Anna Baar was born in Zagreb, lives in Klagenfurt and Vienna, and in 2022 received the Großer Österreichischer Staatspreis (‘Great Austrian State Prize’), the highest Austrian accolade in the arts. Her works were described by the jury as ‘avant-garde’ and ‘composed like a piece of music’, giving her writing a distinctive voice.
In her novel Nil (‘Nile’), Baar constructs a tale that deconstructs itself and leaves the reader to scavenge in the ruins:
We cannot escape our stories if we tell them, or don’t tell them. Sometimes something slips into the silence, time standing still, reduced to a mere anecdote, a short film clip. Maybe we add something or leave something out to elevate ourselves to the status of heroes and suppress others. […] In the end, everything is true, even the imagined. It would be utterly absurd to demand the truth from a story.
Nil is not a straightforward read. Just like the river Nile, the story surprises with its depth and force. Reading it, l felt as though I was being pushed underwater by the current, resurfacing pages later not knowing how I got there.
A woman is writing a serial for a women’s magazine, trying to find a fitting ending, when what she is imagining starts to become reality. The question is what is fiction, what is reality? Who is the storyteller? Does the storyteller exist in real life? Living characters start to merge with fictional characters and ugly and grotesque memories surface. Just like the physical journey I took while finishing the book – a trip to Paris by high-speed train – when I reached my destination, the printed words had run out while the story lingered.
In the end, the Nle flows into the sea, and the reader of the novel is encouraged to dream, and to continue to immerse themselves in the story months after the final page is turned. I experienced the deeper meaning of the novel as though I were reading pages of poetry, as though the words and the meaning were too precious to exist within a novel. I found myself wanting to carve out whole sections to frame them with the respect they deserve.
Nil shows us what it means to be human and the struggles we undergo in questioning our internal and external world. It is an exceptional analogy of human lives as fragments of stories written and imagined by others, sometimes even created by us.
Reviewed by Hannah Kaip
by Anna Baar
Published by Wallstein Verlag (2021)
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Hannah Kaip is a trained conference interpreter for German, English and French, from Austria. She is responsible for Science, Education and Dance as well as the library at the Austrian Cultural Forum London. She is pursuing a degree in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute in Bristol.