A charming and somewhat saddening family history which promised more than it gave.
Arnautovic tells the story of her own family in this brand new ‘novel’, a documentary tale which details a war-scattered family spread across several countries, from Vienna to Kursk and Moscow to Manchester.
Ljuba’s father, Viktor/Karli (he has an Austrian and, later, a Russian name), is transported to Moscow along with his brother as a child. Why? Their parents are socialist revolutionaries, supporters of the ‘Red Vienna’, a failed socialist project for the city which ended in a short yet bloody civil war in the 1930s. In 1934, Karli and Slavko are sent to Russia to grow up under the Bolshevist state. At first, things are great. They live amongst fellow socialists and other Austrian children in a state-of-the-art children’s home and remain shielded from the worst of the Great Purges.
But the peace doesn’t last. After the invasion of Russia by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, the children’s home is disbanded and the children are treated with immediate suspicion. They are German-speaking. Hitler has broken the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They could be moles or spies for the enemy. They could be sabotaging the Soviet regime from within. Karli is separated from his brother, and, after fleeing from several horrific ‘vocational schools’, he is sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Karli survives, but he will never see his brother again. He eventually returns to Kursk and marries a woman he met in the gulag called Nina. They have two daughters together, one of whom is Ljuba Arnautovic.
Karli/Viktor eventually manages to get back in touch with his mother after twenty years. She lives in Vienna. After years of wrangling with Russian and Austrian bureaucracy, Karli and his family eventually get the necessary documentation to move to Vienna in the 1950s, just as the Cold War is hotting up. Karli loves his new/old life in Vienna, and finds it easy to re-learn his German, but Nina feels trapped and isolated. Eva, Karli’s mother, is less than understanding, despite them all having to live under one roof. Unsurprisingly the marriage breaks down.
Karli turns out to be the villain of the story, as he has an affair (he will go on to marry three more times), yet somehow manages to win sole custody of their children. But he has no intention of being a single dad, and parcels them off intermittently to children’s homes when his current wife or put-upon mother is unable to care for them. Nina is now homeless in Vienna after being pushed out of the family home following their divorce, and has no choice but to become a quasi-housekeeper-cum-domestic slave to a local violent, illiterate Ukranian widower. My heart bled for Nina for the entire second half of the book.
The story is told in short chapters (yay) with impressive flashes of quiet lyricism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arnautovic’s prose. The story itself is one I have never heard of- I had no idea there was a civil war in Vienna in the 1930s, and I had no idea that there were so many young Austrian children sent to Russia to escape rising fascism in Germany.
Then there’s the maternal side of the story: Anastasia, Nina’s mother and Ljuba’s maternal grandmother, is a very interesting character indeed. In fact, I would have very much liked to hear more of her and less of Karli. She’s the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter’s daughter, and is the local wise woman. The people of her neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Kursk think she is blessed with the second sight, and simultaneously revere and fear her. Towards the end, I was fed up with Karli’s selfish exploits and really wanted to hear more about Ljuba’s maternal line. This would definitely have improved the book.
I had a few problems with this book, and really couldn’t understand why it got such glowing reviews (4.4 stars on Amazon).
Firstly, the term ‘novel’ is misleading. It should be called ‘a family biography’ or something along those lines. I was expecting a historical novel and didn’t get one in the slightest. It’s not very literary, as dialogue is sparse and Ljuba’s storytelling is rather swallowed up by the documentary material included in this short volume. There are a lot of translated official documents included in italics, which are written in an incredibly bureaucratic German I found difficult to digest. There are interviews included, which I really feel that Arnautovic could have turned into convincing dialogue surrounded by prose. I felt this book could have been longer, as there was so much to tell. I also really felt that Arnautovic could definitely have been more imaginative and creative in filling in the gaps between the evidence. It could have been a well-researched historical novel, but it felt like a fragmentary anthology of documentary evidence.
I also had a problem with the sheer volume of letters included in the book. We hear from Karli, but replies from Eva, Nina or Erika (his second wife) aren’t included. Maybe they had been lost, but we’re only getting half of the story regardless. This made it frustrating for me, as the long-suffering women in his life became silent. Also, Karli is fairly uneducated and clearly not a born letter-writer. His writing was awkward and incredibly cringey in places. Arnautovic could have put these letters to good use, but they don’t quite work in their raw form.