From a waltz to a blues by the Danube

<i>Vienna Passion</i> by Lilian Faschinger, trans. Anthea Bell (Review, &pound;12.99, 437pp)
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The Independent Culture

Lilian Faschinger has a love-hate relationship with her native Austria. The inhabitants of her Vienna are largely old, racist, hypochondriacs who eat tripe soup and are haunted by the music of dead composers.

Lilian Faschinger has a love-hate relationship with her native Austria. The inhabitants of her Vienna are largely old, racist, hypochondriacs who eat tripe soup and are haunted by the music of dead composers.

This is the Austria Faschinger loathes and fled, many years ago, for the greater creative freedom of Paris. But as with all refugees there is also a deep longing for aspects of a culture she once called home. This pervades one of this novel's central characters. Magnolia, a half-black singer from New York, is studying for the part of Anna Freud in a musical and needs background. She goes to stay with her Aunt Pia, embarks on a rather unconvincing affair with her singing teacher, and discovers a manuscript in her Aunt's dead daughter's bedroom. It gives details about the extraordinary life of Rosa Havelka.

At the beginning of this overlong novel, Magnolia cannot wait to escape racist, gloomy Vienna. By the end, she is pregnant and in love with both the city and her teacher, a sickly, fussy, melancholic little man.

However, in Rosa Havelka's life - the novel's greater part - Faschinger has succeeded as a storyteller of vivid, almost fairy-tale imagination. Rosa was the illegitimate daughter of a cook and servant at the end of the 19th century. She was sent to a convent before running away to the streets of Vienna. There, she led a remarkable life, wavering between the extreme ends of poverty and wealth.

She sleeps in the sewers, spends time in prison and in a lunatic asylum. She works as a half-starved servant girl, and escapes from despair by captivating men with her pretty face. A doctor gets her pregnant and finds her a position as silver-cleaner for the Empress. Rosa becomes mistress to the heir to the throne; he shoots himself, and she marries a man who becomes a rapist. She is hanged for murder after stabbing him. Finally, Magnolia discovers that Rosa's baby was her great-grandmother.

There are too many coincidences in this ambitious novel to be credible. It also lacks the tight, exhilarating bravado of Faschinger's earlier novel Magdalena the Sinner, where a young girl kidnaps a priest to confess to the murders of seven lovers guilty of the sins of men. Elements of feminism, and female despair at the hands of men, are present here. But the structure and plot never inspire in the way that Magdalena did.

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