Maikäfer flieg is an autobiographical novel by Christine Nöstlinger. It was translated as Fly Away Home; literally it means “Melolontha, fly”, which is the first line of a children’s rhyme.
Finished on 3.3.2016
World War II. 8-year-old Christl spends a lot of time with her grandparents as her mother is hunting for food and necessities in Vienna. Her father is fighting. Or rather, he is in the hospital with a shot up leg. As the bombings in the city get worse and the grandparents’ apartment is damaged, Christl’s mother hatches a plan to head to a house at the city’s edge where she used to clean. The owner of said house has fled and needs somebody to take care of it anyway. So, Christl, her sister and her mother make their way there, leaving behind her grandparents who are unwilling to move.
I read Maikäfer flief (and its sequel Zwei Wochen im Mai – Two Weeks in May) when I was a child, probably around the age Christl was in the book and then again a bit later. But since then I haven’t re-read. Now with a movie adaptation coming out, I thought I’d read it again. Of course, my perspective has changed quite a bit, but I found the book engaging both when I was a child (although I liked the sequel better) and now.
Nöstlinger is one of the most famous and most important children and young adult writers we have here in Austria, and as somebody who actually lived through World War II, her account of her experiences is not only a good read, but simply an important historical document. Especially because her story – even though it necessarily has to be seen as fictionalized truth – feels deeply personal and manages to capture her perspective as a child, not too rationalized by adulthood. The absolute normality with which an extraordinary situation is greeted by children becomes apparent. That means that World War II becomes tangible in a very accessible way, even for children. That’s an important, extremely valuable lesson that only rarely works out as it does here.
Nöstlinger doesn’t gloss over things, not even her own literary alter-ego, but at the same time she shows that a childhood was still possible back then, even if sometimes its veneer becomes very thin indeed, showing the ugliness of war beneath it. Christl often mentions things in passing that don’t mean much to her, but reading the novel as an adult I could see their significance (as a child this passed me by as much as it did Christl).
There is only one bit that struck a wrong chord with me: their neighbor is a woman who lives alone with her daughter. The mother is deathly afraid of the Russians arriving in Vienna to the point that when they do take over the neighborhood, she starts dressing in rags and smearing dirt all over her face to make herself seem unattractive. She’s constantly being ridiculed in the novel, and not a sympathetic character at all (definitely not for Christl who gets along quite nicely with the Russians). It’s only in a short sentence in the sequel (which was written almost a decade later) that it’s mentioned that this woman was actually raped by Russian soldiers, making the harshness with which her fear is treated in this novel (and that was overly hard in my eyes even before I re-read the sequel) even worse.
But apart from that wrong note, I very much liked the novel, both as an eye-witness account and as a children’s/young adult’s book.
Summarizing: Must read, especially for Austrians.