Katja Petrowskaja

Maybe Esther

(German title: Vielleicht Esther)
ca. 200 pages
Katja Petrowskaja
Foto: Katja Petrowskaja
© Heike Steinweg

Katja Petrowskaja was born in 1970 in Kiev. She studied at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and was also awarded research fellowships for Columbia University in New York, and Stanford in California. Katja Petrowskaja received her PhD in Moscow. Since 1999, she has lived and worked in Berlin. Maybe Esther is her first book, and is translated into 20 languages.

Prizes and awards (selection):
Premio Strega Europeo 2015
Ernst-Toller-Preis 2014
»aspekte«-Literaturpreis 2014
Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis 2013

Sold to

English world rights (Harper Collins US; UK sublicense: Fourth Estate), Spanish world rights (Adriana Hidalgo), Russia (Iwan Limbakh), Brazilian Portuguese rights (Companhia das Letras), Portugal (Quetzal), France (Seuil), Italy (Adelphi), Netherlands (De Bezige Bij), Denmark (Tiderne Skifter), Sweden (Norstedts), Norway (Gyldendal Norsk), Finland (Tammi), Poland (Jagiellonian University Press), Slovakia (Premedia), Hungary (Magvetö), Bulgaria (Paradox), Romania (Humanitas), Estonia (Hea Lugu), Slovenia (Ebesede), Greece (Kapon), Ukraine (Knihy XXI)

Domestic Rights Sales: German Book Club rights (Büchergilde Gutenberg)

»The book is breaking my heart, because I want to stop and quote from every other paragraph, and I want to give copies to people I love - I want, in other words, to stem the dissolution of storytelling that is the very point of this book. I want it to last forever, or at least all summer.« Masha Gessen, The New Yorker


Was her name really Esther, her great-grandmother on her father’s side, who stayed behind in the empty apartment in Kiev in 1941, after her family had fled? And the Yiddish words with which she trustingly addressed the German soldiers – who was there to hear them? And when the soldiers shot the old babushka, »with routine indifference« – who was standing at the window, watching?

The unfinished family history, which Katja Petrowskaja recounts in a series of short chapters, could have been made into a tragic historical novel: The student Judas Stern, a great uncle of hers, who was sentenced to death for the attempted assassination of the counsellor at the German embassy in 1932. Stern’s brother, an Odessa revolutionary, who adopted the name Petrowski when he went underground. One of her great-grandfathers founded an orphanage in Warsaw for deaf-mute Jewish children. But if not even the family name is certain, then what can we really know? Rather than expanding this monumental material into a sweeping epic, Petrowskaja writes about her journey to visit the scenes of these events, reflecting on a fragmented and traumatised century, and placing her focus on figures whose faces are no longer visible.


Selected Foreign Editions


Spanish edition released by Adriana Hidalgo >>

French edition released by Éditions du Seuil >>

Italian edition released by Adelphi Edizioni >>

Dutch edition released by De Bezige Bij >>

Danish edition released by Gyldendal Norsk >>

Norwegian edition released by Gyldendal Norsk >>

Finnish edition released by Tammi >>

Hungarian edition released by Magvetö >>

  Estonian edition released by Hea Lugu >>

Greek edition released by Kapon Editions >>


»Perhaps Petrowskaja’s ultimate achievement in this remarkable book is to have forged a language out of muteness; a language quiet enough to enable her to find a way to describe the indescribable events of the last century with more beauty and curiosity than horror.« The Guardian

»This is a work of ongoing history, written with the impressionistic eye of a novelist, a fervent meditation on language and loss surging with a remarkable cast of characters, forgotten to time and memory for decades, here vividly summoned to life. Wry, questing, discursive, it has, unsurprisingly, become a bestseller and literary prize-winner throughout Europe.« The Financial Times

‘Extraordinary, and profoundly moving … Maybe Esther is both an attempt to piece together a family history, and a commentary on the endeavour, vacillating between the tragic and the comically surreal. Often elegiac, it bears comparison with W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn . . . Notwithstanding the terrible nature of some of the events she records, there is considerable wit, humour and warmth in her intelligent and haunting story.’ Times Literary Supplement

»A fascinatingly inventive literary debut […] In the hope of creating a family tree, Petrowskaja pieces together something far more complex and original, an account of her own search for meaning within the stories of her ancestors.« Entertainment Weekly

»Intelligent, introspective, uniquely crafted, and erudite […] The familial stories illuminate the history of troubling times in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany […] There is no denying that the characters are fascinating, like the history about which Petrowskaja writes.« New York Journal of Books

»Most books are like planets. However beautiful and intricate and admirable, they still feel finite and self-contained. … Some books, though, are more like galaxies. They contain a vast expanse of moving parts that, while often associated, are not directly connected. And like the planets and stars held together by a galaxy’s invisible gravitational force, the elements of this rarer kind of book are also often circling a center of mysterious dark matter. […] Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther is a galaxy book.« necessaryfiction.com

»Rarely has a text been received with such emotion and unbridled enthusiasm [at the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize 2013] in Klagenfurt as Maybe Esther«. FAZ

»The author is the deserving winner of the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize for this masterful journey into an imaginary zone of terror.« NZZ

»Even now we can say that German literature has gained an intelligent, flamboyant, and highly independent voice.« ZEIT

»A text that is both moral and artistic.« SZ

»Written in precise language and elegantly structured, this is also a text about the ways in which later generations must reinvent their history and give it new poetic form.« NZZ

»There's a literary miracle on every page here, the sort of book that makes you fall in love with reading. There's poetry and politics in this family memoir, but most of all there's the pleasure of being in the company of Petrowskaja's talent. A Proust for the Google age.« Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

»This intimately told quest into the darkness of the 20th century is luminously unforgettable. The rich humanism of Petrowskaja's gaze, her many-cultured, good-humoured sensitivity, and her visionary use of the themes that emerge from her family's histories - silence, muteness, disguise, survival - infuse this book with the qualities of a classic. Maybe Esther, on her civilising journey ‘against time’, will stay with me forever.« Kapka Kassabova, author of Border