When I heard about the death of the much respected translator Martin Chalmers- noted, amongst other things, for his translation of Victor Klemperer’s diaries- I suddenly remembered a book of Austrian short stories in translation edited by him which had been languishing on my shelves for the past decade. And lo! – there it was: Beneath Black Stars, Contemporary Austrian Short Stories, edited by Martin Chalmers. I think I must have bought this collection in one of my several attempts, still ongoing, to understand the difference between German and Austrian identity : are they also ‘two countries separated by a common language?’. Chalmers does in his useful and succinct introduction, tackle this, firstly by categorising Austrian literature as a part of German literature, rather than separate from it, but then defines German literature not as a national literature, contiguous with the borders of a state, but rather as the literature of German language speakers and writers, who are living and working in German far beyond national borders. He goes on to identify two common strands in post war Austrian literature: firstly, a critique of the Austrian embrace of the Anschluss and the refusal to discuss publicly Austrian support for Nazism in the post war years and secondly, the anti- Heimat novel, which satirises all that adulation of ‘mountain and meadow’ not to mention the Hapsburg myth. And the collection of short stories does indeed reflect those preoccupations. Heimito von Doderer’s ‘Beneath Black Stars ‘ relates the activities of a military selection board in Vienna in 1943 and Mike Mitchell’s brilliant translation captures the world weary cynicism and ennui of the main protagonist. In ‘The Warmth of the Nest’ Brigitte Schwaiger uses interior monologue to lay bare the self deception of a bourgeois wife and mother in provincial Linz, the stark reality of family relationships and reactionary attitudes dropped cleverly into the monologue. In ‘Brutal Curiosity’ by Peter Henisch, the narrator visits his elderly father, a former war photographer, in hospital and, in reflecting on his father’s career, reveals his politics and attitudes to war, while Margit Schreiner in ‘The Kargeralm Shepherd’ amuses us with her account of a shepherd’s crazy passion for his sheep. The collection also includes Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek as well as translations by Martin Chalmers, Mike Mitchell ( who has just translated Uwe Tellkamp’s ,der Turm/ The Tower’), Agnes Rook and Esther Kinsky, though sadly there are no details about the individual translators. Now, these stories may not suit the general reader ( and indeed a non German speaking friend with whom I’ve shared books over many years gave me the copy back underwhelmed), but for those of you who wonder about the country which inspired The Sound of Music, Mozartkugeln and Michel Haneke’s film ‘The Piano teacher’, this collection may get you started…..
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