A review of Die zitternde Welt (The Trembling World) by Tanja Paar
Tanja Paar writes figures on the edges of things. So it says in her author biography, a claim corroborated by her latest novel, Die zitternde Welt (The Trembling World), which sees not only the vast majority of its characters but also the world in which they live perched on the precipice of great change. An absorbing multi-generational chronicle set between Europe and the Middle East, this is a novel that would appeal broadly to readers in English translation, offering as it does a strong take on a less-explored period of history and a willingness to tackle contemporary universal themes, from gender equality to the legacy of colonialism, motherhood to mental health.
Die zitternde Welt is captivating from its very first pages, opening with a scene of a woman shooting her overly possessive dog in the snow. This is one of the more obvious of the small acts of almost unremarked violence that litter the pages of a novel in which the tightly knit cast of characters can’t seem to help hurting one another or themselves. Much of the hurt imposed is psychological or emotional: instances of betrayal, rebuffing and derision that may seem to pass unnoticed but leave deep wounds on Paar’s figures. Although we aren’t given reliable access to all the characters’ feelings – the narrative point of view switches halfway through the book – less proves to be more in this case, with what is not said, done or consciously felt just as important as what we are given to work with. Thus it is that Maria – the woman shooting her dog in the opening scene, who is our main protagonist for the novel’s first half – becomes a closed-off character towards the end of the book, the figure with whom we once sympathised now inaccessible, and we readers left to guess at what inner tragedies must have led her to become the mother her children now seem to hate. The fact that this process of change isn’t fully revealed to us is not a narrative weakness, but a strength: Paar gives us only as much of each character as she sees fit and leaves us to make any moral judgements ourselves.
Beginning in 1896, the novel tells the story of Maria and Wilhelm, an Austrian couple now settled in Anatolia where Wilhelm is involved in the construction of the Berlin–Baghdad railway. Mother to three children – Hans, Erich and Irmgard – Maria is an impassioned woman who made the long journey from Upper Austria to Anatolia herself, following the man who had left her pregnant and set out to seek his fortune on one of the world’s most ambitious building projects. Although she doesn’t always seem to love her partner, even going so far as to have an affair with the children’s French tutor, Maria sticks by Wilhelm, who provides her with the order and stability she professes to dislike but secretly needs. ‘Maria war wie der Drache in der Luft, er ihr Gewicht am Boden,’ Paar writes: ‘Maria was like a kite in the sky, he the weight that tethered her to the ground.’
I found myself instantly engaged with Maria who, despite the novel’s third-person narration, is a strong character with whom it is easy to identify. The narrative point of view always sticks closely to one key figure, with occasional forays into other minds – Wilhelm, for example, is occasionally given centre stage – and so I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed when this changed abruptly halfway through, locking me out of Maria’s head and depositing me in those of her sons. The transition, however, is more than justified: by this stage of the novel the First World War has broken out and the family is scattered, three of them back in Vienna and the two sons, Erich and Hans, travelling through Europe on false papers. Erich, the recipient of German papers, is more fortunate than his brother, whose French identity doesn’t serve him well. Though the war as an era is dispatched remarkably quickly – Paar allows it to pass in the space of a couple of chapters, in an almost dreamlike, half-glimpsed state – the upheaval it caused is present in the very structure of the novel. After the conflict, the world – shaken to its core – was different. So too is the experience of reading Die zitternde Welt, which has a new main protagonist, new setting and new pace.
With Erich now providing the narrative point of view, Paar takes us back to the East, where the ambitious dream of the Berlin–Baghdad railway lies in ruins. Europe and Asia have been torn apart, and Erich is in no better shape – addicted to opiates and scraping a living as a dance teacher, he falls in with Ali, son of a wealthy Turkish family, but eventually ends up abandoning both him and his own surviving relatives, the mother and sister he leaves to a life of penury in Vienna. Instead, Erich follows the oil boom to Kirkuk, where the remainder of the novel plays out in a haze of heat, ill-fated romance and opiate-addled thought.
Throughout these multifarious settings, Tanja Paar writes in vivid, poetic prose that transports the reader instantly to the time and place she is aiming for. The lush landscape of Anatolia is as beautiful as the heat-baked desert around Kirkuk is bleak, while the Vienna of the inter-war years resonates with a kind of hollow despair. ‘Was zählt, ist nur die Sicherheit,’ thinks Erich at one point – ‘What really counts is security’ – but this is precisely what none of the characters have. Both their selves and the world around them are in constant flux, and the promise of the opening chapters soon gives way to a resigned sense that life will ultimately have its way with all of us, even the ones who try to resist. There is a certain melancholy in the final chapters as the characters each try to come to terms with the lives that have been thrust upon them, and it is here that Paar begins to question what it is that forms our sense of identity, how we define where it is that we come from, what we mean when we say ‘home’. Erich feels more Turkish than Austrian, though the rest of the world wouldn’t have him so, but one of the most poignant notions comes from Maria, remembering her beloved life in Anatolia. ‘Perhaps,’ she thinks, ‘it was only ever an illusion, and home was nothing but a particular scent or the taste of green apples’ (‘vielleicht war es immer eine Illusion gewesen und Heimat war nichts anderes als ein bestimmter Duft oder ein Geschmack von grünen Äpfeln’).
From strong beginnings, Maria becomes something of a tragic figure, but the character to whom injustice is really served is her much put-upon daughter, Irmgard. Forced to bow to a world in which men are still superior, Irmgard lives a life of drudgery under the highly-strung thumb of her mother. Only right at the end of the novel does she become a figure embodying hope, an act of redemption, perhaps, for all the female characters who have thus far been ignored or stepped upon by men. While it doesn’t come across as an overtly feminist novel, Paar is much concerned with the fate of women – even when narrating from Erich’s point of view, the unfairness of entrenched gender inequality is continually remarked on in brief, again almost unnoticeable phrases. When making the rash decision to leave for Kirkuk – a choice that includes abandoning his fiancée – Erich ‘hatte die Freiheit zu gehen’: the ‘freedom to go’ that no woman here possesses. More telling, perhaps, is his role as a dance teacher and the unbalanced relationship he has with his young, wealthy, female students. ‘Er wusste, dass das besonders Schwierige am Tanz der Damen war, dass sie rückwärtsgehen mussten, ihm vertrauen,’ writes Paar, in a sentence that made me stop reading and feel a sudden blaze of emotion. ‘He knew that the trickiest element of the ladies’ dance was that they had to move backwards, had to trust him’. Inequality is, it seems, endemic even in a dance.
There is much to think about in Die zitternde Welt, a novel that might seem unassuming at first yet punches well above its weight. Gorgeously atmospheric, poetic and perceptive, this is a carefully researched and beautifully crafted portrait of a changing world – a world that may have existed a century ago, but which has more than a little to reveal to us about the society we live in today.
Die zitternde Welt by Tanja Paar is available in German and published by Haymon Verlag. Translation funding can be applied for from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.