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Half human, half animal.
Three novels from the Austrian provinces

By Deborah Holmes

Nothing less than the stuff – or indeed, stuffs – of life are the subject of three very different but equally impressive novels by the Austrian authors Teresa Präauer (Für den Herrscher aus Übersee, ‘For the Ruler From Overseas’, Wallstein 2012), Anna Weidenholzer (Der Winter tut den Fischen gut, ‘Winter is Good for Fish’, Residenz 2012) and Andrea Grill (Das Paradies des Doktor Caspari, ‘The Paradise of Doctor Caspari’, Zsolnay 2015). In all three, compelling, finelydrawn characters find themselves adrift, isolated or excluded from human society: in all three, it is through intense encounters with other species that the protagonists attempt to re-define themselves. As the grandfather in Präauer’s debut proclaims: ‘the world is half human, half animal. Life is shared between people and animals.’ Animal-human interaction provides a key to emotional maturity, but to the reader’s regret, it seems that not all of the characters will be able to use it.

Teresa Präauer: Für den Herrscher aus Übersee (Wallstein 2012)
In Für den Herrscher aus Übersee the signs are good. The novel is partly told from the point of view of two children who have been left to the care of their eccentric grandparents while their mother and father seek adventure on a round-the-world trip. The children befriend a motley gaggle of fowl that live in their grandparents’ garden, beyond which the narrative seldom takes them. There are no limitations to their imaginations, however, nor to their ambition to learn to fly like their feathered companions. Much of the appeal of this book lies in its vivid, unsentimental evocation of childhood: the siblings fight, play and learn with infectious energy, egged on by their imperious grandfather who regales them with tall stories of his youthful exploits as a pilot. His passionate affair with an exquisite and mysterious Japanese aviatrix is a golden, fairy-tale thread woven through the children’s roughand- tumble. Another narrative strand tells of a further lady pilot who is both fairy-tale figure and naturalist. Präauer traces her journey as she sometimes leads, sometimes follows a flock of birds to their winter quarters in her oval flying machine. Her flight is part labour of love – we learn that she has tended the flock since they hatched – part commercial venture, attracting publicity, sponsorship, praise and criticism in tones that resonate with those often applied to female authors. Präauer’s opening motto sheds light on the double significance of this figure: ‘I couldn’t keep up by writing, so I got into my flying machine and off I flew.’

Anna Weidenholzer:
Der Winter tut den Fischen gut
(Residenz Verlag)
The protagonist of Anna Weidenholzer’s debut novel Der Winter tut den Fischen gut is also looking for a way to keep up with her own story; a tale of lost love, lost youth and a lost job. Recently widowed, middle-aged Maria has unexpectedly been made redundant from the boutique where she worked for many years. The axioms of her former boss continue to resound in her head, competing with the job centre platitudes that she struggles to apply to herself. Elegant narrative play is made with the idea of lost opportunities as Maria’s life folds backwards into itself. At the same time, her sharp eye for deceptive surface appearances, for colour and texture give her story consequence and poise. She may not fly, but she swims like a fish; water and water animals accompany her on her search for meaning in her misfortunes. A serious, subtle treatment of the psychological damage caused by long-term unemployment, the novel is nevertheless wholly persuasive in the quiet hope and dignity of its end – which is simultaneously its beginning, and vice versa.

Andrea Grill Photo: Private
A keen but very amateur naturalist, Maria has little luck with her animals, unlike the professional etymologist of Andrea Grill’s novel Das Paradies des Doktor Caspari. In fascinating detail informed by Grill’s own career as a field researcher, the young Viennese scientist Caspari tells the tale of his uphill but ultimately successful struggle to breed a species of endangered butterfly in captivity. His break-through discovery, that Calyptra Lachryphagus requires human tears to reproduce, serves to underline his own emotional isolation as with increasing desperation he searches for people he can manipulate to produce the precious fluid. The novel is set on a former Habsburg colony in the Indian Ocean that is as fictive and convincing as the butterfly itself; against this bewitching tropical backdrop, a cast of droll and lovable minor characters support Caspari in any way they can. Despite their best efforts, in the final instance, Caspari must face and lose the internal battle between scientific objectivity and scientific obsession alone.

The provincial settings of these novels are vital to their charm and narrative rhythms. The big city is far away, its dangers and lures a threat to the delicate balance of life in the provinces. It is not nature in the wild that is described so well here, but rather the careful, routine interaction of people and animals in places where there is space and time to explore the relationships that unfold.

Deborah Holmes
is senior lecturer in German at Kent University and co-editor of the MHRA journal Austrian Studies.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Austrian Cultural Forum London in partnership with Copy Press presented a special evening of literature and performance celebrating the recent re-publication of The Bound Man, and Other Stories, by Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger. Invited participants included poet and translator Uljana Wolf (see feature), and Heide Kunzelmann, Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Institute London.