Maja Haderlap’s debut novel Angel of Oblivion confronts the past in Austria’s borderlands.
Austrian writer Maja Haderlap is a farmer’s daughter from Bad Eisenkappel, in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost province. This bi-lingual borderland has been the scene of cultural mini-wars, but over time, a shared sense of enrichment has prevailed on both sides. Straddling these worlds, Haderlap has published extensively in her first language, Slovenian, as well as bilingual (German-Slovenian) and trilingual (English-German-Slovenian) editions. With Angel of Oblivion – her first novel written in German – Haderlap brings a powerful new voice to the ongoing task of confronting Austria’s National Socialist past.
The novel gradually unfolds a history of violent persecution in an often childlike, yet hauntingly poetic idiom: the narrator weaves her own story into that of her family and community, bearing witness to the atrocities of the National Socialists and their aftermath across three generations. The choice of perspective introduces a young girl, wise beyond her years, confronting the brutal truth of her family’s past. Her grandfather, a farmer on the Austrian-Slovenian frontier, joined the partisans fighting against the Nazi regime; as a result, her grandmother and an aunt were interned in Ravensbrück concentration camp and her father, aged only twelve at the time, was tortured before he could flee and join the partisans. The narrator’s mother, a daughter of day-laborers, remains a shadowy, nameless figure who ineffectually seeks to silence the work of remembrance that is mainly carried out by the other surviving female characters. The mother bears the brunt of the father’s emotional coldness and repeated suicide attempts, looking after him until his death.
Trauma & Forgetting
From early childhood, the narrator shares a room with her grandmother Mitzi, who reveals to her the truth about the Nazis’ persecution of the Slovenian minority to which the narrator and her family belong. Mitzi’s bedtime stories are tales from the concentration camp; every walk through the neighbourhood is a tour of Nazi terror sites. The grandmother – staunchly traditional in her way of thinking, yet strong and self-possessed – crucially orients the narrator’s own attempts to face up to the violent history and its living legacies. Mitzi works through the past by telling and retelling stories of atrocity, and draws the narrator into this process by bequeathing both the diary she kept in the camp and the poems and songs written by the aunt who died there. Unable, or unwilling, to do the same, the narrator’s father seeks in vain to suppress the trauma he has suffered: his newly built house offers no sanctuary.
Through its portrait of a family, Angel of Oblivion also takes to task the shoddy treatment meted out to survivors of Nazi persecution in the second Austrian republic. The novel does not shy away from portraying the continuing tensions between Austro-German nationalist and Slovenian communities in Carinthia. It shows how fraught but also how reflective an identity caught between two cultures can be, particularly at a time when nationalism and xenophobia are again gaining ground. Political straight talk is not out of place in a book that considers precisely the ways in which the personal and the political are inseparably intertwined.
In 2011, the year in which Haderlap was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann literature prize for Angel of Oblivion – the first time an Austrian woman was so honored – the wrangle around bilingual placename signage in southern Carinthia was legally resolved after decades of dispute. Broader questions of ownership and visibility – of language, identity, place, history – are central to the burning contemporary relevance of this novel. To borrow an image from Haderlap, which she in turn borrows from Walter Benjamin, the angel of history beats cold wings over history’s victims, robbing them not just of dignity, but of the very possibility of speech. The restitution of vitality through poetic language becomes, in this novel, a persuasive strategy, indeed an invaluable weapon in the hands of the persecuted and their descendants.