Greeting Heinrich Riethmüller

My love, time to get up.

The bridge towards the abyss will collapse.

You are going to burst, please hold on to my will.

Doubt begins from the stone of Sisyphus,

faith begins from the house key you lost.

I hand all my panic and hate

over to you

alone,

so I can raise my head high

one more time

until the darkest hour.

 It would not be fitting for me to award the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade today without taking a moment to remember the Chinese writer, poet and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died on 13th July this year after eleven years in prison and solitary confinement. Not only was he China’s most prominent critic, he was also one of that country’s most influential poets and creative minds. So much of what is important to us – and so much of what we admire about him – is united in his life and work: on the one hand, virtues such as courage and unbending will and, on the other hand, poetic vigour, analytic precision and a breathtaking eloquence. The essays and poems of Liu Xiaobo are among the most penetrating works of their kind in contemporary Chinese literature.

His case shows clearly and unmistakably the self-aggrandizing and inhuman yet also very frightened ways in which regimes and dictatorships react when challenged by criticism. Indeed, poetry often seems to appear more dangerous to them than open resistance.

Margaret Atwood, whom we honour today, is one of the authors and intellectuals who worked to bring about the release of Liu Xiaobo. She, too, is an artist who admonishes us, who draws our attention to issues of freedom and peace. She, too, works to foster the values of a democratic and pluralistic society in her work. She is also actively committed to protecting the environment and continues to deliver unambiguous warnings about the fall of civilisation.  

Atwood wrote her novel The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984, the year we all associate with the work of the same name by George Orwell. It was the era of the Cold War, and West Berlin happened to be one of the places where Atwood was living and writing. Her gloomy dystopian story went on to become an international bestseller and shape an entire generation. In her novel, she describes a cold, totalitarian society in which religious fundamentalists have seized the reins of power, women are oppressed and exploited as birth machines, and people are subject to ubiquitous surveillance. The Handmaid’s Tale is as much a plea for democracy and women’s rights as a compelling statement against racism and disenfranchisement.

Several weeks ago, when we visited Margret Atwood in Canada to discuss today’s ceremony, we very quickly came to the topic of the extraordinary political developments in the USA. At that point, she said with a sigh, “I’m probably the only person in the world profiting from Donald Trump”. Of course, she was referring to the surprising and sudden success of a novel she had written several decades ago, one that was undergoing not only a renaissance but also a frighteningly renewed relevance in many countries. Indeed, many readers are drawn to the visions Atwood sets forth; they discover parallels to our own social order and uncover similarities in today’s power structures and power holders.

The fact that people continue to turn to literature for guidance – especially when seeking answers to urgent questions in an age of insecurity, danger and fear about the future – is a truly amazing phenomenon. When we sense that our world is losing its equilibrium, that is, when we feel our trusted environment is being threatened, we reach out to books in hopes of confirmation, consolation and new insight. Books are escape vessels, buoys we hold onto in times of uncertainty. They help us reflect upon where we stand. They synthesise and store the knowledge and experience of thinkers and poets who portray the world as it is or might soon become, often in the hopes of bringing about some sort of change in their readers.

In 1950, in light of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazi regime and the complete failure of the book industry to take any action to prevent them – indeed, the industry even sought to curry favour with the Nazis –, publishers and booksellers established the Friedenspreis, that is, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade we are awarding today. They did so with the conviction that the book industry bore a unique responsibility to foster peace and freedom from that moment on. Since that initial ceremony, Friedenspreis prize-winners have used their speeches to provide testimony of a world that has always been far from perfect. They have denounced injustice, oppression, hatred and war. They have reminded us time and again that those of us who are privileged enough to live in safe and secure environments have an obligation to work towards a peaceful, ecological, diverse and just world. 

Margaret Atwood’s poems sharpen the way we look at life in all its facets, uncertainties, contradictions and beauty. Her novels open our eyes to how bleak the world becomes when we fail to fulfil our obligation to work in the service of peaceful coexistence. And it is precisely for this – the vigilant consciousness driving her literary and poetic work – that we have gathered here to honour her today. In doing so, we are also celebrating the spirit of Liu Xiaobo, who once wrote: “The beauty of the written word is that it shines like a light of truth in the dark”.

Thank you very much.

Translated into English by The Hagedorn Group. The poem by Liu Xiaobo (1997) was translated by Martin Winter.