Academic journal article German Quarterly

Narrating Silence: Gerhard Roth's Am Abgrund

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Narrating Silence: Gerhard Roth's Am Abgrund

Article excerpt

Gerhard Roth's novel, Am Abgrund, appeared in 1986, in the midst of Kurt Waldheim's campaign for the Austrian presidency. The furor surrounding Waldheim's candidacy, and his eventual election, is widely believed to have set in motion the belated engagement of Austria with its National Socialist past. Moreover, the myth of Austria as the "first victim of Hitler"-supported by the Allies-revealed itself as a convenient way out of any real sense of responsibility for the role of Austria in the atrocities that took place from the 1930s on.1 Roth was one of a small number of Austrian writers who had already been addressing their nation's dark past when the Waldheim affair began, both directly in his journalistic contributions and more indirectly, but still pointedly, in his literary work. His monumental cycle, Die Archive des Schweigens, consists of seven volumes, including a photo album, three novels,acollectionofessays,andaquasi-fictionalreportbasedon thelife of aJewish "remigrant" who returned to Austria in 1962 after forced emigration to England in 1938. The cycle represents, as one reviewer noted, a "Panoptikum" of the social and psychological world of Austria since the end of the Second World War (Heyl). By means of a systematic examination of the out- and underlying spacesin the Austrian landscape, Roth exposes a profound silence in the culture, revealing the extent to which it both prevents and, paradoxically, conditions an understanding of Austrian guilt.

Rothhimself hascalled Austria a"Reich des Schweigens," citing hisown experience as a so-called "Kriegskind," born in 1942: "Meine Eltern waren Mitglieder der NSDAP. Ich bin wie die meisten Menschen meines Alters in einem Raum des Schweigens herangewachsen" (Weichinger 70). Roth notes a close correspondence between Austrians' vociferous affirmation of the so-called "Anschluss," which was later denied, and the silence following the Nazis' defeat and the establishment of the Second Republic: "Je lauter man als Nazis geschrieen hatte, desto hartnäckiger verteidigte man das Schweigen in der Folge" (Pichler 180). He describes the kind of silence he experiences as characteristically Austrian: "kein andächtiges,tiefes, nachdenkliches,betroffenes,auch kein vollständigesSchweigen, sondernein verbissenes und zugleich ängstliches, aus dem mitunter-wie in einem Alptraum-ein Zähneknirschen, ein Stammeln und Raunen, ein Gewisper oder Grunzen zu vernehmen war" (Pichler 180).

Hence, according to Roth, postwar Austrian subjectivity cannot be imagined withouta deep silence atitscore. Asapublic intellectual, Rothhimselfhasbeenanything but silent, his outspoken critiques of his native land netting him both praise and censure.2 Criticism of his works has come from sources as disparate as Thomas Bernhard, for his photo volume on Bruno Kreisky (1981), and the FPÖ, for the right-wing populist figure of Hoffnungsmann in his novel, Der See, who was perceived to be a travesty of Jörg Haider (see Schütte, Unterwelten 31-32). In his work, however, Roth immediately avoids political commentary, regarding himself instead as an "Analytiker, der dieses Land wie durch ein Mikroskop betrachtet und eine Diagnose versucht" (Pfoser-Schewig 197). Roth, the former medical student who worked for years as a technician at the Graz data processing center, dissects his culture with the utmost precision, his scientific and technical training aligning him paradoxically with the very rationalist tradition he so thoroughly throws into question in his writing. But Roth also experiences himself as reduced to groping through the incomprehensible as he probes the darkest recesses of life. In an interview from 2011, he said to me: "Wir sind genauso blind und gehörlos dem Gesamten gegenüber, wie die Gehörlosen und Blinden im allgemeinen unserer Gesellschaft sind." In fact, Roth spent time in his youth exploring the language of the blind and deaf, and it is this same interest in the ways the imperceptible can nonetheless be rendered in language and image that drives his long-standing collaboration with the patientartists at Gugging, the asylum-cum-artists' retreat outside of Vienna, which also now functions as a museum. …

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