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B+ : a bleak and dark study of a community (not) dealing with its collective guilt
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Die Wolfshaut ('The Wolf-Skin') is set in and around the (fictional) provincial Austrian town of Schweigen -- the name literally meaning 'being silent', a place of not-speaking (certainly, not about certain things).
Schweigen shares a train station with the next town over, bleakly named Kahldorf ('barren village').
It is a 'godforsaken region, a region which has nothing to offer and hence is little-known', and proves indeed to be a dismal locale -- the novel soon dripping with a near-ceaseless rain, and much happening shrouded in fog and darkness, characters struggling to see, much less find their way.
Die rätselhaften Ereignisse, die uns vergangenen Winter beunruhigt haben, begannen, wenn wir es näher betrachten, nicht, wie man allgemein annimmt, am neunten, sondern aller Wahrscheinlichkeit nach schon am achten November, und zwar mit jenem sonderbaren Geräusch, das der Matrose gehört zu haben behauptet.Months later, at New Years, when another decisive event looms, there is similarly precise observation of the exact time(s) -- including that:
Doch um drei Viertel sieben (Wachtmeister Habicht gibt diese Zeit an, und heute wissen wir alle, das war der Moment, in welchem es damals ernst zu werden begann) steht der Alte unvermittelt auf.Yet the novel covers a long period -- from that 8 November 1952 through 14 February 1953 -- and at times pulls back, letting events and days pass in their sameness, before again zooming in on specifics.
The central figures in a large cast of characters are Johann Unfreund, known as the 'Sailor' (Matrose -- though, in fact, he was a helmsman), who has returned to his hometown after many years absence, and Karl Maletta, a professional photographer who has set himself up in Schweigen.
The Sailor's mother died during the war, and his father committed suicide seven months later, 'in that spring of the collapse'; the Sailor inherited the family home -- which the town would have liked to take possession of -- and he spends his time there pottering around, making things of clay. Maletta is a disappointed man -- "Nichts, von all dem, was ich gewollt habe, hat sich verwirklicht" ('Nothing, of all that I hoped for, came to fruition') -- and lives in a rented toom in a local house. (It's an odd choice of locales, one has to say: "Von dieser Ortschaft durft man nicht viel erwarten" ('One can't expect much from this place').)
The strongest presence in the novel, however, is the unspoken, the mystery which not so much shrouds the place but pulls it under. The unusual noises -- haunting the place -- are just part of it. The consensus among the old-timers seems to be: let sleeping dogs lie -- but the past can't be entirely kept quiet and buried. Still, when last a wolf was seen in the area, fifty years earlier, the general reaction had been to simply pull the sheets over one's head; now, with the tracks of a wolf again found in the snow -- circling the village like a noose -- and the Sailor, in particular, poking around, it isn't quite so easy.
There is an abandoned brick factory and kiln in the town, clearly a site of some significance. The first major occurrence in the novel, on that 'night of the first shock', is the death of one of the locals, Hans Höller, whose motorcycle is found, still running, and whose body the Sailor discovers, Höller still standing upright and looking like he is peering into the brick kiln, but already dead. The death is ruled to be a heart attack, natural causes. The locals suspect they know what he was doing there, of all places: 'He just had to keep looking, over and over'; the suggestion is that something (presumably terrible) happened there, and that Höller's conscience pulled him back to the site and finally got to him.
The Sailor senses that the town is keeping a secret, and that there's more to his father's suicide than he knows, but he can't get anyone to talk. The local blacksmith is among the more forthcoming when the Sailor asks, but, for a long time, won't go beyond saying:
»Damals«, hat er dann gesagt (aber er hat sich Zeit gelassen), »damals ist manches los gewesen. Am besten man spricht nicht davon, denn man weiß nichts Bestimmtes.«At New Years, there's another death, of Johann Schreckenschlager; this time it is clearly murder. He still has his pocket watch and wallet, so it doesn't look like a robbery gone bad; it happened close to the house of the Sailor, so some suspicion falls on him -- but not enough to stick. A prisoner recently escaped from the local jail, so he is taken to be the most likely perpetrator, but the police can't find any trace of him. (In fact, he was nearby -- but he wasn't involved.)
Eventually, almost the whole town gets together for a Treibjagd -- a posse on the hunt, seeking to drive out their prey. The drive itself fails, but the prisoner is waiting for them when they return. Arrested and brutally interrogated, the desperate man finally does what they want, confessing to Schreckenschlager's murder. And then, as he is being transported to the next facilities, things get out of hand and the prisoner is shot -- an outcome most of the villagers have no problem living with.
Death keeps coming however: next up is that of the man who had shot the prisoner, speared up on a branch when, it seems, he was desperately fleeing someone or something ......
If there is something almost supernatural about the noises and signs that seem to haunt the village, it is the very real humans who are, of course, the root of the problem. Still, near-impenetrable darkness dominates: it's almost impossible to shine a light on what happened here, and the collective guilt the locals carry with them. Typically, late on, when the local council gathers at a restaurant at 8:15 in the morning to discuss matters:
(A)ber Tag geworden war es deshalb nicht; nein, es blieb finster wie auf dem Grunde des Meeres, obgleich die Sonne (wenn man den Kalendermachern trauen durfte) schon vor einer Stunde aufgegangen war.Despite their many and varied interactions with the locals, the Sailor and Maletta are somewhat on the periphery for much of this. They are clearly not considered part of the closer village community, and both don't make matters easier with their antagonistic attitudes. Surprisingly, they only really meet and introduce themselves to one another more than half way into the long novel -- in a scene with two large black ravens or crows (they disagree as to what the birds are) circling ominously overhead.
The Sailor and Maletta feel they know each other, but can't quite place from where; they also seem like fairly kindred spirits. When Maletta spits out that he hates people -- the locals, especially --, the Sailor is shocked to recognize the very feelings he himself has, Maletta's words one he could just as well have said. But he also comes to think:
Wenn ich wirklich einer Meinung bin mit dem da, dann bleibt mir nichts anderes übrig, als mich zu ändern.Maletta is the more desperate of the two, lashing out provocatively -- and then turned on by the locals, who pull a nasty trick on him, leaving him literally mired in excrement. In this book full of foulness, many characters wind up literally soiled -- even the Constable, nearly sucked under by a mudslide.
The Sailor gets closer to the truth, a letter from his father that he finds confirming his suspicions and providing some details as to exactly what happened, with the Sailor then digging up the proof. Yet even as he then confronts those responsible, there's no justice to be found -- with the ringleader, as it were, immune from the law thanks to slipping into an open seat in the local government. But even when the Sailor confronts him with his wrongdoing he is not troubled by his conscience: "Ich fühle mich schuldlos" ('I feel guiltless').
As the ugly truth comes out, both Maletta and the Sailor decide that all they can do is leave this place, and both prepare to abandon it. Maletta recognizes that the place and its people are rotted, through and through, coming to the realization that: "hier ist das Böse daheim !" ('here, evil is at home !'). But even leaving it behind does not prove so easy, and there is further tragedy, right to the bitter end.
The Constable, who does have something of a conscience and tries in at least limited fashion to see to some basics of law and order, knows he has compromised himself and turned far too blind an eye on the community, recognizing the locals and his position among them for what they have become:
Ich weiß genau, daß wir alle zusammen ein Pack sind, ein Pack, das sich nur deshalb an Spielregeln hält, um als das Pack, das es ist, existieren zu können ! Zum Teufel !! Wenn ich überhaupt noch etwas mache, dann doch nur, um endlich einmal befördert zu werden ! -- Und in die höhere Lohnklasse zu kommen ! -- Und einen angenehmeren Posten zu kriegen !Late in the story, when everything has gone to hell, the Sailor and Maletta meet again, and the Sailor considers how kindred their souls are:
»Wenn ich Ihr gutes Ich bin,« flüsterte er, »dann sind Sie vielleicht mein schlechtes Ich, das Ich, das ich fürchte. Dann sind wir ja sozusagen alte Bekannte.«The two characters are not as black and white as this might suggest, but they are the two faces of the reactions to the town, both remaining outside elements (and irritants). One is crushed by it, one defiant, but each recognizes also in the other a potential that they also see in themselves. Both have their weaknesses -- including an impulsiveness that complicates each of their lives -- and try as they might they can not change what is fundamental here: the town remains largely as it is, mired in its rot, unable -- and, more significantly, unwilling to free itself from it.
The German genre of Heimatroman idealizes and romanticizes rural and village life -- acknowledging its hardships, but ultimately presenting it as an idyll of good old-fashioned values. Die Wolfshaut plays with many of the tropes of the genre, but turns them; it is widely considered an early example of the anti-Heimatroman, the values here old-fashioned, after a sort, but anything but laudable -- the dark underside of close-knit provincial community and life, especially when it comes to the treatment of outsiders. The novel is a precursor to the works of Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard (among many other Austrian writers ...), with Jelinek noting how influential the work was on her own.
Lebert certainly presents a vivid picture of village life, but his portrayal is a terribly dark one. Not all the locals are cruel, but there's a good deal of violence and fear -- effectively shrouded in the near-constant darkness that envelopes the place. Die Wolfshaut is a long novel, and Lebert goes into often painstaking detail -- an often brilliant portrait in what it captures, but also at times wearying. Still, there's no question about the overall effect of this powerful novel -- a significant achievement.
Note that, although it has been reprinted several times, Die Wolfshaut is currently out of print, his widow and family apparently standing in the way of any further re-issues (and also, presumably, its possible translation into English (and other languages)); so also his literary executors denied Jürgen Egyptien access to Lebert's archives for his recent biography (Sonderzahl, 2019). It is a shame that this significant work -- which is of more than just literary-historical interest -- isn't more readily available, and one hopes that this situation will change soon.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 November 2021
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Austrian author Hans Lebert lived 1919 to 1993.
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