The Austrian Riveter: Crossing Language, Crossing Lines: Literature in Austria’s Borderlands by Eleanor Updegraff

Composed of nine federal states, surrounded by eight countries, and itself once the centre of a vast European empire, it could be said that Austria is a country of borders. Thanks to freedom of travel within the European Union, its edges today   can seem porous, with people and traffic moving seamlessly across mountains, lakes or other topographical boundaries to leave one linguistic space and enter another. But it is precisely here, in the realm of language, that borders can often be seen most clearly,     with literature able to spotlight what divides us and to attempt to sweep it away.

Though Austria shares a not insignificant border with Germany, and neighbours Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the west, all four countries have a common language – albeit with considerable differences in regional dialect – and so it is much easier for authors and their work to slide between them. It is a different story altogether when it comes to Austria’s southern and eastern neighbours: Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and, in the north-east, the Czech Republic. Here, where borders may not have existed historically – many only since the end of the First World War – over the past century they have been more strongly demarcated by factors varying from the conscious separation of languages and cultures to the almost impenetrable Iron Curtain. And yet, drive along sections of Austria’s perimeter today and borders seem to melt away to nothing, with signs announcing the names of villages in two languages and arts scenes that thrive on a mélange of influences. 

Nowhere does this work better than in the lively exchange of literature and ideas between Austria and the northernmost part of Italy, particularly the regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige, or South Tyrol. Once part of an independent Tyrol and still a predominantly German-speaking part of Italy, South Tyrol continues to share close ties with Austria through its large and very active body of writers. Before his untimely death in 2005, Gerhard Kofler was perhaps the best known of these, translating Austrian authors into Italian, writing poetry in both languages, and concerning himself in his verse with the culture and history of his home region. In more recent years, Maddalena Fingerle’s award-winning Muttersprache (‘Mother Tongue’), which appeared originally under the Italian title of Lingua madre, has been widely acclaimed for its furious examination of homeland and language: an ‘anti-Heimat’ novel in the great Austrian tradition, written just across the border. Other novelists such as Tanja Raich, born in Merano and now based in Vienna, allow the peculiar in-betweenness of such regions to infuse their work more subtly: though not out and out concerned with borderlands, both her debut, Jesolo, and the more recent Schwerer als das Licht (‘Heavier than the Light’) probe geographical and psychological boundaries and the consequences of traversing them.

If Italy and Austria have a relatively robust literary relationship, it is considerably harder to define Austria’s relationship with its other neighbour to the south, Slovenia. In the Austrian state of Carinthia in particular, literature has been used to open a much-needed dialogue about the treatment of Carinthian Slovenes under National Socialism, which involved forced deportation and internment in concentration camps. Maja Haderlap’s searing autobiographical novel Engel des Vergessens (translated into English by Tess Lewis as Angel of Oblivion) is a haunting reckoning with this history, an attempt to come to terms with her family’s past and the discrimination that continued long after the war, manifesting itself in social ostracism and a resounding national failure to acknowledge these wrongs. Despite a noticeable shift in the last few years, there is still a long way to go – and, as suppression of the Slovenian language was a core element of the discrimination faced by Carinthian Slovenes, literature can be an effective tool in finally giving them a voice.

Further east along the Austrian-Slovenian border, the state of Styria and particularly its capital, Graz, have long been a hotbed of artistic exchange between the two neighbouring countries. Significant literary journals Lichtungen and manuskripte are based in Graz and routinely publish border-crossing (not to mention genre-defying) works, not just by Slovenian and Austrian writers, but authors of all languages and nationalities. Perhaps its location within easy reach of

Italy, Slovenia and beyond makes Graz so vibrant in this regard – it certainly seems true that many of Austria’s border towns and regions are attuned to how literature can help explore their unique geographical and cultural positions.

Take Burgenland – in particular the area around Lake Neusiedl – which borders Hungary and often sees writers, such as Bernhard Strobel, explore the many different voices that make up the tapestry of everyday life. Another author to note here is Stefan Horvath: born in a Roma settlement to Auschwitz survivors, he became a writer later in life following the pipe-bomb attack that killed his son and three others. Much like Maja Haderlap, Horvath uses literature to reckon with the past, exploring his own family history in powerful works such as Katzenstreu (‘Cat Litter’), as well as that of the Roma community in Burgenland during the Second World War and long after.

In many of Austria’s borderlands, then, the past has a lot to answer for. Certain population groups living within these regions have been subjected to intense suffering, social and linguistic discrimination and, in nearly all cases, a forced silencing that proved enduring. The writing now emerging surely demonstrates one of literature’s most important tasks: to give voice, to bear witness, to raise awareness of historical transgressions so that they may be neither repeated nor forgotten. As such, it is perhaps all the more imperative that borderland literature should not merely try to transcend boundaries, but instead to highlight them; only in becoming aware of ‘the other’ can we broaden our own perspective. 

Galvanised by the additional borders thrown up during the Covid-19 pandemic, an array of multilingual, cross-border literature projects have recently been implemented with the support of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Literatur (Austrian Society for Literature), including Neverend, which uses tandem writing partners to probe the scars of the Yugoslav Wars, and An/Grenzen, a literary dialogue led by Petra Nagenkögel that combines texts about her journeys along Austria’s outer limits with other authors’ definitions of the concept ‘border’, whether real or fictitious. 

In addition to these shorter texts, it is well worth exploring the work of authors such as Slovakian-Austrian Zdenka Becker or Michael Stavarič, who arrived in Austria as a child from what was then Czechoslovakia. Questioning how we use language to define ourselves and our place in the world, his fiction – including 2020’s Fremdes Licht (‘Strange Light’) – takes characters far beyond their personal borders and blurs the lines between past and future, while essays such as ‘Der Autor als Sprachwanderer’ (‘The author as language traveller’) reflect on real and imagined journeys alongside his lifelong existence between two languages and cultures. 

It is tempting to describe Stavarič’s home of Vienna – a mere sixty kilometres from Bratislava – also as a ‘borderland’, inspiring or providing the setting for so many contemporary Austrian authors whose work sheds light on the complexities of border-crossing, immigration and living between two (or more) home countries. Marko Dinić, Sandra Gugić, Barbi Marković and Anna Baar are just a few of the writers who have lived in or written about the Austrian capital as a transient space, a place where linguistic and cultural boundaries topple only for others to be raised in their stead, where many voices compete to be heard and the face of the city – not to mention its literature – is evolving day by day.

What, then, defines a borderland? And what can such places teach us? How can literature be used to broaden our horizons, to offer us a different perspective? In Austria, at least, whether as a reckoning with the past, a voicing of trauma, a long-overdue unsilencing or merely an attempt to pinpoint one’s place in the world, the broadened linguistic spectrum and shifting, porous nature of border regions provides fertile ground for literature and a unique perspective on how it is both to belong and to live in the in-between.

By Eleanor Updegraff

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