Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap: A childhood haunted by history
Haderlap’s novel of growing up in rural Carinthia is part autobiography, part memoir
The sculpture Frauengruppe, by Will Lammert, at the memorial site of former concentration camp Ravensbruck, in Fuerstenberg, Germany. Photograph: Michael Gottschalk/photothek via Getty
Angel of Oblivion
It begins with vivid, if randomly recalled, memories of a childhood spent in the Carinthian countryside, near Austria’s border with the former Yugoslavia. Most importantly of all, though, Austrian poet Maja Haderlap opens her debut novel with the solid word referring to the defining presence in her life: “Grandmother.” This determined, ruined old woman emerges as an almost symbolic force. “Grandmother signals with her hand, she wants me to follow.” And follow is precisely what Haderlap’s narrator does. The only way she will ever begin to understand the history of her family, and also that of her culture, is by heeding Grandmother’s words, not merely her advice, but also her stories, dominated as they are by wartime experiences in Ravensbrück, the infamous concentration camp in northern Germany.
One of the earliest statements the narrator offers, if in an ironic context, shapes the entire book: “I, on the other hand, believe every word Grandmother says.” The reader will too, as the old woman bears the burden of survival. She is also the leader of the household and has little faith in her daughter-in-law, the narrator’s mother. The feelings are mutual.
Initially, it seems, much of the domestic tension may be the clash between Grandmother and the little girl’s hapless mother, a woman given to weeping who also possesses a liking for poetry. While Grandmother rules the house, investing everything she cooks with the pervasive scent of her dark, smoky kitchen, the daughter-in-law appears to know her place, which is working outside, doing the milking and tending animals. “She usually comes up to the kitchen window to look for me . . . and calls out . . . sometimes she just leaves without a word.” But there are other, far sadder reasons for the mother’s unhappiness.
These homely scenes detailing the daily chores are gentle and quite beautiful, with faint echoes of a Heaney poem. It is clear that the narrator’s religious-fanatic mother, a good worker, is faulted for not being from farming stock, so the narrator learns her lore from Grandmother. The old lady doesn’t spend much time praying, although she does attend Mass every year to give thanks for the end of the Nazi era, and come All Souls’ Day she places a loaf of bread and a pitcher of milk on the table for the dead. Her reasoning is more practical than spiritual: “So they’ll have something to eat when they come at night and will leave us in peace.”
It all seems to belong to a far distant time. But then mention is made of the poor reception the family receives of Slovenian television, and suddenly the story moves much closer to the present day. “The men walk around the perimeter of the house holding the antenna which looks like a bare Christmas tree, and we call out the window, ‘now!, now!’ . But the picture is no clearer. “We have no choice but to make do with the shadow television and to feel like pirates in the fog.”
The childhood being described belongs to the 1960s and 1970s. Maja Haderlap was born in August 1961 and grew up speaking two languages: Slovenian and compulsory German.
Angel of Oblivion, although presented as a novel, reads far more as an intelligent, heartfelt memoir recounted by a witness intent on finally telling an unknown story. The narrative is both personal and historic; thoughtful and hasty. The prose is uneven as the language, which is initially plain and factual, becomes increasingly lyrical, almost as if it is charting the narrator’s evolution as a writer. At times, it has a declamatory urgency. Elsewhere there are memorable anecdotes, such as the death of a beloved cow whose calf had been drowned at birth when the cow fell into a river. She is rescued only to subsequently die and be mourned.
There is a persistent sense of a struggle between the deliberate poise of a writer and the desperate human need to convey the communal pain felt by all, if the individual responses to it were varied. It is a fascinating book but the problems in the writing and use of the continuous present tense are less to do with the translation – although “The stallion’s perspiration” does jar – than with the original editing; the narrative reads as if written in a rush, which is at odds with its deliberate intent.
The material does outweigh the stylistic misgivings yet also compounds the feeling that it reads as a memoir, not a novel. If Haderlap appears overwhelmed by her story it is not surprising, as most readers will share this sensation.
Shadows run through the book. There is the shadow of history itself and that the narrator’s family as part of the Slovenian-speaking minority in Austria are also shadows. While Austria, which was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, fell into a victim role, the plight of its Slovenian-speaking population was to be forgotten or, at best, grouped in with the Yugoslav partisans. Initially a backdrop, the politics seeping through the pages becomes central to the shaping of the individual lives.
No matter how much her mother tries to become involved with the narrator in little ways, even hanging saccharine images of guardian angels over the child’s bed, Grandmother is ever present. She certainly dominates, and her experience in Ravensbrück, where most of the prisoners were women, is the heart of the book, particularly as she appears to make telling reference to her time there, almost in passing: “Early in 1945, more and more transports arrived in Ravensbrück. There was no more room in the barracks, the women had to sleep three or four to a bunk. Many women from Poland and Slovenia arrived, many city women from France, Belgium, Holland, good Lord, how those women fought for their dresses and furs, Grandmother says.”
The narrator’s emotional mother inhabits a vague hell all her own. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, which she once claimed that the Virgin Mary had warned her against, she appears a more kindly influence than she is granted as it was her who wanted the narrator to receive a good education. The mother eventually turns to writing poetry and seems intent on salvaging her life.
But if Grandmother is a towering figure, the mangled existence of her son, the narrator’s father, also features as an ongoing family disaster. He is frequently drunk, often unbalanced and reeling from the various traumas he has undergone since being hung from a tree as a 12-year-old boy by Austrian police quizzing him about the whereabouts of his father. His threats of suicide punctuate the narrator’s childhood. He survives, for the narrator, as an adult and published poet, to haul him from taverns. Still, his chaotic misery does convince as wholly dreadful, utterly human.
Autobiographical novel or memoir or messy hybrid, Angel of Oblivion has so much information, as well as images which will linger, that its actual genre is almost irrelevant. When the narrator’s attention moves more to herself, it is less interesting. But she does mention standing on Republic Square in Ljubljana on June 26th, 1991, when the new Slovenian flag was raised for the first time.
German non-fiction writer Eugen Ruge turned his family’s history into a disciplined and convincing debut novel In Times of Fading Light (2011, translated by Anthea Bell, 2013). His methodology is more coherent than Haderlap’s; his voice more restrained. Yet stylistic misgivings aside, Angel of Oblivion, with its doomed and colourful cast of real-life characters, as well as multiple cruel twists of fate, is a devastating story, never less than wholeheartedly told.
Grandmother told the narrator not to make any noise. “Not so loud, she says, or you can’t hear anything.” Haderlap heeded her, heard a great deal and has shared it.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent