Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff
By day, Paulus Hochgatterer is a child psychiatrist – something that absolutely shows in his writing. The Austrian author’s latest novel to appear in English translation, The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero, was shortlisted for the Austrian Book Prize in 2017 and is one of those slim but thoroughly gripping books that packs a far greater punch than you might assume. Playing with both its characters and readers, this is a prime example of unique psychological fiction.
Set in 1945 in rural Lower Austria, with the Second World War dragging to a close and the German army being pushed further and further back across Europe, The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero pinpoints the uncertainty, tension and fear inherent in the final days of conflict and gently probes what humans are willing to do to survive. Despite the fact that he is dealing with vastly complex subjects, Hochgatterer does so in refined and measured tones, choosing his language carefully so that the reader is always kept at a certain remove. This meticulous style of writing has been captured precisely by Jamie Bulloch in his translation for Maclehose Press and does much to create a suspenseful atmosphere, not to mention painting a vivid picture of where and when the novel’s events are taking place. Without anything ever being explained to us plainly, we are launched into a small farming community and begin almost immediately to understand its nuances.
‘Understanding’ isn’t a word that comes easily to this novel, in which more is concealed than is revealed, layers of narrative built up only to be swept away again with the stroke of a pen. Our narrator, Nelli, is a young girl who has been fostered by a local farming family after she was found wandering the countryside alone. Although believed to have lost her real family in a bombing raid on a nearby town, she seems unwilling – or unable – to remember her history, sometimes claiming to be a Danube Swabian, other times something else. Antonia, one of her foster sisters, regularly calls her a liar, and this tendency to distrust others’ stories comes up again and again throughout the novel. Whatever anyone says, it is bound to be undercut by another character – and, most confusingly, by the narrative itself.
While Nelli is the main narrator, her story is interrupted by brief chapters told from the point of view of an omniscient third-person narrator. These chapters recount events linked to the main narrative but lived by characters outside the farming family: a young father whose son is involved in a swimming accident, an American fighter pilot, a sales assistant from a local hat shop, and the retreating Wehrmacht soldiers who arrive at the farm seeking shelter at around the same time as an escaped prisoner of war. Each of these chapters begins by recounting a tragedy, which is promptly undermined by a different version of events, always introduced by the phrase: ‘That was the most likely course of events.’ Laughing in the face of the idea that such a thing could possibly exist, the final such chapter is even given the title ‘The Story of the Happy Ending’. Predictably, it doesn’t offer one definitive version of the drama we know has played out on the farm. Right until the very end, the reading experience is one of heightened tension and unanswered questions – a perfect mirror of what it must have been like to live in this particular time and place.
Born in 1961, Paulus Hochgatterer is too young to remember the war, but this novel picks up one of the fine traditions of contemporary Austrian literature: the examination of guilt. Both direct and inherited – the latter often seeming to be worse – guilt about Austria’s role in the Second World War is a hidden yet extremely powerful undercurrent in the national psyche and a topic often best explored by a medium such as literature. A defining quality of both the guilt itself and the events it refers to is that it is usually left unsaid, which is exactly what Hochgatterer does in this particular piece of writing. Although encouraged to read between the lines, it is almost impossible for us to do so – in the novel as in the war itself, ‘so many things were said which nobody could ever verify’.
If all this is starting to sound a bit meta, it’s worth saying that The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero is an enjoyable read of its own accord. Of course the subtext is what makes it, but the novel is also strong in its well-defined yet aloof characters and sparingly poetic imagery. Hochgatterer has a knack for catching brief, realistic moments that also say something about his subject, like the shop assistant trying to hum a half-remembered tune and finding that ‘something about the melody wasn’t right’, or the way the farmhouse appears to Nelly bit by bit, from the roof down, as she approaches it from the fields below. Only occasionally does the imagery slip into overdone, such as when our narrator is watching a distant bombing raid – ‘I see red, yellow and black, and only then the night sky’ – a perhaps slightly too obvious allusion to the colours of the German flag that seemed a little incongruous placed next to Hochgatterer’s otherwise highly controlled prose.
It is an unusual little novel, this, and not one for anyone who likes a happy – let alone conclusive – ending. Hochgatterer pushes the narrator’s responsibility to tell the truth to its limits, and in doing so offers a unique take on a subject that has often been explored in a slightly more literal way in contemporary Austrian literature. Though I found it a little frustrating to put the book down with the feeling that a piece of the puzzle was missing – that I had failed to understand something – the story has haunted me ever since, which is one of the marks of a piece of fiction that has succeeded in doing what it set out to. At only 108 pages, The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero can be read in an hour or two – but it will certainly stay with you far longer than that.
Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.
Paulus Hochgatterer, The Day My Grandfather Was a Hero (Maclehose Press, 2020). 978-0857059499, 108pp., paperback.
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