There are two things you cannot avoid in Vienna: cakes and references to the beautiful but tragic 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth, better known as ‘Sisi’. The prize-winning Austrian writer Linda Stift combines these two obsessions in The Empress and the Cake, a disturbing but darkly comic novel set in contemporary Vienna. It’s disturbing because the young female protagonist suffers (as Sisi did) from a serious eating disorder. The comedic moments come from a series of surreal moments involving a Sisi lookalike competition and an amateurish attempt by three women to blow up a statue of the former Empress in a Viennese park. The story opens with the narrator walking past a patisserie where an elderly lady dressed in a long black dress with a black lace mantilla is ‘inspecting custard slices, glazed tarts and fancy meringues piled high in the window’. She notices the elderly woman has dropped her purse on the pavement and picks it up, thus eliciting an impromptu invitation to come for coffee and cake at the stranger’s home. The old woman’s flat is full of grainy black-and-white photographs of the Empress Elisabeth and her husband Franz Joseph sporting huge hairy mutton chops. Also resident are two parrots, a large dog and an aged housekeeper called Ida.
The mysterious Frau Hohenembs follows up with an invitation to a picnic in the Prater, a large public park with a funfair and a Ferris wheel (which famously featured in the film The Third Man). Alongside the shooting galleries and a ghost train is a History of Sex Museum full of vintage erotica which the elderly woman insists on visiting. Before long she has manipulated the fragile younger woman into becoming her accomplice in a series of mad capers involving stealing relics and artefacts that once belonged to the Empress. This includes the theft of a cocaine syringe and a macabre kitchen instrument used by Sisi’s servants to squeeze the blood and bone marrow from duck carcasses for the Empress’s broth. Frau Hohenembs seems to think she is a reincarnation of Sisi and therefore entitled to these objects.
The contemporary story is intercut with excerpts from the diary of one of Empress Sisi’s ladies-in-waiting who records her peculiar dietary habits and battles with melancholia in some detail thus mirroring the angst experienced by the narrator. There is an entire industry of books, films and TV series dedicated to the tragic Sisi. Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake, is a highly original take on this much told story, but readers should be warned that the mirroring of Sisi’s eating disorder with detailed descriptions of the narrator’s bulimia can be hard to read. Despite this, I enjoyed the Central European eccentricity and can’t think of another novel that combines Habsburg royal history, museum heists, eating disorders, an elderly Viennese housekeeper attempting to have illicit sex on her employer’s kitchen table, and a couple of parrots.
Reviewed by Kirsty Lang
THE EMPRESS AND THE CAKE
by Linda Stift
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Published by Peirene Press (2017)
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Kirsty Lang is a British journalist and broadcaster who works for BBC Radio and Television. Earlier in her career, she was on the staff of The Sunday Times and Channel 4 News, working as a presenter and reporter. Lang was a regular presenter of nightly arts and culture programme Radio Four’s Front Row from 2004 until autumn 2021.