on Angel of Oblivion, an autofiction by Maja Haderlap, tr. by Tess Lewis (Archipelago Books)
Born in 1961 in Eisenkappel, Austria, Maja Haderlap worked for twenty years as a dramaturg, university lecturer, and cultural critic. In the 1980’s, her three books of poems drew attention for their unique lyricism and perspective on the experiences of Slovenian Austrians. But it was the stunning artistry of her unexpected novel, Angel of Oblivion (Im Kessel, 2011), that elevated her name to the top ranks of authors writing in German and earned the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for literature in German.
In early 1941, The Third Reich’s Heinrich Himmler set out to move 37,000 Slovenian speaking Austrians from the country’s southernmost district to make room for 12,000 Gottscheer or German speaking people living in a nearby area that is now part of Slovenia. By May, 260,000 people were targeted for slave labor. Thousands of women, children and men were sent to the Ravensbrück and Mauthausen camps with the collaboration of Austrian troops and police. Fighting back, Slovenian speaking partisans took to the forests. After the war, thousands of Gottscheer were murdered in retribution.
This is the malign history that burdens the narrator of the novel. Although her childhood memories and the facts of a violent past cannot fail to stagger the listener, they alone hardly comprise the strange force of the narrative. The anxious, elegiac spirit of Angel of Oblivion is the very moment of finding a language tensile enough to accommodate unresolved matters and emotions that provoke speech. In other words, Haderlap turns the reader into her co-partisan – the one who may do the work necessary to understand.
A single question haunts the writing: “How can I master the scene of my childhood?” Most childhood memoirs attest to such mastery, reflecting credit on the achieving author. But Angel of Oblivion is a continuous, plunging attempt to express the disorderly but urgent moment of daring to master the unmasterable. There is nothing so crass here as an "arc" or a redemptive release. The reader is on the hook until the end -- at which point the narrative's underlying premises shimmer.
The story opens at the farm where the child lives with her maternal grandmother, mother and father: “The mood on our farm is like after a deafening explosion.” Grandmother is the guiding force; she had survived Ravensbrück, but her foster child Mici had been gassed in Lublin:
Grandmother’s bedroom is a site of memory, a queen bee’s cell, in which everything seems bathed in a milky liquid, a breeding cell, in which I’m fed with Grandmother’s nutrient juices. It is in this nucleus, I realize only years later, that I will be formed. Grandmother guides my sense of orientation. From then on there will be no passing by her markers. My senses will project Grandmother’s vibrations onto this world and will perceive the possibility of destruction everywhere. They will wait for fateful coincidences, for moments in which change is possible, because one must hope and prepare for salvation, yet without good fortune, everything falls apart.
Grandmother guides her religious and moral spirit – while warning “you can’t rely on the church.” She had witnessed the church’s vile political waverings. She now teaches her granddaughter to dance, play cards, and host guests. Meanwhile, the mother is remote, critical, unaffectionate – and bitter about her loveless marriage, “a sorrowful goddess of vengeance.” The father, a partisan survivor, gets drunk and threatens to kill himself. Haderlap follows a rough chronological line studded with episodes related almost tonelessly. “I was planted in my childhood like a wooden stake,” she writes, “in a yard that is shaken everyday to see if it can withstand the shaking.” The mother “brought me two guardian angels to watch over me … I look skeptically at the well-fed, chubby-cheeked beings because I don’t believe my thoughts are there to be spied on and because I’m worried the angels are too naïve and inexperienced to protect me.” Oblivious angels.
In the moment of this telling, it is she who now does the shaking. The moment, insisting on its own presence, lyrically clarifies itself – while the past, the war, cedes no ground. Powerful passages such as the following appear throughout:
The war is a devious fisher of men. It has cast out its net for the adults and traps them with its fragments of death, its debris of memory. Just one careless act, one brief moment of inattention, and it pulls in its net. Father is immediately snagged on memory’s hooks, he’s already running for his life, trying to escape the war’s omnipotence. The war suddenly looms in hastily spoken sentences, strikes out from the shelter of darkness. It leaves its captives trembling in its net and withdraws for months at a time to prepare a fresh attack as soon as it’s forgotten. If ever it grows feeble, they welcome it in to their homes and smile at its armor, certain they can win it over, they set a place at the table, make up a bed for it.
Haderlap filters the narrative through the child’s sensibility – “The child would like to recover the immediacy of things, a state in which no words intrude between her and the world, where nothing she touches pulls sway from her … The child has turned inward, into the hollow that hides her and keeps her warm.” Yet Angel of Oblivion is not bereft of consolations. After winning the reader’s allegiance, the narrator speaks of her education and travel away from home. When she returns to her original subject, both mother and father are perceived anew. In that moment, the reader must give up his/her accumulated empathies and grudges. We have judged before we have understood.
This is the difference: most memoirs valorize our witnessing of difficulty or agony. Haderlap wants us to access our own passions -- the historical aspects of her story don't overshadow or cancel the surprising commonalities we experience through the language and organization of the writing.
Haderlap evokes the landscape of Corinthia, the borderland between Austria and Slovenia. Her father, working as a forester, treks back and forth across the line, disavowing world events and proclamations. Her portraits are acutely, candidly drawn. About the father: “He drinks to excess because he doesn’t believe in moderation, because as long as he can remember, his life has been filled with extremity, enormity, and transgression.”
Angel of Oblivion emphasizes the importance of the Slovenian language in the identity of the survivors, and Haderlap has invested much time and energy in promoting the Slovene literature of Carinthia. Yet this novel was written in German (and translated with an attuned ear by Tess Lewis). “While I’m in Klagenfurt working in theater, the Slovenian language begins to with draw from my writing,” she says. “One day I will realize that it has disappeared completely from my notes and sketches …” The slippage, perhaps an inevitable loss, becomes yet another spur to create this narrative.
On June 26, 1991, Haderlap was present in Ljubljiana’s Republic Square for the raising of the new Slovenian flag for the first time. She had not yet written that sentence about the memory of war withdrawing for months at a time only to prepare a fresh attack. On that day, the Yugoslav’s People’s Army, threatening to disrupt Slovenia’s independence, unexpectedly retreated.
[Published August 30, 2016. 291 pages, $18.00 paperback]