‘Ein Niemandsland, in dem man verloren gehen kann.’ A review of Engel des Vergessens by Maja Haderlap

Maja Haderlap’s debut novel, Engel des Vergessens, was published in 2011, but it has taken me this long to discover it. In fact, I only did so by way of my new local bookshop. I recently moved to the state of Kärnten (Carinthia in English, but please bear with me while I continue to refer to it as Kärnten, the name I know it by) and found her on the ‘regional authors’ shelf, alongside Peter Handke and Ingeborg Bachmann. As it turned out, the unassuming paperback in my hands would open my eyes wide to the hidden currents of history that course through this new home of mine.

Kärnten is located in the south of Austria, on the border with Italy and Slovenia. A largely rural state, it is often regarded as something of a provincial backwater by those in the capital and, accordingly, is easily forgotten (vergessen) by Vienna and other large tracts of the country. Unfairly so – to me, Kärnten is beautiful, very literary and unexpectedly fascinating. It is also, it turns out, a deeply troubled place.

The borders around here are porous these days, but it wasn’t always so. The unnamed female narrator of Engel des Vergessens grows up a member of Kärnten’s Slovenian population, living on a small dairy form in the shadow of the Yugoslavian border. Other shadows reach their fingers over her life – her father’s increasingly erratic behaviour, violent drinking bouts and inexplicable depressions; her grandmother’s half-told stories about her period of internment in Ravensbrück concentration camp, an experience she shared with many of the neighbouring women – but on the whole her childhood seems relatively idyllic. In a slow burn of a novel that picks up in pace, interest and emotional impact as it progresses, Maja Haderlap portrays the narrator’s early years as picturesquely rural, only to tear down this beautiful world she has built as the narrator grows older and begins to expand her horizons.

It took me a while to understand what I was reading in this novel, which I believe is the point. The narrator grows up with a few snippets of locally common knowledge about World War II: her grandmother was in Ravensbrück, her father fought with the partisans, most families in the area lost at least one member to the Germans. It is something that happened in the past, but life is better now.

And yet.

Her grandmother doesn’t just keep her Ravensbrück spoon and camp journal in a drawer; she gradually withers away until she dies as thin as a concentration camp inmate, in an awful closing of some incomplete circle. Her father retreats more and more into his memories, the only thing able to rouse him from his drunken stupors a rousing chorus of partisan songs. It takes years, sometimes decades, for war pensions and victim compensation payments to come through, during which time broken minds and bodies slave away in the fields to make ends meet, damaging themselves further still. And in the village pubs and town schools, Slovenians of all ages are verbally abused by the German-speaking population. In the country they have always lived in, and whose freedom they supposedly fought for, they are not welcome, not at home.

Life is not better now – in fact, the history of the Slovenians in Kärnten, whom the Nazis largely tried to exterminate, has simply been forgotten, pushed under the carpet in the wave of national forgetting indulged in by Austria after 1945. But for this group of people, the trauma of war has never been forgotten. It bubbles and seethes beneath the surface, manifesting late in a series of heartbreaking yet inevitable scenes in which family ties are stretched to breaking point and the narrator struggles to find a place where she feels truly at home. Haderlap’s carefully constructed novel lulled me into a false sense of security before hitting me with the full weight of the message behind her story. Trauma is something that runs deep, and all the collective forgetting in the world will never be able to shrug it off.

Haderlap uses language to great effect, beautifully conveying the lush greenness of Kärnten’s meadows, the scent of a summer afternoon or the silent denseness of a border forest, but language also plays an important role in its own right. After attending a Slovenian-speaking school – which doesn’t even have its own building, but instead occupies a German-speaking school out of hours – the narrator finds the language of her childhood slowly being excised from her writing, until one day it no longer appears in her notebooks, poetry and essays. Here, language is a way of expressing identity and all that comes with it – at one point the narrator asks, ‘tragen die hier gesprochenen Sprachen immer noch Uniform?’ (‘do the languages spoken here still wear uniforms?’) – and yet it is also slippery. Her grandmother repeatedly uses the Slovenian word čudovito, meaning ‘wonderful’, because she either never learned or has forgotten the word for ‘terrible’.

As the title implies, forgetting, whether deliberately or subconsciously, is the main theme of the novel. And forgetting is a dangerous thing – for the title of this review, I chose a sentence in which Haderlap writes that between the alleged and actual history of Austria lies a ‘no-man’s in which you can get lost.’ In a quiet, unassuming way, she has brought her autobiographical novel into the world as a testimony to the power and importance of not forgetting, of being fully aware of the facts of history and trying to make our peace with it. While I didn’t get a complete sense of reconciliation at the end, I felt that the very writing process was an attempt at such a thing. Although not a complete healing, it is perhaps the first step along the road to finding peace – for an individual, a community and a nation.

Having read this book, I look at my surroundings differently – the bilingual road signs hold a lot more significance than they did before. But anyone interested in Europe would do well to read such a powerful reminder of what our porous borders can help to both build and conceal. Engel des Vergessens has been translated by Tess Lewis and published by Archipelago Books under the name Angel of Oblivion. It’s well worth hunting down a copy, both for Maja Haderlap’s striking, searing prose and the sake of this forgotten, still-suffering corner of the world.

My rating: 4.5/5

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