Keeper of Stories: On Maja Haderlap’s ‘Angel of Oblivion’

November 10, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 7 min read


Ravensbrück concentration camp was built on a plain about 50 miles north of Berlin, in a wooded area near a lake.  The largest concentration camp for women on German soil, Ravensbrück was a source of wartime slave labor for Siemens, and the site of some particularly cruel Nazi medical experiments.  About 150,000 people, from over 30 countries, were registered as having passed through the camp. Tens of thousands perished within.

Today the memorial that occupies the site combines leafy serenity with an assortment of memorial fixtures: sculptures; stelae; refurbished buildings containing artifacts.  But the memorial’s most arresting feature may be the grounds of the former main camp, which remain empty but for the foundations of the barracks, which have been excavated but recovered with cinders, preserving their floor plan in surface relief.  The original plan, as envisioned by the architects who designed that portion of the memorial, was to have the excavation conducted by volunteers, gradually over decades, with the cinders coming from a large slag heap that would be visible to visitors.  The intention, according to one commentator, was that the continual application of cinders from the heap would “layer” the “present over the past, encouraging us to reflect on the conundrum that this past cannot be brought to light without applying an arguably subjective language of representation.”

With Angel of Oblivion, Maja Haderlap achieves something very similar.  The present described by the novel’s nameless first-person narrator is that of a girl growing up in the Slovenian minority community in the Austrian province of Carinthia in the late-1960s or early-1970s.  Her subjective experiences — initially, the vivid sensory impressions of childhood, and later the ambivalent observations of a young adult — provide the story’s premise, and its structure, its texture.  But beneath this surface layer, as far as the eye can see, lies the war with all of its various forms of devastation, trauma, and loss.  And by the story’s end, Haderlap has succeeded in bringing into sharp relief some powerful truths about the war’s continued grip on those who survived it, and its impact, even decades later, upon their descendants.  “The war is a devious fisher of men,” says her narrator. “It has cast out its net for the adults and traps them with its fragments of death, its debris of memory.  Just one careless act, one brief moment of inattention, and it pulls in its net.”

Angel of Oblivion’s first word, and the most prominent character of its early chapters, is “Grandmother.”  The narrator’s grandmother is tough; spirited; opinionated.  Her forehead is “as wrinkled as the shingled roof of the grain silo,” and her force of will provides the centripetal force that keeps the family’s farm from chaos.  She cooks with authority, tossing around pork schmaltz and scraping mold off of preserves, and “even the eggs smell like earth, smoke and yeasty air.”  She believes in God and ghosts equally.  Her dishes “can connect the here and now with the hereafter, heal visible and invisible wounds, [but] they can make you ill.”  If she suspects a chicken is not laying, she “pounces” on it and jams two fingers in its behind.  Grandmother may be the only family member who bothers to pay attention to her granddaughter, our narrator, and the girl follows her around as if Grandmother is a “queen bee” and her granddaughter “her drone.”  Grandmother lets her have barley coffee, their little secret.  Sometimes they dance together.  Grandmother is a survivor of Ravensbrück, and dance, we are told, is one of her survival skills.  She leaves food out for the dead, so they will leave her alone.

Grandmother is the family’s keeper of artifacts.  She has saved her late husband’s Deutsches Reich Employment Record Book, inside which are recorded the dates of important family events, such as when they acquired the farm.  She still has her diary from Ravensbrück, as well as her too-thin winter coat from the camp, which she keeps but does not wear.  In her room she has squirreled away extra provisions, just in case.

Grandmother is also the keeper of stories: about how the Nazis killed their neighbors and pursued the Slovenian-speaking partisans into the hills; about the dog-bites and the experiments in the camps; about those who were arrested with her and did not come back; about the humiliation of begging for bits of grain upon her return.  Here, she is shown a book about Ravensbrück:

It was this guard, Grandmother says, laying her index finger on the woman’s face, which disappeared beneath it.  She was very young and very evil, very depraved.  Good Lord, what people won’t do, Grandmother exclaims and spits on the photograph.  Then she wipes the pages with her sleeve so they won’t stick together.

Sometimes she spits at the photograph of the SS camp doctor as a substitute for the SS doctors she came across when she was brought into the infirmary. The things these doctors did to the women, čudno, čudno, Grandmother says and, again, means “terrible” when she says “strange.”

She believes that, because of these books, no one will be able to accuse her of making up stories anymore.  No one can call me a liar anymore, she says.

“She was saved, yes,” our narrator reminds us, “but whether or not she’s glad she’s alive, that she can’t say.”

The other major storytelling presence in our young narrator’s world is her father, who has also been scarred by the war.  Unlike Grandmother, Father did not spend time in a concentration camp, but as a young boy he was tortured by the police, hanged on a tree until he lost consciousness, then taken to the police station and whipped.  Turned into a resistance partisan at the tender age of 12, he ran for his life into the mountains, only to be later flushed out by his hunger:

The day our provisions ran out and the commando came, it was up and out, down the mountain, through the German soldiers, over, out, Father recalled.  That was some kind of noise.  At two in the morning they slid down the mountainside in deep snow, down a chute that was used to send tree trunks into the valley below.  The Germans trained searchlights up from Kamnik.  It was so bright, every movement was visible.  There was shooting in the valley, and all you could see were red and blue streaks.  Leaves and branches rained down from the trees and one partisan was lying on the ground yelling help me, help me, Father tells us, but he just ran as if the devil were on his heels…Because in war it’s like being hares in a hunt, only much worse, Father says.  

In our narrator’s present day, the war is years in the past, and yet Father is still running for his life: drinking too much cider, crashing his motorcycle, lying down in the snow and refusing to move.  He allows his daughter to accompany him into the forest, where he shares with her the celebratory rituals of hunting and shows her how to cross the border illegally from Austria into Slovenia.  The forest was his refuge, but its silence always threatens to get the upper hand.  The best thing to do when you are afraid in the forest, Father instructs her, is to sing partisan fighting songs.

Like Grandmother, Father is ambivalent about having survived the war. Our narrator’s childhood is punctuated with Father’s drunken threats to kill himself, to go out to the apiary with his rifle and end it all, perhaps taking with him any family members who try to stop him.  They wait until he passes out, then pry his fingers from the gun.

At wakes and burials the stories come freely. Father and Grandmother don’t always agree on the details, but their stories merge into each other, forming a thicket of violence and loss. The accumulation of stories overwhelms our narrator:

As I listen, something collapses in my chest, as if a stack of logs were rolling away behind me, into the time before my time, and that time reaches out to grab me and I start to give in out of fascination and fear. It’s got hold of me, I think, now it’s here with me.

Angel of Oblivion is, among other things, a book about the power of stories and storytelling.  One aspect of this is its exploration of how stories shape personal identity.  We witness this with our narrator, who has been hearing stories about the war, from Grandmother and others, all of her childhood, and by adolescence has come to resent their omnipresence in her life.  She harbors conflicting impulses: on one hand, she wants to collect and preserve all the stories, conscious of their importance to her family and their broader community.  But she also seeks to distance herself from the past, to be free of the ghosts that haunt Grandmother and Father.   She goes to Vienna to get an education and begin a career, but she returns.  “The hills of my home region have turned into a trap that reaches for me and snaps shut every summer,” she asserts; “The war invades my internal space.” Later, she reads Grandmother’s diary and is “afraid of being overrun by the past, of being crushed by its weight.”  In the end she makes a conscious decision to write about her family’s stories, allowing them to become part of her even if it means that they will change her.

So, too, do stories shape the narrator’s mother, a complicated character who is perhaps unfortunately overshadowed by Grandmother and Father:

When Grandmother was alive, Mother was almost never able to talk about herself.  She sat next to those telling stories from the past and was never asked for her own.  Her family’s stories were considered insignificant, nothing very bad happened to her mother during the war, it was said, of course she’d had to raise her children alone as a day laborer, but that was nothing unusual. In the Slovenian convent school where Mother completed a one-year home economics course, they drummed into her head that she must only read chaste, pious books and never pick up the works of depraved writers.

The other point about storytelling that Haderlap makes is its importance for community identity, particularly in a minority community, where stories may offer important counter-narratives to those promulgated by the majority community that surrounds them.  This is a particularly salient point in the case of the Slovenian-speaking Austrians, a tight-knit minority community that offered the only sustained partisan resistance to the Nazis but has also historically been a target of discrimination by the German-speaking majority:

The memories of the residents of these valleys begin to revolt, they rise up and take over.  After the end of Nazism, they still knew their stories, they told each other what they had lived through, they could recognize themselves in another’s suffering.  But then the fear sets in that they’d be excluded because of their stories and seen as alien in a country that wanted to hear other stories and dismissed theirs as unimportant.  They know their history is not mentioned in Austrian history books, certainly not in Carinthian history books in which the region’s history begins with the end of the First World War, is interrupted and taken up again at the end of the Second World War.  Those with stories to tell know this and they have learned to stay quiet.

Along with everything else she accomplishes with this powerful work — a work of historical witness, a Sebaldian descent into the depths of memory, and a brave and innovative hybrid of fiction and memoir — Haderlap (and her English translator) deserve praise for breaking the silence to bring the stories of Slovenian-speaking Austrians to a much broader audience.

's book reviews have appeared in Booklist, the National Book Critics' Circle's "Critical Mass" blog, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a novel about male friendship, parenting and the horrors of immigration law. Originally from western New York State, he now lives in Colorado.

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