Friday, 28 April 2017

Book Review: Vienna by Eva Menasse back on the twentieth century, the family histories of most Europeans are full of tragic moments. There was World War One to begin with, but as we know the disaster far from ended there! Mutual hostility continued to smoulder between nations and then the Great Depression swept over the Atlantic to Europe making people crave for (non-existent) quick and simple solutions to recover economic prosperity and a feeling of strength, not to say worth. Power-hungry, artful and charismatic demagogues seized the opportunity. Fascism took root on the continent and under the leadership of Adolf Hitler it merged with Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. This is where the novel Vienna by contemporary Austrian writer Eva Menasse begins. In humorous anecdotes spanning the decades from the 1930s to the present it recounts the story of the author’s father and his Jewish-Catholic family that is inextricably linked to the Austrian capital as their place of origin.

Eva Menasse was born in Vienna, Austria, in May 1970. After her studies of German Philology and History at the University of Vienna, she worked as a journalist for different newspapers and magazines in Austria and Germany. For the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung she covered the trial of holocaust denier David Irving in London and published her collected articles under the title Der Holocaust vor Gericht. Der Prozess um David Irving (2000; The Holocaust Before the Court. The Trial Surrounding David Irving). In 2003, she moved to Berlin and started her life as a freelance writer. With the novel Vienna (2005) based on the history of her own family she made her successful literary debut. It was followed by a volume of short stories Lässliche Todsünden (2009; Pardonable Deadly Sins) and the novel Quasikristalle (2013; Quasicrystals). Eva Menasse lives in Berlin with her writer husband Michael Kumpfmüller.

The collection of anecdotes from Vienna opens in spring 1930 with the birth of the author’s father. His mother had gone into precipitated labour during one of her much-loved bridge games with friends at the café and stubbornly refused to leave before the petty gains were distributed. In the end, she managed to get home just in time, but her precious fur coat was ruined by this third – unwanted – child who couldn’t wait even for the mid-wife to arrive. Times were hard for everybody because the aftermaths of World War One could still be felt and the Great Depression began to sweep mercilessly over Europe. Moreover, the father was a Jewish sales representative for wine and spirits who had to provide for his Catholic wife from Sudetenland and for their three children, while all around anti-Semitism was growing together with hopes for economic recovery pinned on Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. After 1938 Vienna became an increasingly dangerous place for the mixed family. The paternal grandmother was deported to Theresienstadt where she died, the greater part of the extended family emigrated and the children were sent abroad. The girl married and joined her husband in Canada only to die there from tuberculosis, while the two boys found refuge in England. The parents stayed in Vienna and almost miraculously survived bombs, penury and forced labour. In exile the author’s father developed a lasting love for the English and for soccer that he played with great skill. At his return to Vienna he no longer spoke German and had a hard time finding a job. Before long, however, he became a minor celebrity as an amateur player in the Austrian national soccer team, he opened a shop specialised in cheap goods for Eastern European athletes attending international competitions… and founded a family.

The Austrian capital Vienna is the necessary scene of Eva Menasse’s humoristic family history told from her own first-person point of view, but everybody who knows the city a little will agree that all people depicted in it – including the author herself – reflect its unique spirit and this probably accounts for the rather bland title. The fact that the picture that the author draws of her close family exaggerating certain traits, notably of her father, is clearly meant to be a comical one, makes it a novelised (auto-)biographical account in the tradition of Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg and as such it’s quite succeeded although definitely no equal to it. At the same time, it’s an attempt to show how the years before, during and after the Holocaust and World War Two affected and keep affecting survivors as well as their descendants, especially when they belong to mixed families like the author’s struggling for common identity. The plot is only loosely chronological because it’s interwoven with countless flashbacks, digressions and occasionally anticipations too that produce an authentic picture of events as well as characters. The anecdotes are well chosen and engagingly related.

Although the novel bears the title of a run-of-the-mill tourist guide, Vienna by Eva Menasse turned out to be a remarkably interesting as well as amusing read. Certainly, the tough and perilous times that the author’s grandparents and parents survived against many odds, appear in a softened light compared to other books dealing with Jewish life in Austria during the 1930s and 1940s. Maybe this is because the author, her siblings and cousins never got to hear an uncensored account of experienced horrors. Maybe it’s because theirs was another, less familiar side of Holocaust history, the side of the lucky ones who weren’t deported to concentration camps because they had Aryan spouses or they were living in safety with foster parents abroad. Strangely, I found that the weakest part of the novel is its end covering the author’s childhood and youth up to the present. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining and pleasurable read from Austria that I gladly recommend.

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  1. You know, I think it would be good to learn that all was not horror in those times. Not that we should forget the horrors but that we should remember there are always survivors.

    1. Oh, the emphasis of this book isn't on the horrors, but it's impossible to set a novel in Austria (or Europe altogether) in this period of history and to leave aside the horrors. What is more, if an Austrian (or German) writer dared to do this, critics would still "stone" her/him for holocaust denial even if she is of partly Jewish descent like Eva Menasse. And then, Vienna is based on the real story of her family and the experience of the Nazi regime (and everything it implied) was integral part of it.


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