Die größere Hoffnung [Herod’s Children] (Ilse Aichinger)

Die größere Hoffnung [literally: The Greater Hope] is Ilse Aichinger‘s first novel. It was translated as Herod’s Children.
Finished on: 10.2.2016

Ellen is a teenager in Vienna in the 40s. Her mother is Jewish and has fled the country, her father is Arian and doesn’t want to know Ellen anymore. So she lives with her maternal grandmother and dreams of finding a way to join her mother. But her days are mostly spent in isolation with a group of other children who are all Jewish and outcast.

Aichinger poured her own experiences of “having the wrong grandparents” into Die größere Hoffnung, an impressionistic, surreal novel in evocative, though not always literal and clear images. It’s one of the most harrowing novels about World War 2 I ever read, and one of the most beautifully written.


My plot summary of Die größere Hoffnung ist not exactly faithful to the novel. Not once does Aichinger mention that Ellen has Jewish grandparents or that her father is an Arian. Instead she talks about having the wrong grandparents, and that Ellen only has two of those whereas the other children she hangs out with have three or for wrong grandparents. Her father, on the other hand, simply wears a uniform and doesn’t want to know her.

And its through insinuations and gestures like that that Aichinger manages to conjure up all of the horrors that (this) war brings as seen through the eyes of a child. At one point Ellen is said to be 15 years old, but in many ways she feels younger than that: when she shows up at the consulate with a self-drawn visa to join her mother in the USA, only lacking the consul’s signature, for example.

Aichinger draws on that childlike detachment from reality, mixes it with dream sequences and relies heavily on stylistical playfulness to create one of the most lyrical bits of prose that you can possibly imagine. Symbolism and metaphors build a rhythm that effectively communicates what Ellen is experiencing and feeling without having to call things by their names. This is juxtaposed with instances of physical violence, for example at the very end, that are featured directly and quite literally punch through the lyrical prose and straight into your gut.

That means that Die größere Hoffnung is certainly not easy reading material, but by removing itself from narrative conventions, it manages to get at a truth that is otherwise not easily captured. And that makes it extremely worth reading – and crying over.

Summarizing: You should definitely read it.

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