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Pak Kyongni Prize winner Christoph Ransmayr says literature sparks imagination, breaks biases

If literature has one pivotal purpose, it is the very act of imagining what lies beyond our own life and language, and the attempt to think about the lives of others, according to Austrian novelist Christoph Ransmayr, winner of the 12th Pak Kyongni Prize.

“It's not possible to define what literature is. But the attempt to understand unfamiliar environments and people through literature, at the very least, helps eliminate biases towards others and encourages an attempt to bring about change,” Ransmayr said at a press conference in Jung-gu, Seoul, Wednesday. The interview was conducted in German with Korean interpretation.

The 69-year-old writer has pursued the expansion of human existence through exploration of unknown worlds and an understanding of “the other” through his novels.

His debut work, "The Terrors of Ice and Darkness" (1984), drew inspiration from true events of an Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition that aimed to explore some of the Earth's farthest reaches in the late 19th century. Ransmayr vividly portrays the resilience of humanity in the face of extreme circumstances.

His novel "The Last World" (1988), which brought him to global prominence, tells of the adventure of Cotta, as he searches for the lost poet Ovid and his "Metamorphoses." Set in time and space where ancient Rome and 20th-century Europe are spatially intertwined, Ransmayr delves into human greed, environmental destruction and the meaning of civilization.

“(Ransmayr) blends reality and fiction through outstanding imagination, prompting readers to reflect on the realities behind the scenes,” said the Pak Kyongni Prize judging committee. “He is a passionate explorer of the extraordinary relationship between nature and humans and discovers its hidden history.”

Ransmayr, who has traveled the world and lived in various countries while working on his novels, said this was his first visit to South Korea.

“The Han River flowing through the city and the palaces, the temples and the skyscrapers -- these are landscapes I haven't encountered before. Especially in a city where hundreds of years are intertwined, I could feel the past, present and future simultaneously. It's remarkable that readers 8,000 kilometers away from my desk are listening to my voice.”

Ransmayr mentioned that he has read works by Pak, specifically "Market and the Battlefield" and "Toji (The Land).” He said he was able to understand the Korean War and the division of the Korean Peninsula.

"I was aware of the Korean War, but reading ‘Toji’ helped me understand the lives of people living in the midst of the war, just as if I had experienced it. Literature enables us to imagine the lives of others."

The Austrian writer also shared stories from his home country.

"Austria is peaceful now, but just 40 kilometers from where I lived, Hitler's forces destroyed cities, and there were Nazi concentration camps nearby. When I was studying at the university in Vienna, I would meet Holocaust survivors. The experience inspired me to write ‘Morbus Kitahara (The Dog King).’"

Ransmayr continued, “The war may have passed, but the past remains a part of everyday life. … Hope looks to the future, and memories reflect on the past. Time is not disjointed. It is interconnected.”

He expressed his intention to continue writing novels that connect fiction and reality.

“Even if the literary environment changes significantly, I feel that my writing style will remain the same. It involves collecting stories, history, and people to connect fiction and reality.”

The Pak Kyongni Prize is an annual international literary award established in 2011 to honor the literary legacy of novelist Pak Kyong-ni (1926-2008), renowned for her epic saga “Toji.” The prize comes with a certificate of merit, a plaque and a cash prize of 100 million won ($76,400).

In June, four writers -- Ransmayr, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood and Antonio Lobo Antunes -- were nominated as the finalists among 37 nominees narrowed down from 234 novelists around the world through four rounds of preliminary screenings.

The award ceremony was held Thursday. Meanwhile, Ransmayr is to take part in a talk hosted by The Daesan Foundation on Tuesday.

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