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Book review: Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion tells tale of a Slovenian childhood haunted by war

Memories and manners of a rural community form the core of Maja Haderlap’s accounts of a brutal but little-known chapter of the Second World War.
Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from German by Tess Lewis. Courtesy Archipelago Books
Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from German by Tess Lewis. Courtesy Archipelago Books

For the first half-dozen pages of Maja Haderlap’s novel, Angel of Oblivion, readers may be forgiven for thinking they have entered a gentle world of rustic calm. On a family farm, a young girl helps her grandmother cook in the kitchen. “She is my queen bee,” the girl tells us, “and I am her drone.” There is a fleeting reference to a camp, which is immediately drowned out by screeching chickens, churning milk and dough that “squeaks and squelches in the kneading-­trough”. Finally, the grandmother explains how meagre the bread rations were in the camp, and how much of an ordeal it was to stave off hunger and stay alive.

Instead of a pastoral postcard, Haderlap delivers a powerful and affecting story about memory, identity and wartime persecution and retaliation. Inspired by the experiences of Haderlap’s family and other Carinthian Slovenes (the Slovenian-speaking minority in southern Austria), Angel of Oblivion offers a compelling character study and shines a necessary light on a small enclave and less-well known chapter of 20th-century European history.

Haderlap’s unnamed heroine guides us through her post-war childhood. Her grandmother takes her on trips and pilgrimages; her father, when not working in the stables, fields or apiary, takes her out on his motorbike.

As a reward for doing her homework, she is allowed to visit neighbours and watch Slovenian television. As it isn’t officially sanctioned, the reception is poor. “We have no choice,” she says, “but to make do with the shadow television and to feel like pirates in fog”.

Now and again, an innocuous comment or incident triggers another of her grandmother’s recollections. She teaches her granddaughter to dance, just as she did the young women liberated from Ravensbrück (“It was a laugh and a joy after we escaped the devil”). A hunt takes place on a farm belonging to a woman who carried her weakened grandmother out of the camp.

Along with the grim past there is present danger. The girl’s father, who fought as a partisan against the Nazis, is given to black moods and mad rages, during which he threatens to kill his family or himself.

It becomes apparent that it is not only the girl’s relatives who have seen too much. Many members of the rural community remain physically scarred or psychologically damaged by the war, that “devious fisher of men”. One man works himself up into a panic at night and flees into the forest, believing Germans are chasing him. “It’s the camp, Grandmother says, it can only be the camp.” We learn how for the partisans, the forest was a place of refuge but also “a hell in which they hunted and were hunted like game”.

Our narrator grows up, attends university and moves to Vienna, and in time shares her mixed views on Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia.

Judiciously, Haderlap only sketches these developments and shifts, and keeps as her emphasis the lives of the camp survivor, the indomitable grandmother, and the former partisan, the girl’s once-brave now-broken father. Both characters constitute the twin axes on which the novel turns, and their separate stories, though predictably brutal, are vivid, emotional and important.

Tess Lewis has done a fine job of translating Haderlap’s lucid and lyrical prose, particularly the dread-tinged segments: “I’m afraid that death has taken root inside me, like a small black button, like a latticework of dark moss creeping invisibly over my skin.”

In the end, though, Angel of Oblivion strikes a positive note, becoming a hymn to remembrance – one urging us to salvage and safeguard the shards of our past from the tide of history.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance reviewer based in Edinburgh.

Updated: August 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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