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Maja Haderlap, who won the Bachmann Prize in 2011, has returned to her Carinthian home – to be precise to her Slovene village of Lepena, with her first novel, Engel des Vergessens (Angel of Forgetting). Her grandmother and her father are the heroes of her story of childhood, family and partisans, in which the author herself tells her own story of growing up as a child with open eyes and a clear head, but with increasingly confused feelings in view of the gradual initiation into her family’s fate, that is to say into the fate of the Carinthian Slovenes in the Nazi period.
Not for nothing is the girl afraid, after her father takes her with him on a hunt which ends with war reminiscences and a large amount of alcohol, that death has implanted itself in her ‘like a little black button’ (p. 91). A very serious sentence from the mouth of a ten-year-old girl, but one which quite consciously marks the beginning of a development which takes place on the tracks of death and destruction.
The narrator’s grandmother was in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and her later her sons were with the partisans in the forest – Zdravko, the father, is barely twelve years old when he is tortured by policemen and, like many men in the area, hides in the woods. Numerous neighbours and relations die there in the struggle against the German army, while others are shot dead on their farms or vanish in prison.
These points, however, form ‘only’ the family framework of the novel, which leads deep into the recent history of Carinthia and familiarizes readers with the roots of a conflict in which it seems that the barometer is ‘still set at stormy’ sixty-six years after the end of the war. The latest debates on the law regulating bilingual place name signs in Carinthia in the Austrian Parliament have made Maja Haderlap’s novel all the more topical. And the same goes for Peter Handke’s drama Immer noch Sturm (Still Set At Stormy), which was first performed at the Salzburg Festival and in which the Carinthian author similarly ‘returns to his village’ and links his own partly real, partly fictitious family history with the struggle of the Carinthian Slovenes for freedom.
Maja Haderlap’s portrait of her family and her homeland is, however, by no means only a political book but also a very sensuous one. The author uses strong poetic images to sketch her childhood in a traditional Slovene village culture, not forgetting the little wood behind the house above the place where the father fells timber, the hunting rituals and the great forests, which take on a mythical quality.
The trapeze act of making the personal political and simultaneously turning both elements into literature is in general a success, even if the seemingly naive perspective of a child can work only in the early chapters of the novel. As she gets older the narrator must also find room in the text for reflections, political digressions and, last but not least, three time levels.The novel is convincing and deeply moving in those passages where the author remains close to the persons described and their experiences and narrates in a simple way – in doing so the experienced lyric poet conjures up a texture of sound which carries the reader through the dense network of stories as if on a flying carpet.
Abridged version of a review by Sabine Schuster, October 2011. English translation by Leigh H. Bailey.
Full German text: http://www.literaturhaus.at/index.php?id=9108
[ book info ] Haderlap, Maja: Engel des Vergessens.
(Book language: Deutsch)
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