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David Grossman, German Peace Prize Laureate: Anyone who despairs about the possibility of peace has already been defeated

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By Petra Lambeck

It's been many years since Israeli author, David Grossman, lost his son Uri. He died on 12 August 2006 in the Second Lebanon War, killed by a Hezbollah missile.

"Imagine a young man," said Grossman at the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt, where the award ceremony is traditionally held, "who is just stepping out into life, full of hope, enthusiasm, lust for life, innocence, humour and youthful dreams – that's what he was like." And that goes for thousands and tens of thousands of others who likewise lost their lives in this conflict and are still doing so – not only Israelis, but also "Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians".

Casting a gaze in the direction of the others, remembering that the enemy one hates and sees as a threat is also human – this is what distinguishes David Grossman's writing.

The war must not be allowed to have the last word

Grossman feels that the greatest danger is in the "dwindling of the Israeli will to survive", the fading away of hope that peace is genuinely possible. For many Israelis – and for many Palestinians as well – peace has become nothing more than a dream, or perhaps only a hallucination. But we must not stop talking about peace, says Grossman. Because anyone who "despairs about the possibility of peace has already been defeated, he has already submitted to the fate of never-ending war".

Grossman himself has found in writing a way to battle against arbitrariness and the feeling of being helplessly at its mercy – a way to not let himself be paralysed by the horrors of war. Not being afraid to look, seeing things for what they are and calling them by name – for Grossman, this is the way to avoid assuming the attitude of the victim. He has learned that there are situations in which the only freedom left to an individual is that of being able to describe things. "The freedom to describe the terrible fate that has befallen you in your own words."

And that faculty is exactly what civil rights activist and publisher Joachim Gauck praised in his speech lauding David Grossman. He emphasized that Grossman has always "maintained the freedom to act". Grossman was receiving the Peace Prize because he has "assiduously refused to become part of a retaliation mechanism and because he bears responsibility in his country even in 'troubled' times". Or, as Gottfried Honnefelder, president of the Foundation of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association which awards the prize, put it: because he has created a body of work that "refuses to allow the war in his country, the war everywhere in the world and the war within us to have the last word."

Language and reality

In his latest novel, "To the End of the Land", Grossman tells the story of an Israeli mother whose son goes off to war. Fearful of what might happen to him, the woman decides to set off on a journey so that no one can reach her to tell her bad news. Grossman wanted to show with his story how the Middle East conflict with all its brutality "radiates into the fragile sphere of family life", because "the greatest drama of humanity" is the drama of the family.

The Peace Prize jury expressly referred to this book in its statement, underscoring how it demonstrates "the significance of language in the search for identity" while warning of its increasing militarisation. In a talk during the book fair, Grossman pointed out the influence exerted for example by the language of media, and told about how shocked he always is when he reads Hebrew and Arabic newspapers and finds them riddled with clichés. In his opinion, Israelis and Palestinians have much more in common than is generally assumed.

The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, which has been awarded since 1950 by the Foundation of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels), is one of the foremost cultural distinctions conferred in Germany. It comes with 25,000 euros in prize money and is traditionally awarded at the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

To date, 61 men and women from Germany and abroad have received the prize – people who, in the jury's opinion, have made an active contribution to advancing the cause of peace with their literary, scholarly or artistic work. Among them is the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, who received the Peace Prize in 1996.

© Deutsche Welle/ 2010

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

* ©Deutsche Welle. Reproduced with permission.

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