Cultural Complementarities in Frischmuth's Turkish Novel
Barbara Frischmuth, in her 1973 novel Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne, experiments with changes in culturally biased viewpoints within given Austrian-Turkish and Turkish-Turkish contexts. The protagonist is an unnamed female Austrian student who wants to write a dissertation on the mystic Bektashi order of dervishes. Since her arrival in Turkey, she is continually frustrated in her attempts to comprehend the city of Istanbul, her relations with her host family and friends, and present and past Turkish history and politics. But to gain insight means to abandon for the time being her Austrian identity in favor of complementary Turkish perspectives. A similar process of reidentification and refocusing applies to the reader as well.
Before we can get into the novel, let us set aside the current European disparagement of the typical Turkish Gastarbeiter [guest workers]. We might remind ourselves that the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Turks confronted one another directly at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Anyone who has seen the recent movie The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen will recall that event. In Frischmuth's work, at any rate, the Turks we meet are on parity with the protagonist. There are no other Europeans in the work, and the young doctoral candidate interacts on a culturally even level with intelligent, intellectual, and personable Turks on a day to day basis. These Turks teach in schools and universities, practice medicine, sell books, and run commercial establishments. Rich or poor, they are representatives of a high order of civilization, in many ways more sophisticated than their Austrian counterparts back home.
How do we learn about another country, another way of living? How do we see past McDonald's and the Ramada Inn to cultures radically unlike our own? Frischmuth's narrator knows enough of the Turkish language to listen, but she does not always hear correctly. Is that her fault? Not necessarily. Her lack of understanding, already anticipated in the novel's title, The Vanishing of the Shadow in the Sun, has more to do with an essential property of