August 2014

Corinna Cliff

features

An Interview with Alois Hotschnig

In Ludwig's Room, Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig tells the story of a family's involvement in a near-by concentration camp through the eyes of the later-born protagonist, Kurt Weber, who moves into the family house after his older relatives have "died out of it."

Seeking to uncover the truths that have been hidden from him since childhood, he gains unexpected help from a strange elderly lady who visits him one night and locks herself in a secret room called the Ludwig Room. The idyll of the Alpine landscape -- in the spirit of the Austrian anti-Heimat literature -- is disturbed by the protagonist's house being situated in the shadow side of the valley near a lake, whose tide is known to wash up corpses. Hostile neighbors, who put dog droppings on each other's doorsteps, advise Kurt to leave if he wants to stay alive. Using surreal, intense imagery, the novel explores guilt and the violent past of a single family as well as an entire country. These images creep up on the protagonist in horrifying nightmares.

Kurt uncovers the story of the Loibl concentration camp at the Loibl Pass, a high mountain pass in the state of Carinthia linking Austria with Slovenia. The camp was set up on both sides of the pass and prisoners were forced to dig a transit tunnel through the mountain.

Ludwig's Room is Hotschnig's third book that has been translated into English, after the novel Leonardo's Hands and the collection of stories Maybe This Time. The author was residing in the state of Carinthia at the time of the interview, where he spends the summer months.

A major theme in your book is the silence about Austria's Nazi past. How did Austria's coming-to-terms with the past influence the book? Would you say that this silence is an expression of something that is typical of the Austrian mentality?

This silence was the reason to write the novel. I wanted to go into the reasons for this silence in order to make it speak for me.

For decades the politicians in Austria refused to take responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism, and neglected to deal with the past. That made it possible for the average citizen not to face up to his personal part in these crimes. The time was dealt with by concealing and mystifying it, by covering up what had happened and by pushing away any guilt. The consequences of this are still noticeable. Meanwhile it is a known fact that an entire generation kept silent about the past, and this happened not only in the families of the perpetrators, but in those of the victims as well, although for different reasons. However, looking at how other countries dealt with the time of National Socialism or with the dark chapters of their pasts respectively, I believe that it is not typically Austrian, but rather typically human to stay silent about events of the past and to deny uncomfortable truths.

How did the people of Carinthia react to Ludwig's Room?

Many people were very surprised. Up until the time when the book was published, hardly anyone knew about the concentration camp near the Loibl Pass. No official representatives of the state of Carinthia took part in the annual celebration of the liberation of the camp. That has changed. The knowledge about the camp and about the involvement of many locals in the events has grown.

Would you say that Ludwig's Room helped the Austrian people to account for the concentration camp?

I would be happy if the book helped to raise awareness about the camp in the public conscience by pointing out its existence. For that reason it was also very important for me that the novel was translated into the languages of the direct neighbor countries, Slovenia and Croatia.

Were there people who had a problem with your presentation of the history? Or people who didn't want you to speak about the camp at all?

No, I am not aware that something like that happened. I did not see that during any of the readings and discussions of the book.

Is there a connection between Kurt avoiding his parents and his parents avoiding to deal with the past?

The more Kurt learns about Ludwig's story, the more he comes to see it as part of his own history and the history of his family and as the reason for the silence with which he grew up. He distances himself from that silence by distancing himself from his parents and instead turning to the people from Ludwig's life that he met and who tell him about their history with Ludwig.

There are many scenes in the book depicting Kurt's nightmares. Is your use of dreams in your writing influenced by the dream theories of Freud or Jung?

I don't know enough about these theories to use them actively in my work. Ludwig's Room is about the effect that a hushed-up past has on a silent present. The concealed and suppressed is not eliminated -- the opposite is the case: it lives and it affects and procreates over generations as an enchanted parallel world around us and in us. The dreams refer to these suppressed processes with images which are related to the events of that time and which, as I believe, have entered the collective consciousness.

Was there a time when dreams had a special significance for your life?

Dreams have always been an alert and guiding part of my life, a shimmering image of my reality, and often a decisive corrective.

How so?

In a dream I experience my life as a film I haven't seen before. There are images and motives that don't relate to myself in any obvious way, but which are nonetheless reflective of a particular situation in my life. I am often transformed by these films.

Recurring motives in your book are eyes and being looked at. Is there a connection between these motives and Austria or is it more related to the dreams?

It is always a matter of perceiving what's there. We exist in the world through our perceptions. We die when we shut ourselves off from this perception. We are reflected in the looks of the others. At the same time, it is always a social examination, an act of control and punishment.

Many writers are against using dreams in novels, because dreams halt the action.

In Ludwig's Room dreams establish the action in the first place by reporting about an experience that led to the present situation of all involved and about which Kurt initially doesn't know. His past grows to him via his dreams.

There is an entire genre in Austrian literature in which writers, such as Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, just to name two famous examples, deal with Austria in a very critical way. Why would you say are there so many writers in Austria who have a really negative attitude towards their home country? Do you see yourself in that tradition?

One of the tasks of a writer, if there are any tasks at all, is it to examine what was and what is, and to find possible causes for social phenomena, how they exist in the respective present, and to make those causes visible and to present them. People expect a diagnosis from their doctor that reflects the reality of the situation and not a fairy tale that sugarcoats this reality even if it might be reassuring for the moment. It is the same way in literature, at least in the kind that I care about. These writers do nothing else but to give a diagnosis about the Austrian conditions, especially in regard to Austria's way to deal with the past, with minorities and so-called fringe groups. I consider this attitude as necessary, and if one wants to speak of a tradition in this context, then I feel related to it.

You are comparing the work of writers with a doctor's diagnosis. Would you say that the responsibility of writers lies in that diagnosis? Could or should writers, as doctors do, not only give a diagnosis, but also suggest a therapy?

Yes, this is one of a writer's responsibilities. But everyone has to decide this for themselves. The possibilities of writing are so manifold just as life itself, and I don't want to limit it to that one question. In regard to a therapy, I would like to point out that in the end even doctors and writers are only "patients" of the entire healing arts. And that it is wise to get several opinions when it comes to diagnoses of any kind.

How is the Nazi past in Austria dealt with today? How do you see the danger of a new rise of fascism in Austria and in Europe in general?

A lot has happened since the so-called Waldheim affair. (Kurt Waldheim had covered up his past as a high-ranking officer during WWII to work as a UN general secretary in the 1970s. In 1986, he was appointed Austrian President despite international protests.)

The bold-faced form of denial that was common until then is not possible anymore. More and more people want to know what happened. And yet, it is important to be on guard because as everywhere in Europe, right-wing tendencies are not only on the rise, but seem to become acceptable again. There are regular demonstrations of right-wing groups in Vienna now challenging the state of law. These tendencies exist, and it is wrong to downplay them by describing them as right-wing populism as is the case in all of Europe at the moment.

Interview translated from the German by Corinna Pichl.