MacLehose Press, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Winters in the South By Norbert Gstrein, trans. Anthea Bell & Julian Evans
A frightening world of eruptive violence is recreated in this novel about the
Saturday 29 December 2012
Do not be fooled by the evocative title, nor lulled by the beautiful woman on the cover. This is no gentle romance. The edges of this work on war, betrayal, exile and identity are jagged and cut deep as the Austrian writer Norbert Gstrein continues his exploration of the Croatian war of independence.
Marije's marriage to a hotshot journalist – and one-time Communist revolutionary – is floundering. He was proud of her once, his "precious ornament in a double sense, as a Mediterranean beauty... and splendid political example", fascinated by her Dalmatian heritage, reluctant to hear that her father had been on the "wrong side": a virulent anti-Communist, who disappeared, presumed dead, when she was six. Until her death, her mother went at the appointed day and hour to Vienna's St Stephan's Cathedral, in case he returned.
Marije, now 50, remains aware of her girlish dreams of that alternative existence in Croatia, the dogged yearning evoked by the photo that used to hang in her bedroom of a young soldier trailing a fully opened parachute. "All the light seemed to be trapped in its nearly transparent hemisphere with its undulating hem… as a child she imagined it was the sun, that her father could make it rise and set with a tug on the lines and that he watched over her sleep as the lord of light and darkness." As the first rumblings of violence and change are reported from Zagreb and the mountain villages beyond, Marije leaves the security of her friends, university job and husband to be there.
Also preparing to return is the Old Man who has lived almost half a century in exile by Buenos Aires, the metropolis that harboured so many Europeans from before the Second World War and, after it, the bewildering mix of German speakers with family stories that could not be more different. He, Marije's father, has been preparing for this moment, the "right revolution" that will rid his beloved Dalmatia of the "real enemy": Communism. It is time for him and his fellow gnarled warhorses to take up their position, to finance the overthrow, to stand shoulder to shoulder with today's young soldiers.
In Ludwig, a former Austrian policeman who has nothing to lose and arrived in Argentina "to forget", he has found his henchman. It is Ludwig who takes up the narrative, noting the old man's "undiminished charisma", alongside the repellent political views: a quirkiness that yields to uncontrolled violence, sentimentality and delusion about his place in history. For some days father and daughter are in the same city, that ghostly Zagreb of the weeks in which the nights are as silent as those in the countryside. Only one of them will find liberation from the past.
Gstrein's prose is muscular and compelling. Anthea Bell and Julian Evans's translation convincingly recreates the frightening world of eruptive violence which the characters inhabit. This tense, deeply unsettling tale of human dependencies, carelessness, jealousies, of the ugliness of war and the lush beauty of Argentina, comes highly recommended.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'