Friday, 9 June 2017

Book Review: The Greater Hope by Ilse Aichinger are heaps of fiction works dealing with World War Two and the holocaust, but most of them have been written long after the unspeakable horrors and by authors who could look at the period from a safe distance, be it geographically or historically. It’s little wonder that only few eye witnesses, notably survivors felt up to letting their own dreadful experience flow into their fiction. It would have been too painful and in addition it was unlikely to make a living of such books. The Greater Hope by Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger is one of a small number of postwar novels evoking the sufferings of the war years. The protagonist is an eleven-year-old Viennese girl whose Jewish mother emigrates to the USA to escape from the Nazi regime. Her Aryan father, an army officer, rejects her and so she has to face all the incomprehensible prohibitions and dangers of the time in the care of her persecuted grandmother.

Ilse Aichinger and her twin sister were born in Vienna, Austria, in November 1921. While her sister and an aunt survived World War Two in exile in the U.K., the greater part of their maternal family was killed in concentration camps because their grandparents’ conversion to Catholicism was too recent. Ilse Aichinger was conscripted as a slave labourer and later went underground with her mother. In 1945 she enrolled on Medicine at the University of Vienna, made her literary debut with the essay Das vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate: 1947) and eventually abandoned her studies to finish her holocaust novel The Greater Hope (Die größere Hoffnung: 1948; previously translated as Harod's Children). She joined the literary Group 47, where she met German author Günther Eich whom she married in 1953. After her novel she wrote mainly short prose, poetry and radio plays taking a break after her husband’s and her mother’s death in the 1970s until the 1990s. Apart from her acclaimed chef-d’œuvre, only her short story collection The Bound Man (Der Gefesselte: 1953) and selections from her work, namely Selected Stories and Dialogue (1966) and Selected Poetry and Prose (1983), have ever appeared in English translation. Ilse Aichinger died in Vienna, Austria, in November 2016.

Living in Vienna after Germany’s annexation of Austria in March 1938, eleven-year-old Ellen clings to The Greater Hope. Her Jewish mother has a visa for the United States, while there is nobody to vouch for Ellen. She tries her luck staying at the American Consulate until after nightfall to entreat the Consul to give her a visa to accompany her mother. Alas, it’s not entirely up to him as Ellen was told and he sends her home empty-handed. Her mother leaves and Ellen stays behind with Jewish grandmother and aunt. Her Aryan father abandoned them because he is an army officer afraid to compromise himself. He even ordered his daughter to forget him! Since other children shun Ellen, she joins the Jewish children in the neighbourhood who treat her like an outsider too because with only two “wrong grandparents” she doesn’t have to wear the stigmatising yellow David’s star. Banned from all playgrounds and parks, they hang around on the banks of the Danube where a sympathetic assistant from the entertainment park nearby treats the children with the David’s star to a ride on the carousel while Ellen waits. They play between gravestones on the Israelite cemetery. They learn English from an old Jew and the boys from the Hitler Youth club house downstairs spy them out hoping to reveal treason. As danger for them grows, the Jewish children hide in a dark apartment acting out the Nativity scene from the Bible until a Nazi blood-hound pretending to be a friend joins them. Ellen’s friends are deported and again she stays behind with her grandmother who bought a phial of poison for the day when it’ll be her turn to be fetched, while her aunt has already disappeared without trace. Ellen survives the hazards of life in the bombed city…

With its optimistic title The Greater Hope, which is the literal translation of the original German one, the novel evokes a happy ending, but superficially read the plot most cruelly disappoints the reader. It’s a shattering third-person account of Jewish existence between life and death in war-beaten Vienna written from the perspective of a child, moreover of a child of mixed-race who neither fully belongs to the side of the victims nor to that of the perpetrators, and yet, it’s a book full of positive overtones. Ellen’s physical death doesn’t matter because having survived the Nazi regime moral victory is clearly hers. An earlier translator gave the English edition the title Herod’s Children thus reducing it to a simple holocaust novel about children while it’s so much more. It shows how hope transcends and defies even the worst, how hope is a choice, i.e. freedom and even resistance, because in the words of Victor E. Frankl it means “to say yes to life in spite of all” (»»» read my review of Man’s Search for Meaning). The surrealist, some say Kafkaesque, style together with the author’s highly poetical language makes it a difficult as well as an exceedingly rewarding read.

Being Austrian and interested in any book about the holocaust and World War Two that can be taken seriously, it was only a matter of time, when I would at last pick The Greater Hope by Ilse Aichinger. Written shortly after World War Two – certainly to come to terms with its horrors – it’s the only novel of this Austrian writer and I definitely didn’t regret reading it! It would be strange to say that I enjoyed such a shattering book, but it certainly was as impressive an experience as it was worthwhile. No wonder that the renowned German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung put it on its list of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century! In my opinion, it’s at least in the same league as the works of Primo Levi or the Nobel laureate Kertész Imre (for instance) and it would deserve to be just as widely read. It goes without saying that I highly recommend this novel.

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This review is a contribution to
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  1. The novel sounds challenging on many levels. I admire you for reading it.

    1. Well, if this is your opinion after reading my review - I did a good job! You're right The Greater Hope is a very challenging read for many reasons, but also a most rewarding one.


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