Angel of Oblivion
by Maja Haberlap
Archipelago Books, $18.00, paperback, 250 pp.
This is the third review I have written for Archipelago Books and by now I know that I love their books. Archipelago books are serious and sometimes a little strange and in the course of reading them I find they often become even stranger, but there is always a sense of beauty, compassion, and philosophical reach. I suppose I like them because that’s what I aim for in my own work, although I am not Slovenian-Austrian, have no grandmother to tell me the horrors of Ravensbrűck, and would argue that all of us have a duty to acquaint ourselves with the worst that humans have done lest it be done again.
The narrator of this book is a fierce young woman who seems to be Maja Haberlap herself. She is more attached to her grandmother than to her mother, who is disappointed in her husband yet not inclined to divorce him. The daughter is attuned to the various resonances in the family dynamics, the drama, the withdrawals, the confusion. She is also aware of the cross patterns that graph the countries of Yugoslavia, southern Austria, Slovenia, the concentration camps, the partisans, the Nazis. This description might suggest that the book is too crammed with information, but no, Haberlap (and her translator) lay out the geography, the politics, and the passage of time clearly and steadily. I was riveted.
The mother is religious and self-centered; the grandmother is not in the least religious and teaches her granddaughter to dance, to play cards, to host guests. In fact, the grandmother has suitors. As for the daughter? The grandmother is more of a mother than the mother is. “She is my queen bee,” the daughter tells us, “and I am her drone.”
The other primary character is the father, who is more or less estranged from his wife but lives in the same house and over time comes to understand that his daughter is talented, intelligent, and focused. Of course, this does not happen overnight. The father suffers from P.T.S.D., and although he is brave, he is also stuck—stuck between devastating memories and what he feels is required of him.
Grandmother was a prisoner in Ravensbrűck, Himmler’s concentration camp for women. Some days, she informs her granddaughter, “we had to imagine the bread,” because there was no bread.
But now, at the farm they share, we are told that “[y]ou can read Father’s mood from the cowpats’ flight. If he tosses the manure in a high arc to the back of the heap, he’s feeling confident; if he flings the cowpats hard against the front of the manure pile, he’s irate.”
Then again, they have built a new house and are planning to move. Grandmother is reluctant. The house, built in 1743, harbors her memories, and the closer they come to moving, the thinner and more fragile Grandmother becomes. The person most aware of this is the Granddaughter, our narrator, who conceives of “a play that brings to life this passing parade of our family’s and neighbors’ ghosts.” It is not a surprise to learn later that the narrator takes a doctorate in theater. She also publishes two books of poems at an early age. It’s true that first books of poems are, or were, published earlier in Russia and eastern Europe than in the West, but it still seems slightly extravagant to me that she comes out with two right away.
The granddaughter gets to know her father better, but time is taking its toll.
The forest begins to draw in the darkness. A keen-eared silence surrounds us and seems to be lying in wait for our footsteps. I wonder how I can keep Father talking so the stillness won’t get the upper hand.
The forest plays a large role in Angel of Oblivion. The Partisans hide there. The Nazis invade there. People live there. I have not seen a Slovene forest but I have seen Russian forests and they are—may I say charismatic? One always wants to get nearer to them, to be enveloped by them.
As for the characters, they too find solace and safety in the forest, but time never stops and each character grows older. The family dynamic continues to play out. Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of this novel is the narrator’s voice, presumably Maja Haberlap’s voice. Every word seems to be carefully chosen; the family, the forest, the narrator’s escape are imprinted on our minds and won’t go away anytime soon. Toward the end, the book veers from being a novel to being a history lesson, which I found fascinating. We will live with this book for some time.