One of the reasons for the switch from my perennial English- and sporadic Spanish-language reading to German is the way syntax is built in the latter. I mean that almost literally. Sentences in German, at least in the literature I have read so far, seem to have been put through a very effective cement mixer in order to have a good, long-lasting product to lay across the bricks that make up the edifice. What you end up with is page after page of pure poetry in prose.
The two novellas are included in the same volume. Wir töten Stella (We kill Stella) is narrated from the point of view of a housewife. She uses a weekend when her husband is away to put down on paper all the events of the past few months. This involves the eponymous Stella, a teenager who comes to stay with her family and who is shamelessly seduced by the narrator’s husband. Stella gets pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. After attempting and failing to kill herself, Stella accidentally steps in front of a passing lorry and gets run over.
The shortness of the work belies the intensity of it. Wir töten Stella stays long with the reader, her (almost silent) voice echoing down the corridors of one’s mind.
I found similarities between this novella and the novel I am reading now, Die Wand (The Wall), which incidentally was turned into a motion picture. Both tales are written in the first person singular and both feature female narrators. Also, although not stated explicitly in Wir töten Stella, both women write about their experiences in order to stay sane. In the case of the protagonist of Die Wand, she is invited to go on a hunting trip by a couple with whom she is good friends. Once at their hut, the couple decide to take a walk around the forest before setting off on their expedition the next morning. However they fail to come back at dusk. The woman decides to look for them the next day. After walking for a long time without much success she finds the couple’s dog sitting in the middle of a path looking afraid. The woman ventures forth but the dog refuses to follow her. She carries on down the path herself and all of a sudden bumps into an invisible wall. From then on an internal monologue takes place. A monologue that leads us into a world (the woman’s internal world) full of questions but with very few answers, other than those about survival.
|Heute, am fünfsten November, beginne ich mit meinem Bericht...|
I mentioned that one of the reasons why I had gone back to German was to remind myself of the beautiful syntax this language possesses. The other reason was the actual author I am reading. Marlen Haushofr was a post-war writer who had to fight, first her own lack of confidence and, secondly the hostile world in which she lived. As someone not familiar with many Austrian, German or Swiss (those from the German-speaking part) post-war works of literature I was curious to see what they were like. One of the comments I often heard when I began to learn German all those years ago was that in the wake of Hitler’s defeat and the demise of Nazism many German-speaking writers decided to carry out an act of self-censorship in relation to the war. They stopped mentioning it. Marlen’s works might validate that theory. Certainly Wir töten Stella, Das fünste Jahr (the two novellas) and so far Die Wand stray from any mention of World War II. This begs the question: should writers who happened to be born in countries where atrocities were committed by brutal regimes have to confront these demons of the past? Should a Russian (Stalin), a Cambodian (Pol Pot) or an Italian (Mussolini) writer always or at least most of the time have to reference their country’s past as a way of acknowledging former misdeeds?
I do not think so. If I move swiftly from literature to cinema I remember watching Argentinian films many years ago and pondering whether they all had to mention the terrible dictatorship that South American nation suffered in the late 70s and early 80s. Do not get me wrong. Many movies of that era, especially the ones that came out in the immediate aftermath, were top-notch. But I also recall some whose plot had nothing to do with the dictatorship and yet it felt as if by not mentioning the “disappeared” and the “junta”, these film-makers were betraying some kind of secret agreement.
Back in the world of literature, I am of the opinion that any pressure on a writer to approach or acknowledge a certain subject, chiefly in relation to their country’s past, and even more specifically one on which their homeland might not come out a in good light, risks placing shackles on both reader and writer. It hinders development, not only at an individual level, but also nationwide. What I have enjoyed about Marlen Haushofer’s writing so far is that she was more concerned with equipping her main character in Die Wand with a credible internal voice than with Hitler’s ascension to power. The main beneficiary? Culture. And of course, yours truly, for I have reconciled my long-term affair with the German language.
Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 6th June at 6pm (GMT)