Friday, 8 December 2017

Book Review: Splithead by Julya Rabinowich certain politicians may say about migration these days, there are only very few people who leave their country to settle down for good in another without a really good reason. Many put up with all kinds of hardship including mortal danger just to get away because even death and slavery seem better than what they have or can expect if they stay. No matter what drives them from home and where they arrive, the mere fact that they are strangers dooms them to a hard life on the margin of society unless they manage somehow to fit themselves in. The struggle to adapt to a new environment can be very painful and terrifying because it means to break with their past. This is the experience that the narrating protagonist of Splithead by Julya Rabinowich still haunts three decades after her parents moved with her seven-year-old self from Leningrad to Vienna in the late 1970s.

Julya Rabinowich (Юля Борисовна Рабинович) was born in Leningrad, Soviet Union (today: Saint Petersburg, Russia), in May 1970. When she was seven years old, her family left the USSR and settled down in Vienna, Austria, where she attended high school and studied first Translational Sciences and later Fine Arts and Philosophy. After graduation she began to work as an interpreter for refugees in Vienna, but she dedicated her remaining time to painting and writing. She started her literary career with short stories and essays published in various anthologies and periodicals as from the early 2000s, but gained renown above all with her plays. In 2008 she made her debut as a novelist with the strongly autobiographical and much praised work Splithead (Spaltkopf). The book has been followed by four more novels since, namely Herznovelle (2011; tr. Heart Novella), Die Erdfresserin (2012; tr. The Woman Earth Eater), Krötenliebe (2016; tr. Toad Love), and Dazwischen: Ich (2016; tr. In-Between: I). In addition, the author regularly writes columns for newspapers. Julya Rabinowich lives in Vienna, Austria.

The first-person narrator Mischka knows the Splithead from the fairy-tales of her early childhood in a crowded communal flat in Saint Petersburg that back then, in the Soviet 1970s, was still called Leningrad. Adults evoke it, when children are naughty saying that it would hover over their heads to eat their thoughts and suck out their souls unless they can see it. Of course, neither Mischka nor her friends ever catch a glimpse of the terrifying head without a body. When she is seven years old, she boards an aeroplane with her parents and her maternal grandmother Ada believing that they are going for a holiday in Lithuania, but in reality they are heading for Vienna in Austria to escape forever communist oppression and discrimination for being intellectuals of Jewish descent. Their arrival is a sobering experience. First the police steers them and the other passengers like a flock of stray sheep into a smelling old bus. Then they have to queue for ages on end to answer the questions of a civil servant. And eventually, they are brought to a cheap hotel in Vienna’s red light district where the whole family of four has to stay in only one room. Despite all, Mischka is kind of reconciled with having been so perfidiously torn from home and friends as soon as she first discovers fruit yogurt and Barbie dolls. Before long her father manages to establish himself as a painter and her mother, who used to be a painter too, gets herself a job to feed the family. Still, they can’t help feeling lost. Mischka seems to have fewer problems to adapt to the new life and soon speaks better German than her Austrian classmates, but even growing up she can’t really take root and doesn’t know where she belongs.

While the strongly autobiographical, though fictionalised coming-of-age story is told from the limited perspective of a first-person narrator, the Splithead as omniscient third-person chronicler barges in time and again to reveal often traumatic events that the respective character would never talk about. The constant, usually unprepared changes not just between narrating voice and character in focus, but also between past and present make the whole account rather uneven and confusing. The latter could well be on purpose, though, to emphasise the protagonist’s ambiguous feelings and inner strives. Emigration uprooted her and in addition she carries the burden of her ancestors who were Jewish, intellectual and bourgeois, thus born enemies of the Soviet people and shunned, if not hideously persecuted. Growing up she has to come to terms with this history. In the original German edition (that is interspersed with Austrocisms) the author’s language as narrating protagonist is colloquial and frank, while her tone turns aloof in the passages of the monstrous chronicler that always include a puzzling, almost surreal or fairy-tale-like “refrain”. Some of its meaning becomes clear towards the end, while much of it never really made sense to me. Nonetheless, it was a quick and engaging read altogether.

In fact, Splithead by Julya Rabinowich was a slightly confusing, but rather interesting novel because it deals with problems of migration that are highly important in our globalised and further globalising world of today and that most of us tend to overlook, forget or even deny. It shows that even for a child it’s hard to adapt to a strange, often hostile environment and to come to feel at home there because ghosts of the past, own and collective ones, use to be difficult to shake off. Not without reason the author herself says that she was “uprooted and re-potted”. I appreciated her authentic look into the soul of a refugee child who growing up tries to piece together an identity that doesn’t make her an outcast wherever she is unless she chooses it. The novel may not exactly be an outstanding work of literature, but I gladly recommend it.

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1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a book I would like. I am adding it to the towering TRB.


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