‘Wir sind Meister der Perspektive’ [book review]

A review of Die Richterin (The Judge) by Lydia Mischkulnig

‘We are masters of perspective,’ says a court interpreter to Gabrielle, the main protagonist and titular judge of Lydia Mischkulnig’s new novel Die Richterin. He is speaking of the two of them, and the work they do in trying to establish what is real and not real, right and not right, in the cases of the asylum seekers who appear in court before them. Just as easily, though, he could be describing Mischkulnig herself, an author who has truly mastered the art of looking sideways at life, of writing books that crack open established truths and probe the spaces in between. Any German readers who are fans of her particular style will not be disappointed by this latest work, which is a book that offers such a uniquely universal view of things as to more than merit a translation into English.

Die Richterin Lydia Mischkulnig
Die Richterin by Lydia Mischkulnig

The premise of Die Richterin is simple enough: Gabrielle is an established judge at the Supreme Administrative Court in Vienna, where she spends much of her time assessing and dispensing verdicts on asylum cases. Although she prefers other areas of the law – cleaner ones, in many ways, such as contract disputes – she takes her work as a judge of other people’s lives seriously and adopts an inflexible, unemotional attitude to every case, making her assessments based entirely on what the cold facts tell her is admissible. Her office is orderly: files stacked to the right are simple cases, those to the left more complicated. It is a sorting system rather uncomfortably echoed by the act of separating household rubbish into different types of recycling, a motif with which the novel opens and repeatedly returns to. Yet from her work to her past to her very character, nothing about Gabrielle’s life is as simple as it sounds.

Although it follows a loosely linear narrative, Mischkulnig chooses to present the events of her novel in flashes – scenes that sometimes melt into one another and sometimes end abruptly, with jumps in between that could be of minutes, other times of months. The effect mirrors Gabrielle’s ongoing sight problems – perhaps a sign of an inherited eye disease, perhaps the early onset of blindness – as a result of which her vision is regularly clouded by tears or blacks out altogether, brought back to sudden clarity by the application of eye drops. Just as Gabrielle is occasionally unable to see, in both a literal and a figurative sense, so too does Mischkulnig apparently enjoy dropping the reader into the dark now and then, creating a constant and unsettling sense that we don’t quite know what is going on.

It is in many ways an eternal question: given that none of us has the overview of an omniscient narrator, does anyone ever really know what is going on in their own lives – let alone the lives of others? For as much as Gabrielle struggles to pass judgment on her asylum seekers – constantly thwarted by missing psychiatric reports, changing stories and the apparently innocent mistakes of translators – she finds it even harder to be the judge of her own life. Relatively early on in the novel, cracks begin appearing in her forty-year marriage to Joe, a teacher who took early retirement following a minor scandal and who has since slipped into the role of homemaker, a responsibility he pursues with increasingly inflexible fervour. Arriving home too early one day, Gabrielle half-glimpses a scene that gives rise to one of the questions on which the entire novel hinges: what kinds of secret are permissible in a marriage, and how well can we ever know another person? Alongside her growing mistrust of Joe, Gabrielle has to deal with the sudden reappearance of her brother, Karl – family misfit, former drug addict and cause of a traumatic miscarriage many years ago. Further back still there is her unhappy childhood, which included the discovery of her father’s dead body in his study. Suicide or murder? Another seemingly unanswerable question with which Gabrielle has to wrestle.

Beginning in a relatively orderly fashion, the novel quickly skews to mirror the way in which Gabrielle’s life begins sliding out of control. Many scenes – a trip to the theatre, a spontaneous visit to childhood friends – take on elements of the absurd, their effect heightened by occasional glimpses of Gabrielle in court or at the doctor’s surgery, where the atmosphere is (or at least purports to be) calm and regulated. The appearance of an Afghan poet in asylum court is the trigger for an almost total loss of control that sees events spiral into the very outer edges of farce. Yet all the while Mischkulnig maintains a tight rein on her narrative, showing us only what she wants to show us and keeping things just real enough that Gabrielle’s life becomes an unsettling mirror of most human reality – always on the brink of real or imagined catastrophe.

As well as her uncanny ability to unsettle readers by infinitesimally altering outwardly normal-looking situations, Mischkulnig has a deft way with words, adopting a language that is precise to the point of meticulousness, its generally high register making the occasional descents into violent or foul language spoken by her characters all the more jolting. No dialogue is marked out in the novel, allowing speech and thought sometimes to overlap, and putting us very definitely inside Gabrielle’s head despite the lack of a first-person narrative. The overall lucidity of Mischkulnig’s language presents a marked contrast to the nebulous character of the novel’s events and makes particular scenes – a moonlit winter swim in a quiet arm of the Danube, for example – all the more uncanny for the precision with which they are narrated.

To read Die Richterin is to be unnerved. A novel that is creepily compelling, it won’t let you look away, no matter how much you might want to. Though it does take a political stance on questionable refugee policies, it is not exactly a novel about asylum or the immigration system. Instead, it throws open bigger and harder-to-answer questions about who has the right to judge and to what extent humans are even capable of such a role. By portraying the details of a life – a job, a marriage, a family, a house – Mischkulnig’s novel contains an implicit invitation for us to judge the owner of that life, yet the slippery way in which she feeds us information makes a verdict ultimately impossible. Instead, we are left slightly baffled, conceptually impressed – and maybe forced to re-examine our own lives instead.

Die Richterin by Lydia Mischkulnig is currently available in the German original, published in July 2020 by Haymon Verlag. My thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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