Serpent’s Tail Press
London, 2002
ISBN: 185242379X
BENEATH BLACK STARSOne of the major drawbacks of English language dominance of the world of media and publishing is the marginalization of much of the rest of the world of literature. Sure, books squeak out of France, perhaps India, and Chinese literature has made its presence known the last few years, but much of the time it takes far too long for books to first reach audiences and succeed in their own countries and before getting translated for British and American consumers. As did this book, Beneath Black Stars: Contemporary Austrian Fiction, edited by Martin Chalmers, and released this spring by Serpent’s Tail Press.
        The names don’t ring too many bells outside the German speaking world—H.C Artmann, Thomas Bernhard, Lilian Faschinger, Antonio Fian, Peter Handke, Peter Henisch, meta merz, Doran Rabinovici, Robert Schindel, Sabine Scholl. But in our myopic world, maybe they should.
        These Austrian writers of the last forty years have had to fight with demons of Austria’s recent past, which together with the German Reich, aided the European plunge into darkness in the middle of the last century. Most just wanted to forget. But beneath those black stars above the Austrian Alps xenophobia and racism still existed and exist. Guilt and a past never fully examined still pervade the work of many of these writers.
        There are many stories here worth highlighting, but a few should be singled out for extra consideration. H.C. Artmann’s "Blind Chance and Roast Duck" is intriguing. The black comedic air and absurdity of the story are expertly done. It begins with a man who has lost all his earnings in a casino and upon heading to have a last meal of roast duck before committing suicide, is confronted by a man who throws a jammed revolver out of the bushes while cursing his misfortune. This Hungarian, we find, has also lost at the casino this evening, though lost considerably more. The main character, who has a revolver with only one bullet, pities the man whose fully loaded pistol is jammed, but cannot help. They have completely different calibers. They resolve to have a last meal of roast duck and figure out how to kill themselves. Upon heading for the restaurant they toss the jammed revolver to the side and are held up by a man more desperate than they who demands all their money. But his attempts to use the pistol are also a miserable failure. He too has lost. And considerably more than the other two. The first man suggests they go for roast duck and forget about their troubles. They all agree that this is a fine idea to have a last supper together before their deaths. They are even a bit jubilant. Misery enjoys company. On the way to the restaurant they become lost and end up, like mayflies drawn to the light, standing in front of the casino again, confronted with their misery and guilt.
        Also notable are Peter Handke’s intricate short fictions about the Balkans, perhaps more non-fiction vignettes than anything else. The foursome are remarkable for their intricacy and are obviously the work of a well trained eye. They are like small paintings at which one can stare for much of an hour and see something new every minute.
        Another striking piece is from meta merz, who died at twenty-four after only four years of writing. If this piece "on the eroticism of distance" gives any indication as to what was missed by her death, a great talent was lost. This is not a straight story in any sense, but a series of phrases and statements about a love letter that is written by a man and reaches its destination, a woman, who attempts to evade its presence by placing it under the mattress, thereyby only enhancing the eroticism of wanting it, knowing it is there, suspending the pleasure until she eventually bows under its pressure. Here we are supplied with a picture of love between a man and woman who are separated by a great distance and of how much of the mind is involved in the creation of erotic pleasure.
        Margit Schreiner’s "The Kargeralm Shepherd" is an sad, funny, and heartfelt take on the expression that many people in Europe have for the rural folk of their nations, that of the ‘sheep-shagger,’ or one who fucks sheep on the sly. The story concerns a young shepherd who has been detained by the local authorities for improper acts with the cloven hoofed persuasion. The defense lawyers interview him to find out why he did the deed. He goes into a long story about how he raised this sheep, how it was not like the others, how it had an energy to it, an appreciation for beauty above other sheep. It liked to sniff flowers and would bask in their aroma. It once broke its leg and the shepherd brought it back to health and had to keep it in bed with him during the cold nights to maintain its safety. He fell in love with it. They fell in love with each other. When one of the lawyers suggests that they can get him off and move him to some other place ‘where he could have as many sheep as he wants,’ the young man gives a scowl and is hurt by this misunderstanding. He says, "I don’t love all sheep. I love this one sheep." Baa.
        "Brutal Curiosity" by Peter Henisch gets to the heart of the book. It is about a man confronting the guilt of having a father who was a Nazi war photographer. The old memorabilia and photos of the war are enticing to the young man, they live for him, as his father never really did. They were forbidden for him but because they are forbidden they hold an enormous power over him. It is a pessimistic story, with no clean outs, no clear lens, no heady answers, and is probably the best story in the book.