#RivetingReviews: Lizzy Siddal reviews WE ARE DOING FINE, THE OLD KING IN HIS EXILE and HINTERLAND by Arno Geiger

Since picking up the Abraham Woursell Award for young talent in 1998, Arno Geiger has made a habit of winning literary awards, both at home and abroad. His diverse range of work has been translated into over thirty languages. Three of his award-winners are now available in English: a multi-generational family saga, a memoir, and an anti-war historical novel.

The ironically entitled novel, We Are Doing Fine, catapulted Geiger to international fame by winning the inaugural German Book Prize in 2005. This family saga, covering the years from 1938 to 2001, portrays the decline of a family over three generations. We Are Doing Fine begins at a low point in 2001 when Philipp Erlach inherits his maternal grandparents’ dilapidated house. His immediate aim is to clear the house of everything, regardless of value. The biggest headache, however, is the attic which has been colonised by a flock of pigeons. Imagine the mess!

How far this mess applies to the history of Philipp’s family – and, by extension, metaphorically to Austria itself – is clarified in the episodic sections interwoven with the house clearance. These start in 1938, jumping forward in intervals of between seven and ten years. The earlier episodes align with key historical milestones (Anschluss 1938, defeat 1945, signing of the state treaty 1955). Ironically, Austrian defeat coincides with the rise of the family’s influence. Richard Sterk, a rare Austrian, who ‘did not have to account for his pre-1945 existence’, becomes a minister of state and plays an important role in the treaty negotiations. From there the family slides downhill, from the heights of respectability to mediocrity and aimlessness. However, thanks to Geiger’s vivid prose, the story is far more engaging than Philipp Erlach’s detachment would have us expect.

Richard Sterk loses everything, including his mind to dementia. The same illness afflicted the author’s father, August, whose decline over a period of six years is charted in The Old King in His Exile. The memoir’s accuracy and honesty earned him awards from multiple medical societies around the globe. As his father becomes exiled from his own life, Geiger preserves his past, his character – the living person no less – by completing the narrative before the inevitable outcome.

August’s illness is traced from ‘the slip-ups he started to make after his retirement’. August Geiger had always been a little eccentric, so these were easy to laugh about. As the awful truth dawns, the family rallies as best it can, not everyone coping in the same way. After fighting on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, August Geiger never spoke about his wartime experiences. Not until the disease took hold and night terrors plunged a disoriented, terrified man back into the past; the result being that the son only really got to know his father during the time he was losing him.

August’s PTSD returns in Veit Kolbe, the wounded soldier of Geiger’s anti-war novel, Hinterland. Kolbe chooses to recover in the rural community of Mondsee alongside others including his future lover, Margot and her baby daughter, who have fled the bombing of Darmstadt. Mondsee is shielded from the worst of the war by the Drachenwand mountain that towers above it. The disappearance of one of the evacuees is a reminder that danger is ever-present, however, and the increasing frequency of bombing squads flying over on their way from Italy to Germany is evidence that the war could land on the doorstep at any time. In fact, it does by means of letters from those who are living in the eye of the storm. 

Hinterland focuses on the civilian experience. Even Kolbe, who has no affiliation to Nazism, is more civilian than soldier, and therefore a sympathetic character – as are most of Geiger’s characters, despite their flaws. Geiger once said, ‘Each of my characters deserves to have a pulse, to live and breathe, even after the final page’. In Hinterland that afterlife is bestowed in an epilogue detailing what happened to each character after Kolbe’s return to the front line.

So why the need for an Austrian anti-war novel? Worries abound about the resurgence of the far right in Austria and Europe, as well as concerns about a narrative representing Austria as a victim of National Socialism. But Richard Sterk’s sending his son to fight for the German Reich in We Are DoingFine, and the panicked paper-burning of those characters facing defeat, attest to Austrian complicity. Hinterland is an examination of the consequences of this. Thus does Philipp Erlach inherit an attic full of pigeon shit. This is such a strong metaphor for the stain of Austria’s role in the Second World War. Only by facing this past with honesty and sincere regret can the stain be removed and the chance of repeating the past minimised.

Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

WE ARE DOING FINE, translated by Maria Poglitsch Bauer, published by Ariadne Press (2011)

THE OLD KING IN HIS EXILE, translated by Stefan Tobler, published by And Other Stories (2017)

HINTERLAND, translated by Jamie Bulloch, published by Picador (2022)

by Arno Geiger

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Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger. Each November she hosts German Literature Month on her blog ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume Two)’.

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