Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap

angel-of-oblivion-cover-draftMaja Haderlap’s outstanding novel, Angel of Oblivion (2016), offers a tender exploration of identity in a community deeply influenced by the atrocities of World War II. Born in 1961 in Eisenkappel/Zelezna Kapla, Austria, Maja Haderlap is not yet well-known in the English-speaking world. Though Angel of Oblivion is her first work to be translated into English, Haderlap has published several volumes of poetry in both German and Slovenian. She often emphasizes that she does not feel located in either of these two worlds due to her bilingualism. Instead, she points out, she lives in one world made up of two languages.

In Angel of Oblivion, Haderlap describes the childhood of a girl born to a poor Slovene family in the countryside of Carinthia, the Southernmost province of Austria. Little by little, she reveals conflicts within the family, which oftentimes result from the trauma of ethnic persecution by the National Socialist party. It is the unromanticized description of both the girl’s immense love for her family and origins and the disturbing past that absorbs and enchants the reader. Although the life of the book’s protagonist is similar to Haderlap’s own biography, the author stresses that the novel is a piece of fiction and not memoir: “I have not written the novel as a novel of memory, but as a literary text. The experience that a text lives on its own impulse has helped me during the writing process – knowing that reality is just the fuel.” In the novel, the protagonist describes a similar process: “I decide to put all these fragments [...] into written form [...], to write myself a body composed of air and intuition, of scents and odors, of voices and sounds, out of things past and dreamt, out of mere traces.” Thus the narrator, and consequently the author Haderlap, can retell her story in a new form, transforming herself and itself.

The narrator of Angel of Oblivion, a member of the Slovene minority in Austria, describes her upbringing in a little village in the Carinthian mountains: “I was planted in my childhood like a wooden stake in a yard that is shaken every day to see if it can withstand the shaking.” The forests of the border region between Austria and Slovenia form a picturesque backdrop for the novel. Yet the dramatic family story unfolds in harsh contrast to this pastoral setting, with a suicidal father and shaken grandmother who both have difficulty coping with what they had to go through during World War Two. Slovene Austrians had been forcefully assimilated to mainstream Austrian culture since World War One. When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, the enforced Germanisation intensified. Many Slovene Austrians faced fierce persecution and consequently had to go into hiding in the woods and join the partisans, or else they would likely have been tortured and killed by the local police or in concentration camps like the Vivoda family, the Brečk families, the Mikej family and others mentioned throughout the book.

The situation of the Slovene community in Austria is still conflict-laden, as the endless dispute over bilingual place name signs in Carinthia proves. In the novel, “Father is suspicious of politics and refuses to take part in the demonstrations that follow the anti-Slovenian Ortstafelsturm or ‘place-name sign storm’ when bilingual road signs were destroyed throughout the province by German-national Carinthians, because he believes you should let sleeping dogs lie.” To this day, there are controversies about bilingual education, including the preference of Slovenian-speaking principals and teachers in bilingual schools. Discrimination is a regular experience for Slovene Austrians. Provincial politician Harald Dobernig, for example, differentiated between Slovenes and “real Carinthians” as recently as 2012. In the book, the application of the narrator’s grandmother, Mitzi, to receive a compensation for her imprisonment after the War illustrates the Carinthian government’s discrimination against the Slovene minority. At first, the Carinthian Commission deny her request, she appeals, and the Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs grant her a victim’s pension in 1951. The Carinthian regional government does not start disbursing her pension until 1953.

Mitzi openly tells her granddaughter about her experiences as a member of the Slovene minority during and after World War Two. Their relationship is one of the core elements of the novel. She dearly loves her granddaughter, and the novel emphasizes their special relationship from the beginning on: “Grandmother signals with her hand, she wants me to follow” is the first sentence of the book. She survived a Nazi concentration camp, but still suffers from what she experienced there and often lists the names of those who were affected by National Socialist terror. One day, she shows her granddaughter the now deserted Hrevelnik farm, where Mitzi and other Slovene Austrian women first stopped at a Slovene Austrian house when walking home after being freed from the concentration camp. Mitzi recounts her granddaughter: “At the Hrevelniks, they told Mimi there was no point in going home, because everything in Kach had been destroyed. Gregorička went to the Rigelniks, hoping they’d take her in [...]. The Gregorič’s farm was destroyed, her husband died in Auschwitz, and the children were housed with strangers.” The grandmother passes on all-important information on the War as well as cultural knowledge of the Slovene community (including dance, superstition, and religion) to the girl. The novel closes with a dream sequence in which the late grandmother signals the narrator to be quiet so that the latter can hear the voices of others and use them to create art.

To the protagonist’s father, Zdravko, and many other Austrians of Slovene descent who experienced World War Two, oblivion is an angel. It is difficult for the father to talk about the torture he experienced and the crimes he witnessed. Leaving things unsaid, the narrator states, “had always characterized our conversations.” Zdravko’s thoughts revolve around his farm duties – looking after the forest, the fields, the cows — and it is of little surprise that the death of his favorite cow is the prelude to his own death (he catches pneumonia when trying to save its life). The father is baffled when the little girl shows interest in his farm work: “I’d like to go with you one day, I say. Father is so surprised by my request that he promises to take me to the logging stand the next day.” While at the beginning it is only the girl who shows interest in her father’s work and past, the father grows more interested in her life as she grows up. At the end of the book he aligns himself with his daughter, now a poet and dramatic advisor, emphasizing the poetic tradition of the whole family: “Our family is a poet’s nest, it’s enough to make you lose your mind, Father says giving Mother and me a mischievous look. In our family it’s like the annual fair, one poet after another, you can barely escape all the poems. Besides, he wrote a poem himself, when he was twelve years old, with the partisans. [...] Father sits on his bed and grins.”

Literature and song have long offered an escape from the horrors of the past, but also, an alternative to oblivion, which would entail forgetting deceased and persecuted community members. After the father’s death, the protagonist finds her grandmother’s camp notebook and the songbook of Mici, the grandmother’s foster daughter: “The small legacy weighs heavy in my hand. The exuberant Mici wrote Slovenian songs, poems, and letters in verse to her lover and to her aunts Katrca, Urša, Leni, Malka, and Angela in her small notebook, turning language into an exhilarating rush of sound, an uninterrupted song. It’s the only thing left of her.” The narrator, at first, is intimidated by the horrific past, but later decides to write a book about it: “I could recover what is irretrievable and establish that it has returned in a new form, that it has transformed itself and me. I could reassemble what has fallen or been torn apart to let what’s underneath shine through. I could surround what has been with an invisible body that seals and subjugates it.”

Angel of Oblivion was translated into English by Tess Lewis, an American translator from German and French and an advisory editor of The Hudson Review. She has been awarded numerous translation grants and prizes, most recently the ACFNY prize for the translation of Angel of Oblivion which is well-deserved: Firstly, because Lewis was able to create a superb translation of a text infused with regional characteristics (e.g. agricultural terminology and endemic nature), and secondly, because she offers an English text that has captured both, Haderlap‘s tone and her poetic way of narrating the story. Her translation of the description of a Carinthian hunting party is a case in point: “My father’s hunting friends wear ironed trousers and jackets the color of trees, they carry the smell of moss in their hair and put fir twigs in their hat bands when they’ve bagged their prey. The heads of horned game dangle from their backpacks. A gun was trained on each animal, then they were felled. Blood and sweat still drip from their muzzles, the dew of the last breaths they took.” Tess Lewis’ sensitive translation is longlisted for the 2017 PEN America Translation Award.

Angel of Oblivion is a beautiful book: it carefully braids the protagonist’s personal story, a recount of her immediate family as well as the past and present of the Slovene minority in Austria, into one narrative with outstanding poetic beauty. The lyric nature of this novel adds to its fascinating mood and the readers’ unconscious. The author argues that she purposefully included lyric elements in her novel, because “a lot can be narrated via poetic images. Lyric poetry is open to moods and the unconscious. It enlarges the radius of reflecting.“ The book deals with problems that characterize modern-day world: minority identity, lack of tolerance, conflicts in families shaken by violence and terror, generational controversy, and shaping one’s own life in the midst of all of this. In addition to the enthralling storyline and the gripping historic dimension of the novel, its poetic beauty and aesthetic pleasure make this book an outstanding representative of present-day Austrian literature.
Brigitte Wallinger-Schorn works as a literary translator in Austria. She received her PhD in English and American Studies at the University of Salzburg and is the author of „So There It Is:“ An Exploration of Cultural Hybridity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Rodopi, 2011). Her translations of George Ellenbogen’s memoir A Stone in My Shoe and Evelyn Shakir’s memoir Teaching Arabs, Writing Self will be published by Ergon Press in autumn 2017.