It’s almost sacrilege to say it, but in some ways it feels like there is little new to say about the Holocaust. Certainly, there’s no doubt that the story of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews and others needs to be told and retold lest it be forgotten, but as a theme it’s been well-explored in fiction and non-fiction for over 50 years. The fact that Eva Menasse manages to find a unique and fresh story of the Holocaust, then, is room enough for admiration.
Vienna, Menasse’s celebrated German-language novel, here translated into English by Anthea Bell, manages this feat by making the Holocaust the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. Instead of retelling the tale of gas chambers and mass graves, these facts of the Holocaust are taken as understood and are for the most part left out entirely. Rather than concentrating on those events, Vienna is primarily the story of a family and its generation-spanning quest for identity — one with the Holocaust as the black hole at the center of its galaxy, pulling its characters into orbit around the dark heart of its gravity.
Focusing mainly on three generations of a Viennese family, and narrated by the unnamed granddaughter of the family patriarch, this is a novel that explores the events of World War II, and the years leading up to it and after, in the minutiae of a seemingly ordinary family made extraordinary by the events they survived. With the seemingly innocuous union of the narrator’s Jewish grandfather and Catholic grandmother, the issues of ethnic identity and family history collide with global politics. Half-Jewish, the pair’s children are sent abroad, as many children refugees were, to safer climates.
The eldest, a daughter, is married and is able to escape to Canada, but the younger sons are sent to England, where the middle child develops an intense desire to return to the Continent as a soldier fighting the Nazis, and the youngest is adopted by a well-intentioned rural English family. Their parents remain in Vienna, alternately dodging and then falling prey to the anti-Semitism of the Anschluss, surviving camps and forced labor, and finally the destruction of much of Vienna.
But just as important here is the story of what comes next, as the narrator’s grandparents attempt to bring their children home and the family proceeds to rebuild in post-War Austria. The narrator’s father, the youngest child, returns from England with a discovered love of soccer and becomes a minor sport celebrity. His elder brother’s wish to join the British troops has been rewarded with a trip not to Germany, but Burma, and he returns hardened, suspicious, and cynical.
The daughter has passed away, dying of tuberculosis in a Canadian asylum. And as the family picks up the pieces, they rebuild, along with the rest of Vienna, eventually culminating in the third generation of children, second marriages, half-siblings, and cousins, even closing with traces of a fourth generation.
Identity and ethnicity are at the heart of each family member’s personal foibles, and Menasse deftly handles — and occasionally lampoons — the question of what is and is not a Jew, and how the intermingling of faiths and heritage was forced into question by the legality of both the Nazi program and its confused aftermath.
The narrator’s father is so marked by his time in England that he never fully considers himself Austrian, and fetishizes the English. Because the patriarch grandfather was not a practicing Jew in faith, the father’s brother is forever divided from his community, despite an ongoing desire to hunt out Nazi supporters. And years later, when the narrator’s brother decides to embrace his Jewish heritage and work as a socialist academic to expose hidden Nazis remaining in Austrian government, he is rebuffed and shamed by other Jews and the spurious laws that claim he is not Jewish because neither his mother nor grandmother were Jews.
Although there are details heaped upon details that give rise to full, fleshed-out characters in the first and second generations, this could still fall into a dry, step-by-step telling of ordinary life fairly easily. Menasse avoids this by telling the story in a looping, non-linear way, treating individual scenes as interlocking episodes outside of meaning that unfold not through the progression of time, but from basic understanding to increasing levels of complexity.
For the most part, this is done by explaining these passages as stories within the family — understanding them as half-truths and family mythology told over the dinner table and at family gatherings, with the kind of interconnectedness and “That reminds me of the time…” associations that are inherent to families.
It’s been noted that the depth of these associations and details is less a feat in that they are more than semi-autobiographical, with many of the family details mirroring those of Menasse herself, but it’s a nitpicking criticism. It still requires skill and craft to turn personal stories and details into something cohesive that unfamiliar audiences can grasp. Menasse pulls this off with her intercontextual juggling act, and the forced intimacy of characters known only briefly by their names, but instead by the impact of phrases like “my father”, “my grandfather”, “my uncle”, and so on. Though convoluted, it’s easy to be engaged by the narrator’s attempts to understand her family.
Still, Vienna is a dense book, with enough shifts in time and location and characters that it requires a commitment to the flow of this family’s personal drama to stay on top of it all. It’s a book that requires a close read, though for the most part it rewards the attention. As it stands, Vienna tells the story of the Holocaust not as an event in itself, but as a catalyst for enduring family stresses — the source of loss, and guilt, and change, and uncertainty. Even while the War and the persecution of the Jews happens in the background, and is even avoided by many of the principles, it leaves a deep, indelible mark on how a single family’s dynamic resolves itself over time.
Vienna is a work of skill, and even daring in its ability to both sympathize with and indict those affected by events that have such symbolic weight, and it’s the kind of family history writ large that has many forebears in the literature of realism. Though it does drag in sections, they’re the kinds of lulls inherent to personal histories, and there’s almost always a twist and shift of perspective waiting around the corner to recapture the reader’s attention. If not essential, Vienna is rich and impressive.