Friday, 18 August 2017

Book Review: Roman Elegy by Sabine Gruber

The death of a person often unleashes a train of unexpected thoughts and memories, sometimes even events. Moreover, it can make us question our relations to other people, notably spouses and children, our meaning in life and our standpoints. Sometimes we gain new insights that make us change direction or take long overdue decisions. It’s a death in Rome that sets off the Roman Elegy by Sabine Gruber, an Italian writer in German language, and lays the seed for an unlikely romance. Through the typescript of a novel that the deceased wrote, she connects her youth friend not just with the widowed owner of a hotel in Rome where she worked for a short while in 1978, but also with the then young man who awakened her interest in the position of her boss in fascist and Nazi times. And in the background there’s always Stillbach, the Southern Tyrolean village where all three women grew up.

Sabine Gruber was born in Meran, Italy, in August 1963. She studied German Philology, History and Political Science at the universities of Innsbruck and Vienna in Austria and made her literary debut in 1984 with an award-winning short story for a contest of Italian radio and television RAI in Bozen. Between 1988 and 1992 she worked as German lecturer at Cà Foscari University in Venice, Italy, but continued to write and publish widely in different genres including plays and poetry. Her first novel was Aushäusige (1996; tr. Away from Home). In addition to two poetry collections, a play, essays and other short prose, she brought out the novels Die Zumutung (2003; tr. The Imposition), Über Nacht (2007; tr. Overnight), Roman Elegy (Stillbach oder Die Sehnsucht: 2011), and most recently Daldossi oder Das Leben des Augenblicks (2016; tr. Daldossi or The Life of the Moment). Since 2000 Sabine Gruber lives in Vienna, Austria, and works as freelance writer.

After the sudden death of her childhood friend Ines, middle-aged Clara travels to Rome because, too shattered to do it herself, Ines’ mother asked her to clear the flat and to take care of everything else. Already on the train Clara drifts off into a Roman Elegy about her late friend to whom she felt very close even after years of living in different countries. She doesn’t know where to start settling Ines’ affairs and eventually decides to get in touch with the last person whom she saw according to her agenda. As it turns out, the person is Paul, a tourist guide specialised in Rome’s fascist and Nazi past, and he is ready not only to meet Clara but also to help her sort out Ines’ belongings. He is curious because Ines claimed to have known him as a student, and yet, however much he racked his brain since their meeting he can’t remember her, nor if they had an affair as Ines hinted. Moreover, he feels attracted to Clara and isn’t reluctant to try his luck although she has a husband and an almost grown-up daughter in Vienna. Ines told Paul that she was writing a no further specified multi-volume work and in fact, between heaps of notes Clara finds the typescript of a novel. Back alone in her hotel room Clara lets herself be drawn into the story of Ines’ summer job of 1978 at the hotel Manente that includes Paul and into the life of hotel owner Emma Manente who originates from Ines’ and Clara’s native village Stillbach in Italian, though German-speaking Southern Tyrol and came to Rome before World War II to slave away as cheap servant. Amidst the turns and twists of twentieth-century history the two Italian women with German roots seek their place.

To begin with, the book published as Roman Elegy in English and as Stillbach oder Die Sehnsucht (tr. Stillbach or The Nostalgia) in the original German, actually combines two novels on three time levels. There is the present-day frame story that an omniscient narrator tells in third person about Clara and Paul. And then there’s the novel within the novel printed in different type that juxtaposes Ines’ fictionalised version of Emma Manente as widowed hotel owner in 1978 who ever again reminisces her past as German-speaking Italian in fascist Rome under Nazi occupation with the first-person account of Ines in which she reveals what happened while she was a maid in the hotel. With high sensitivity and in exceedingly well-researched detail the author depicts the impact of (racial) politics and prejudices on the daily lives of German-speaking women from Southern Tyrol from about 1938 through today, notably their search for identity on the borderline between the Germanic culture of their ancestors and the Roman culture of their country. Despite its overtly critical overtones, the novel is in no way schoolmasterly. Plot and characters feel entirely authentic. The author’s style and (original German) language are unpretentious and a pleasure to read.

All things considered, I enjoyed reading Roman Elegy by Sabine Gruber very much, also because it gave me an idea of the challenge that being German-speaking and Italian, thus the member of a minority in the country, meant and still means for many. As Austrian I knew of course that the Southern Tyrol became part of Italy only following the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1919. I had also heard of the fascist efforts to italianise the population, not just their German names, in the 1930s and of the relocation of thousands of Southern Tyroleans who had opted for the German Reich to so-called “Southern Tyrolean Settlements” on German territory, many in towns like Graz, after 1939. Still it’s different to read about it from the point of view of someone who grew up in the region, even though long after these historic events. As a cleverly made novel that puts everyday life into the context of history and politics it more than deserves my recommendation.

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1 comment:

  1. The layers and stories withing stories would appeal to me.


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