Friday, 8 April 2016

Book Review: Serpent's Child by Peter Truschner
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Relationships between parents and children are as varied as they are forming. Moreover, they have the power to still reverberate in much later generations, especially when they are marked by physical violence and/or emotional coldness. It can be difficult to shake off childhood habits and to deal with parents in an adult way, i.e. on equal terms. In the novel Serpent’s Child Austrian writer Peter Truschner relives his childhood and adolescence with a mother who can't but search for the love that she never received from her rude father and resigned mother. The author has to find his own way to cut the cord and free himself from the emotional burden of his ancestors.

Peter Truschner was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in August 1967. He studied Philosophy, Communication and Political Sciences at the universities of Salzburg and Vienna, but early turned his attention to writing and photography. As from 1990 he published short-stories and articles in literary journals along with plays for stage and radio. Only in 2001 he brought out his first – semi-autobiographical – book Serpent’s Child (Schlangenkind) which was followed by two other novels, Der Träumer (2007; The Dreamer) and Das fünfunddreißigste Jahr (2013; The Thirty-fifth Year). Since 1999 Peter Truschner lives in Berlin, Germany.

In Serpent’s Child the author recounts and fictionalises his life as a boy growing up first in a small Carinthian village and later in the city of Salzburg in the 1970s and 1980s. Central figures of his early years are the elderly grandparents who raise him on their run-down farm while his recently divorced mother tries to get on her feet working in Salzburg. Grandfather is a rough and violent man given to excessive drinking and gambling in the village pub, but the boy quickly learns how to cope with him and even to win kind of his respect. Grandmother has long resigned to a joyless life of hard work, growing debt and constant abuse. And she has retreated to silence which doesn’t prevent her, though, from showing her love and affection for the little boy living with them. Most of the time the narrator is allowed to run wild and discover the world with the neighbour boys who are his friends. His mother rarely drops by because she despises country life and never learnt to be a match for her father. Then one day she fetches the boy to live with her in Salzburg although at first she gives him into the care of another woman because she can’t properly look after him having affairs with wealthy men who like to take her out at night or even on holidays occasionally. However, it’s only for a short while. Already after primary school, at the age of ten years, his mother considers him old enough to actually move in with her and to become her close confidant in all matters including love and sex. With time they get to know each other inside out, but the narrator grows up and he naturally distances himself ever more from her to find his own identity… 

Like many debut novels, notably Austrian ones, the first-person narrative Serpent’s Child is largely autobiographical, but it’s the author’s rather detached look back on the intriguing adventure of growing up and coming of age, not the usual reckoning with an unhappy childhood and adolescence. In addition, he clothes his story into a language full of colourful, not always appropriate images that rather too often form metaphors and similes, many of them a little bizarre. As the narrator progresses towards adulthood, the awakening of his sexuality and first experiences with love get ever more room in the novel. And the author gets quite explicit about it as is in line with the fact that neither his mother nor his grandmother surrounds the female body or sex with mystery. However, others may consider the graphic descriptions of sex-related episodes as entertaining, but I find them boring, if not annoying because over the past one hundred years literature and daily life altogether have been sexualised to such a degree that I’m sick and tired of it. For the rest, the novel offers psychologically deep portraits of the most important people in the author’s youth, notably his mother and grandmother. Thanks to the poetic flow of words it’s a pleasant as well as quick read.

All things considered, I must say that Serpent’s Child by Peter Truschner isn’t the best book that I ever read, but it evokes the time of my own childhood and adolescence in Austria, though not in the same places. Thus as a period piece the novel certainly has its merits, notably seen in the context of other autobiographical novels like Beautiful Days by Franz Innerhofer (»»» read my review) that has already become a classic of Austrian literature, and it deserves my recommendation.

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