Laura Freudenthaler is a master of concision and understatement. In her fiction, silence and words unsaid play a central role, being both weapons of self-defence, particularly for women, and double-edged swords. In her first novel, ‘The Queen is Silent’, the widowed Fanny’s childhood on a farm in the 1930s in a remote Austrian valley and her marriage to a schoolteacher were gruelling. Still, she so internalised her father’s dictum, ‘there are certain things you just don’t talk about’, that she is unable, her life long, to find any way to alleviate her own suffering or the pain of those around her. Too proud, too proper, too self-sufficient to indulge in unnecessary or unseemly talk, Fanny pays a high price for her regal reserve. When her granddaughter offers her a blank journal in an attempt to connect, Fanny leaves it untouched, preferring not to revisit the past. And yet, the past fills her thoughts and dreams, often so vividly that time dissolves. For all that, Fanny sees herself as anything but a victim. Freudenthaler, born in Salzburg in 1980, was awarded the prize for best German-language debut novel at the 2018 Festival du premier roman in Chambé. (TL)
Since the news of her brother’s death had arrived, everything on her parents’ farm occurred more slowly. During the war, Fanny had sometimes stroked her father’s back without him noticing in an attempt to ward off his increasing torpor. Now she no longer came near him. Fanny had the feeling that her father never sat down, that he was always working even though he had sold all his cows and leased out one of his fields. There were no animals left on the farm in the hollow aside from the chickens. Still, he was often in the stable and when Fanny looked for him there, she found him sorting ropes and leather straps and tools. Once Fanny saw him mucking out the pigsty. Her father didn’t notice her. Fanny quickly left the sty and thought she must have been mistaken. There were no longer any pigs or bedding in the sty. When Fanny spoke to her father, he stopped what he was doing. Then he went out and started some other task. Her mother said that she would never get used to cooking for just two people again, no matter how long she lived. It was hopeless; she always prepared far too much food.
She saved the extra portions, but they were never eaten because she cooked fresh meals every day. What else was she to do? her mother asked. She threw the spoiled food where the dung heap used to be, along with the potato peels and eggshells and all the scraps she had fed to the pig when they still had one. Fanny’s father came into the kitchen and stood before Fanny and her mother. He gazed past them and looked as if he wanted to hear what they were saying but couldn’t understand. He left again without a word. Her father had always been taciturn. He believed reticence was a virtue because most of what people said was pointless chatter. Fanny asked her mother if Father ever spoke at all anymore. Her mother shrugged her shoulders and let them drop and Fanny did not know what that was supposed to mean.
At night she lay in bed and waited for her husband. The schoolteacher was often at some meeting or other that had to do with the party, but Fanny knew that he also liked to sit in the inn for no reason and play cards with the other men. In the old days, at the farm in the hollow, Fanny had never heard what people were saying in the village. Only after she became the schoolmistress did she realise that there were always two realities: a superficial reality that was discussed openly and another that was only discussed in whispers. There were events that officially occurred and at the same time things were always happening that could not be seen. Women lowered their voices when they spoke of those incidents. You would hear something and remember it clearly, even if you didn’t entirely understand what had happened until more information surfaced in another conversation. Fanny understood that you had to know what you could talk about with whom and that you and your own affairs were discussed when you weren’t there. She had sensed that her father was referring to exactly these hidden events when he said: ‘There are certain things you just don’t talk about.’ Without knowing how she had been informed, at some point Fanny had come to know that her father and Hans Malaun were negotiating the sale of the farm in the hollow. She had heard, without anyone saying it, that the schoolteacher was involved in the negotiations. Fanny mentioned what she’d heard to her mother, who shrugged her shoulders and let them drop and talked about why this year’s potato crop had started to turn mouldy. Fanny often ran down to the farm in the hollow twice a day as she used to and tried to help, although there was nothing to do. She stayed anyway and watched her father and her mother, as if her mere presence on her parents’ farm could prevent something, although she didn’t know exactly what that might be. The words ‘gambling debts’ entered Fanny’s life. She wasn’t sure she had properly understood the murmurs she had overheard, namely that the schoolteacher owed Hans Malaun some gambling debts. Once, when Liese was sitting with Fanny in the schoolhouse kitchen, Fanny couldn’t bear it any longer and asked Liese if she knew anything about this. Liese had come to the village after her husband’s death, at about the same time that Fanny had become the schoolmistress, and Liese often knew more than the other women because men talked to her differently, especially when ne or the other visited her after dark. Fanny told Liese what she’d heard. Liese waved it away and said, ‘nonsense’. In the inn, they only play for small change. Fanny felt a bit reassured, but not for long.
By Laura Freudenthaler
Translated by Tess Lewis
From Die Königin Schweigt
(‘The Queen is Silent’)
By Laura Freudenthaler
Introduced and translated by Tess Lewis
Published by Droschl Verlag (2017)
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Laura Freudenthaler was awarded the Förderpreis zum Bremer Literaturpreis 2018 for her novel, Die Königin schweigt (‘The Queen is Silent’), which was also recommended as best German debut at the Festival du Premier Roman 2018 in Chambéry. Geistergeschichte (‘Ghost Story’) was awarded the EU Prize for Literature in 2019.
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.