Monday, 3 May 2010

Talking About The Weather in Austria…

I have to say, finding a work for Austria was a tricky one in terms of fitting my criteria of a post-1990s setting. Initially, I opted for “On a Dark Night I Left my Silent House” by Peter Handke – one of Austria’s most noted authors. However I was slightly dissatisfied by the fact that this work - whilst starting off in Austria – also encompasses a picaresque journey through a number of European countries during the 1990s. As such, I persevered in my search and am glad that I did, as it brought me to a fascinating novel entitled “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” by Austrian writer Wolf Haas.

Wolf Haas – prior to this work, was best known for writing a series of crime novels featuring the character of grumpy ex-detective Brenner, set in Vienna (the city of Haas’ residence). Despite their international acclaim Haas killed off Brenner in book six, and voiced a wish to take a different direction in writing. The result, “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” is a highly original and affecting work, set in the Austrian holiday resort of Farmach…

Indeed, it is interesting to come across this novel at this stage of my travels as – having just left the Czech Republic with an attempt at a post-modern ‘metafiction’ novel which did not come off, here I believe is a novel with triumphantly succeeds in the genre.

As such “The Weather Fifteen Years Ago” is no conventional narrative. The reader must infer a sensational love story that the real author hasn’t actually written, but which his fictional persona (also called Wolf Haas) describes to an interviewer referred to only as “Book Review”. This takes the form of a play-like dialogue, in which the two discuss the fictional book’s plot and thus reveal the story to the reader.

The real Haas plays several mind-games at once, for the love story begins with an ambiguous kiss between the protagonists who have known each other since childhood. The reader must deduce the mysterious relationships, which zigzag erotically through several characters and two generations. At the core of all this is a sophisticated web of scientific and poetic weather lore.

The prosaic romantic hero of the fictional novel, Vittorio Kowalski, possesses a strange talent: he can remember the weather for every day of the past fifteen years in a village resort in the Austrian Alps called Farmach, where he used to holiday with his family and where he formed a bond with a local girl named Anni. When he is invited to display this uncanny ability on a TV game show, he uncovers memories of his unrequited love for Anni, the accident that led to her father's death, and his own near-fatal experience at the place of their secret childhood meetings. By viewing this TV show, the fictional Wolf Haas becomes intrigued with the back story and, in the course of writing his novel, uncovers a series of revelations which occur both in the past and also in the present, as the adult Vittorio returns to Farmach with dramatic and far-reaching consequences.

As the interview progresses, intricacies of the children’s parents’ stories unfold to reveal a startling erotic entanglement. On the very last day of the fictional transcription, we learn almost everything else.

Without revealing too much of the fictional novel’s plot, I can say that the ‘real’ Wolf Haas uses a fascinating narrative device of the interview with the ‘author’ to tease out the strands of the story in a way which - if told straight, may well have seemed overly melodramatic. As it is, in the use of the structure that he employs, Haas skilfully teases the reader with tid-bits of information about the fictional novel, and it is a testament to his writing that we are kept engrossed in the story arc right to the end (and suffice to say the ‘teasing’ of the reader does not necessarily end at the final page!). Indeed, in the potentially dry format of an interview transcript, Haas writes prose which is truly engaging and affecting – such as where he deconstructs his description of a thunderstorm in the interview whilst simultaneously reconstructing the tension and atmosphere of the portrayal of the storm as described in the novel.

As well as pulling off this literary coup, Haas is also able to include a sub-plot of the literary duelling between the “Book Review” interviewer and the Wolf Haas who is being interviewed (and who, it should be said, is strongly identified with the actual author – to the degree of naming him as the author of the Detective Brenner series). As such, as well as the unfolding of this dramatic story set in the Austrian Alps, we are also treated to an exposition on the relationship between author and literary reviewer. The fact that the reviewer is German is important here; as Haas has in the past been criticised for his use of a narrative style loosely based on the Austrian vernacular (a dialect of German heard on the streets rather than generally used in literature). As such, the literary and social tensions between so-called High German and the vernacular that Haas employs, add to the tension between reviewer and author. This highlights a certain linguistic tension between Germany and Austria - two cultures (as is often said about the UK and the US) who are separated by a common language.

All in all, this is a book that I was not looking forward to – I was concerned that the postmodernist format would make it difficult to engage with. I have in fact found the opposite – this is a wonderful novel that works on two levels – in deconstructing the novel-writing process and in ingeniously presenting an engaging love story set against the evocative backdrop of the beautiful Austrian Alps.

From Austria I make my way to the tiny state of Liechtenstein, courtesy of English writer Charles Connelly and his journal “Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream” which follows the national football team on its unlikely campaign to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, but also depicts his personal observations of this unique European principality.

To be honest, I am going about this leg of the journey in a slightly awkward way – as, for historical and practical reasons, Liechtenstein has no border control with Switzerland, which is the next stop on my journey. Indeed getting to this next stop is no easy matter – Vaduz may be Liechtenstein’s capital, but it boasts neither a train station nor an airport. Fortunately the Liechtenstein Bus service ( takes me from Feldkirch in Vorarlberg (a state in western Austria), through assorted villages to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. A day pass for the bus costs EUR 3.20 or CHF 5.00 – the Swiss Franc (CHF) being the currency in use in Liechtenstein although many shops also accept Euro. Border controls are minimal. To get to Vaduz I have to change buses in Schaan – with the country’s only railway station (Schaan-Vaduz) being a stone’s throw away from the bus station there. I look forward to updating you with my experience of this tiny state (which is also the first ‘non-fiction’ work on my journey since Transnistria!)

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