. Greece deserves better, is the message.

Birgül O?uz’ 2012 short story collection, Hah (Aha) is equally reflective of her national situation, albeit on a different level. Focused on mourning and melancholy, Hah searches for a way of politicising the observation of loss. Considering how abstract mourning is, how can we frame it in such a way as to make it meaningful, albeit transformative?

Given the rise to power of conservative Islamists in Turkey over the last decade, and their overhauling of Ataturk’s secular state in a distinctly sectarian, non-democratic manner, O?uz’ project has an especially contemporary hue.

How can European-identified Turks express their lack of agency and sense of failure, and learn from it, in order to change their circumstances? Though Turkey has been negotiating for EU membership since 1995, given how much resistance remains to its accession, it is increasingly hard to imagine it joining the European Union.

Aha is, in its own way, a means of looking back on that failure, and wondering where to go next.

European Union Prize for Literature (established in 2009) is a European Union literary award. The award is funded and founded by the Culture Programme of the European Union, and is coordinated by a Consortium, selected by a Commission. The Consortium is composed of the European Booksellers Federation, the European Writers' Council and the Federation of European Publishers. The Consortium sets up the national juries and organizes the awards.

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