Friday, 6 January 2017

Book Review: Angel of Oblvion by Maja Haderlap
To belong to a minority can be a hard lot, especially in times of economic crisis or in a period of political change. In Europe nationalist zeal ran high in the early twentieth century leading to the Great War of 1914-18 and destroying the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. In the plebiscite of 1920 the mixed Slovene and German-speaking population of the southern-most areas of Carinthia was called upon to decide whether it wished to stay with what remained of Austria or preferred to join the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). The majority voted for Austria, but from then on relations between the ethnic groups tensed. As shows Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, during the Nazi regime the rift widened further because merely for their Slavic descent Slovene Carinthians were considered inferior and branded as natural traitors. And after the war pain, resentment and mistrust continued to fetter under the surface.

Maja Haderlap was born in Eisenkappel-Vellach (Železna Kapla-Bela in Slovene), Austria, in August 1961. Belonging to the Slovene-speaking minority in Carinthia, she attended the Slovene high school in Klagenfurt and then moved to Vienna for her university studies of German language and literature and Theatre Sciences. In 1983 she made her literary debut with the poetry collection Žalik pesmi (Blessed Poems) that was followed by other poetry collections in Slovene, by essays and short prose in Slovene as well as in German published in different periodicals. After graduation she worked as an editor, as a lecturer at university and as a dramatic advisor at the theatre, before she ventured at earning a living as a freelance writer in 2008. Her first novel and long prose work written in German instead of Slovene is Angel of Oblivion (Engel des Vergessens: 2011) that received much praise from critics after an extract from it had been rewarded with the renowned Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 2011. Maja Haderlap lives in Klagenfurt (Celovec in Slovene), Austria.

The first-person narrator of Angel of Oblivion is the author herself looking back on her childhood and youth on a farm in one of the mountain villages on Austria’s southern border where people have been speaking Slovene rather than German for centuries. Her memories begin in the 1960s, when she is just an elementary school girl helping her much adored paternal grandmother in the kitchen. When baking bread the old woman often shows how little of it, if any at all, they got in the camp in Ravensbrück, but the narrator is too young to truly understand what it means. As a matter of fact, hardship, persecution, deportation and internment during World War II appear in many of her grandmother’s stories, while her mother tries to protect her from the harmful influence and bitterness. Her father too experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime and what is more at a young age. He still was a boy, when he was forced to hide in the forests and join the Yugoslav partisans to avoid being caught, deported or worse by the police. Only as the narrator grows up, she becomes increasingly aware of the terrible ghosts of the past that keep haunting grandmother and father as well as many others in her surroundings. Slowly she begins to understand their idiosyncrasies as a result of what they have gone through, notably her father’s who regularly drinks heavily in the village pub to forget and then gets so depressed that he seeks his own death or flies into a fuming rage. When her ambitious mother sends her to Slovene high school in Klagenfurt, the narrator realises for the first time that her origins and language aren’t well seen by the German-speaking majority in Carinthia. Despite all, she proudly holds up her cultural heritage.

Through a series of snapshot-like episodes the author and first-person narrator evokes in Angel of Oblivion her forming years as well as widely ignored or unknown aspects of twentieth-century Austrian history that are familiar to her only thanks to family, friends and neighbours who openly talk about their past. As time advances in the strongly autobiographical novel and the narrator grows up, information about what people in the mountain area went through roughly between 1918 and 1945 becomes more, crueller and clearer until the pieces finally join together to a chronicle of exclusion and persecution. Since the novel ends in the late 1970s or early 1980s with the author writing her doctoral thesis, she had to leave the present situation of the Slovene minority in Southern Austria out of account although it might have been rather interesting given that not so long ago Carinthia – much to the bewilderment, if not sardonic amusement of the rest of Austria – saw fierce debates about bi-lingual place signs. Befitting a poet, the author used a very lyrical language full of images with the power to bring alive not just people and places but also emotions. As a result, I really enjoyed the read.

It happens fairly seldom that I long to re-read a book and Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap is one of only few that I ever bothered to actually devour a second time. The story itself as well as the author’s very personal way of telling it intrigued me from the first moment, not least because even for a plot taken from true life it felt unusually authentic. And it goes without saying that I appreciated very much learning something new about Austrian history, notably about the years under Nazi reign and from the point of view of the Slovene minority in Southern Carinthia. The lyrical language too added to my pleasure. All things considered, I’m glad that after reading the extract that won the author the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize I decided to buy the finished book as soon as it came out. And now I warmly recommend it.

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