In his novellas, short stories, plays and novels Alois Hotschnig has plumbed dark corners of the psyche. In elegantly cadenced prose, his eight books have explored the burdens of history and guilt, the fluid realm between lucidity and insanity, as well as the dark comedy and pathos in human relations. His two most recent novels, Ludwig’s Room and Der Silberfuchs meiner Mutter (‘My Mother’s Silver Fox’), trace the ways aftershocks of the Second World War – both tangible and intangible – have warped several generations’ most intimate selves. Der Silberfuchs meiner Mutter takes its title from the silver fox fur stoles often given by German soldiers as gifts to women in occupied northern territories and exposes the horrors of the Lebensborn program. This association was founded by Heinrich Himmler to promote the racial purity of the German population by encouraging births by unmarried ‘Aryan’ women. Inspired by the life of the renowned actor Heinz Fitz, the illegitimate child of a Norwegian woman and Austrian soldier in the Wehrmacht, this novel is a gripping first-person narrative that brings vividly to life a mother and her son who are buffeted by forces of history and ideology no less than by mundane acts of cruelty. A fierce reimagining of one man’s life, Der Silberfuchs meiner Mutter, is also a profound meditation on memory and storytelling and how both can help us to – or prevent us from – understanding history and ourselves. (TL)
Only at sixty, not until I was sixty, did I meet my real father, this Anton Halbsleben in Hohenems, through a theatre usher, also from Hohenems.
My father did claim I wasn’t his, but the child of a Russian who drowned. I couldn’t talk to my mother about him; whenever I asked about him, she’d have another seizure, so I stopped asking. Once in a while, she’d mention him but rarely, very rarely. At some point he married someone else and I have three half-siblings who are younger than I am. Much younger.
In any case, I met him through this usher, Rudolf Radtke is his name. This Radtke said to me, I know your half-siblings, I’ll call them. Which he did and I got a call from the oldest, from Ingrid, who told me I should come see them in Hohenems sometime, that her father would like to meet me.
I drove there. You can call me father, he said. I guess he forgot the thing about the Russian and I didn’t ask. After that, I’d call him now and again, send a package now and again because I knew he liked chocolate, as I do, and he wasn’t supposed to eat it either. Diabetes. I inherited that disease from him. The neurasthenia, too.
The epilepsy I did not inherit. My mother got it from some shock. Something happened in Berlin and the attacks started very soon after that. Via Berlin she went to Hohenems. She had to leave Norway or she would have been shot, according to my father, he didn’t want her to get shot. Because she’d got involved with a Nazi, with him, in fact. He accompanied her part of the way, to Oslo, I think, then she had to go on alone.
She tried to see him again when I was already about fifteen. They were supposed to meet in Dornbirn in the Rote Haus restaurant, it’s still there, the Rote Haus is. She went, but he never showed up.
In ancient times, this illness was considered the sacred disease. In the Middle Ages, it was seen as sorcery, that is, epileptics were thought to be in a relationship with the devil because they survived so many things. And my mother certainly survived a number of things. In Norway she was the Nazi-whore. I went up there with her once. Disappear with that Nazi-whore, I was told. She had a big family, twelve siblings. The grandfather, my grandfather, her father, had been the mayor of the town. A few of her relatives fled to Russia. In any case, they did not want to see my mother there. And in Lustenau she was the Norwegian-whore because the women were convinced she was going to steal their husbands.
Translated by Tess Lewis
From Der Silberfuchs meiner Mutter
by Alois Hotschnig
Introduced and translated by Tess Lewis
Published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch (2021)
Translation funding guaranteed via New Books in German
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Alois Hotschnig was born in Carinthia and lives in Innsbruck. His books have won the Federal Chancellery of Austria’s Literature Prize, the Italo Svevo Prize, the Erich Fried Prize, the Anton Wildgans Prize, the inaugural 2011 Gert Jonke Prize, and the ORF Radio Play of the Year Award, among others.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German with a soft spot for Austrian literature. She has translated works by Peter Handke, Karl-Markus Gauß, Alois Hotschnig, Doron Rabinovici and Julya Rabinowich, among many others. Her translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion won the ACFNY Translation Prize and the 2017 PEN Translation Award.