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 Serpents
The names dont
ring too many bells outside the German speaking worldH.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 Austrias
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
There are many stories
here worth highlighting, but a few should be singled out for extra
consideration. H.C. Artmanns "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 Handkes 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.
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.
"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 dont love all sheep. I
love this one sheep." Baa.
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