Engel des Vergessens [Angel of Oblivion] (Maja Haderlap)

Engel des Vergessens is a (autobiographical) novel by Maja Haderlap.
Finished on: 21.2.2020

A Slovenian farming family in Carinthia, Austria who pick up the pieces after World War II. The grandfather was a partisan fighter, the grandmother was interned in a concentration camp where many of their neighbors, friends and also family died. The father was himself a child at the time, but that didn’t save him from being drawn into the fighting. His daughter, still a child, is now trying to piece together her own family’s history, to understand what happened while the Nazis were in power – and also afterwards, tracing the many scars left from their regime.

Engel des Vergessens sheds light on a little discussed chapter of World War II in a highly personal way. Haderlap has a beautiful way with language and conjures an extremley vivid image of what it must have been like to grow up at the time and in that area of Austria.

The book cover showing the ladder from a chicken coop crossing in front of a barred window.

Haderlap works through her own family history through this novel and this works particulary well for the early events she describes – growing up on the farm, her relationship with her grandmother who discloses more and more of the horrors of the concentration camp she experienced, the constant re-appearance of death all around them and in the middle of their family, ever-circling like a hungry animal.

Later, when the girl grows up and the grandmother dies and the attention of the story shifts towards the girl’s relationship with her father, it isn’t quite as strong anymore as that first part. And I kept wondering why she didn’t spend any time with her mother or her siblings. Even now, I couldn’t tell you how many siblings she has, let alone what they do. This may just be my perspective, because my mom and my siblings are so important to me that I couldn’t imagine writing a family history without them in it.

The language is strong here, often a little experimental and not every metaphor the book calls upon works as intended. But I found many passages that are pretty much perfect, little descriptions that capture personality or emotions in an enlightening way. And also capturing the outsider position the Slovenian minority in Austria faces everywhere during and after the Nazi regime.

It’s the ability to make the political personal – and vice versa – that is the biggest strength of the novel, making it an important book that Austrians should definitely read. I was impressed.

Summarizing: Recommended reading.

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