After two months it’s high time for some more Austrian literature on my blog. There are quite some contemporary writers in my country who can boast with notable success in German-language literature and a few of them have even seen their work translated into English. One of those Austrian writers is Erich Hackl. For this review I picked The Wedding in Auschwitz which was first released in English in spring 2009 and which to the translator Martin Chalmer’s great disappointment didn’t receive much public attention.
Erich Hackl was born in Steyr, Austria, in May 1954. After his German and Hispanic studies he worked as a teacher and editor, later as a translator, journalist and writer in Vienna and Madrid. Already his first novels Aurora’s Motive (Auroras Anlaß) and Farewell Sidonia (Abschied von Sidonie) from 1987 and 1989 respectively established him as a master of forging well-researched true stories into literary form reminding of Latin-American testimonial literature. Only two of his later novels have been translated into English so far, namely Narratives of Loving Resistance (Entwurf einer Liebe auf den ersten Blick: 1999) and The Wedding in Auschwitz (Die Hochzeit von Auschwitz: 2002). His latest novel titled Familie Salzmann was released in 2010. Erich Hackl lives and works in Madrid and Vienna.
For his novel The Wedding in Auschwitz Erich Hackl patches up the memories of a dozen of people who have in one way or another been linked to the lives of the protagonists Margarita “Marga” Ferrer Rey and Rudolf “Rudi” Friemel, the couple whose wedding in the registry office of Auschwitz on 18 March 1944 at 11 a.m. inspired the novel and its title. From his earliest days the Viennese Rudi has been an ardent socialist. So early in 1938 he joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight for the republic against the fascist troupes of General Franco. During a visit of a group of Mujeres Antifascistas (anti-fascist women) from Barcelona at the front line close to Falset, Rudi and Marga met for the first time and for both it was love at first sight. Whenever Rudi was in Barcelona, he met Marga and when the International Brigades were withdrawn from the front line in autumn 1938 he asked the father for her hand, but was rebuffed. Despite all Marga and Rudi got married in Spain before Rudi and his brothers-in-arms had to flee across the borders to German-occupied France where they were seized in a camp. Also Marga and Marina escaped from the fascist troupes to France. They were interned in a camp and later forced to work in the area of Annecy. Rudi traced and joined them. On 26 April 1941 Marga gave birth to a son and shortly afterwards Rudi decided to accept the offer of the Nazi officials to be repatriated. Since General Franco had declared all marriages contracted under republican law null and void, Rudi wanted to take his family home to Vienna and get properly married there, but things were to take a different course than he expected.
The Wedding in Auschwitz isn’t a novel of the kind that Europeans like me are used to from childhood. Although it tells the true life story of the protagonists Marga and Rudi from birth to death, the book can’t even be called a biographical novel with full right. It’s much rather the testimony of some people who knew the couple and their lives at a given moment in time or have information about them. Erich Hackl worked up the material in the same way as a director might have done for a documentary. The narrators are alternating all the time because the author lets each one of the interviewed witnesses tell her/his part of the story with her/his own voice and from her/his own point of view. In the beginning this can be a bit confusing since the identity of the narrators is revealed only through what they say and it isn’t always clear at once who is currently talking. The language used is simple and matter-of-fact as suits the topic.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Erich Hackl, but this may be because in general I prefer pure fiction to true stories which rather limit the author’s scope. The Wedding in Auschwitz is a really good book which deserves being more widely read and which I’d like to recommend to everybody who is interested in life under the Nazi regime and in the concentration camps.