August Becker is a respected photojournalist who regularly contributes to Forum, the major mainstream Austrian newsweekly. His latest assignment is to accompany the critical journalist Selma Kaltak into the countryside as she reports on the election campaign of Ulli Popp, a populist (pun intended) politician from a party that looks and acts a lot like the real-life Austrian FPÖ-Freedom Party. Rabinovici’s creation has qualities of political leaders Sebastian Kurz and H. C. Strache, but also of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Silvio Berlusconi, and Viktor Orbán. He is charismatic, self-possessed, rich, media and tech-savvy, and in touch with Austrian citizens’ fears about refugees, Islamisation, loss of Austrian culture and traditions, political correctness, and liberal elites.
August has a reputation for photographing the true nature of his subjects beneath their public masks. At a local festival he captures Popp ceremonially tapping a beer keg with a mallet, looking vicious and spiteful, just as left-leaning voters imagine him behind his façade. Through a comedy of errors this photo, intended for the cover of Forum, eventually becomes a campaign poster for Popp, whose fans are fired up by their idol’s flagrant aggression. August’s reputation for being unbribable is dashed – or is it?
August’s public troubles are accompanied by private ones, and the boundaries between them are slippery. Feeling out of touch with his son Tim, August assures him that he will pay his way at an elite foreign university, but he has no idea where the money will come from. August is attracted to Marion Ettl, a reporter for the tabloid TOTAL, but disdains her lack of journalistic ethics. His insecurities make him prey to the whims of others. His professional crisis is also a personal identity crisis as a father, a lover, and a creator.
For all its burning topicality, Die Einstellung (possible translations: ‘The Viewpoint’, ‘The Attitude’, ‘Settings’, ‘The Adjustment’, ‘Optics’) is quite abstract. The city of Vienna is never named, the towns mentioned don’t actually exist, the magazine and newspaper names are invented, no dates are given, Tim’s foreign university is not specified, and Ulli Popp himself is not a caricature of one single actual politician. Non-Austrian readers will see their own countries, media, and politicians reflected here, because the political polarisation at the heart of the plot is widespread in the Global North – and elsewhere too.
Doron Rabinovici, known for brilliant plotting intertwined with droll social criticism (The Search for M, Elsewhere), succeeds again in exposing human foibles, empathetically but incisively. Many of his plot twists and much of his humour stem from failures of language: his characters hear what they want to hear, misconstrue, or assume too much or too little. With its grasp of how news cycles tumble truth, Die Einstellung is absolutely of this moment. But writing about sensationalism and manipulation does not itself have to be sensationalist and manipulative. Doron Rabinovici’s latest novel is deadly serious without taking itself too seriously, a page-turner with artistic integrity.
Reviewed by Geoffrey C. Howes
DIE EINSTELLUNG (‘The Viewpoint’)
by Doron Rabinovici
Published by Suhrkamp Verlag (2022)
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Geoffrey C. Howes is a retired professor of German, translator, writer, and scholar, specialising in Austrian literature and culture. He is editor of No Man’s Land and past co-editor of Modern Austrian Literature. His translations include books by Robert Musil, Peter Rosei, Gabriele Petricek, and Jürg Laederach.