Friday, 16 September 2016

Book Review: Why Is There Salt In the Sea? by Brigitte Schwaiger

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2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

For centuries girls have been brought up in innocent and joyful anticipation of marriage and motherhood, but not seldom the expected bliss turned out to be a doom that made them long for death, the own or the husband’s, to put an end to pretending, enduring, and suffering. In our modern days girls know more about the reality of married life and their future no longer depends on finding good husbands to provide for them. They have a true choice, while most young women born shortly after World War II were still expected to follow the examples of their mothers instead of the just emerging new female role model that required great will-power and a thick skin. Having grown up in a small Austrian town of the 1960s, the petty bourgeois protagonist of Why Is There Salt in the Sea? by Brigitte Schwaiger chooses the conventional and easy way into marriage... to find that she can’t bear it.

Brigitte Schwaiger was born in Freistadt, Austria, in April 1949. After high school she enrolled in Psychology, Germanic and Romance linguistics at the University of Vienna, but already a year later she married and gave up her studies. She got divorced four years later and studied to become a teacher while earning a living as production assistant with Austrian public TV and as an actor in small theatres. In 1977 she made her debut as a writer with the novel Why Is There Salt In the Sea? (Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer?) that was an immediate best-seller, translated into several languages and adapted for the screen in 1988. Over the following three decades the author wrote plays, poems and more novels, most notable among them Das spanische Dorf (1978; The Spanish Village), Die Galizianerin (1982; The Galician Woman), and Jaro heißt Frühling (1997; Jaro Means Spring), but none of these later works could equal the first success. Only her autobiographical work Fallen lassen (2006; Letting Fall) was again acclaimed by critics and readers. Brigitte Schwaiger died in Vienna, Austria, in July 2010, probably drowning herself in a branch of the river Danube.

The female protagonist of Why Is There Salt In the Sea? begins her story with her wedding day in the late 1960s or early 1970s. She has just put on her long white dress to marry her childhood sweet-heart Rolf, and yet, she doesn’t feel happy. On the contrary, she would gladly cancel everything, if only it wouldn’t cause a scandal in the small Austrian town and embarrass the bridegroom as well as her highly respected father (a medical doctor) along with her mother and grandmother. However, it’s much more than just cold feet. She knows that although she loves Rolf this marriage is a mistake, but it’s too late. As a good girl, she goes through with the wedding and the subsequent reception where she gets a little drunk to her newly-wed’s annoyance. After having retreated to their hotel room, she refuses herself to Rolf for the first time ever because she can’t bear the idea of him having a right to possess her. During their honeymoon in Italy (where else?) she is grumpy and sad, but Rolf drags her along and keeps reminding her that she ought to enjoy the trip. Things get worse at home where she finds herself confined to the duties of a housewife that she isn’t used to, that she isn’t good at and that bore her to death. Rolf scolds her for her lack of discipline and sense of order making her feel all wrong, even crazy. He also can’t understand why despite having everything to be thoroughly content she always cries and laments about her meaningless life. One day he buys a rather expensive hunting dog that she doesn’t want, but she quickly gets attached to the animal and later it serves her as an excuse to go out for long walks in the woods where she meets her lover…

In her novel Why Is There Salt In the Sea? the author draws largely from her own failed marriage with a Spaniard which certainly accounts for the great authenticity and psychological depth of the narrating protagonist. From the beginning she is shown as someone who doesn’t really know what she wants and who feels like an outsider or some kind of freak among other people including her family. Her main strategy to get on in life is to do what friends, family and society expect of her. Marriage is just an escape from taking responsibility, but it plunges her into disappointment, frustration and eventually depression. With great skill and a pinch of gallows’ humour Brigitte Schwaiger displays the narrowness of small-town bourgeois life that gradually suffocates the protagonist because it forces her into the role of housewife not suiting her nature. Also her emotional reaction to the restrictions of her life and to the complete lack of understanding from her husband, i.e. her feeling increasingly bored, lonesome, purposeless, sad, and even crazy to the point of needing psychiatric help, appears entirely credible to me. The language of the novel is unpretentious, witty and often subtly ironic which makes it a great pleasure to read.

It’s rare to find a highly socio-critical novel that is at the same time enjoyable, even amusing like Why Is There Salt In the Sea? by Brigitte Schwaiger. In a way, it’s a later and more cheerful Austrian equivalent to Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square (»»» read my review of this remarkable Catalan novel) because it too deals with disillusion in married life. I’m so glad that I read it at last! The title of the book has been something like a household name in my corner ever since it first came out in 1977, but somehow it never found its way into my hands until now. According to my German edition the novel keeps being a best-seller, and one that is on many school reading lists as a matter of fact. Therefore I was quite surprised, if not disappointed to see that the only English translation from 1988 is out of print. One reason more to highly recommend this book… and to hope that a publisher will get the hint!

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