In the first novel available in English by the late Austrian writer Fritz (1948-2007), a woman faces her dark past when friends visit her in a mental hospital.
Set in Austria between 1945 and 1963, this poison cocktail of a novel swirls together painful personal histories and desperate hidden lives. A chauffeur named Wilhelm returns from the war to the city of Donaublau to marry Berta, keeping a promise made to a friend killed in battle. Berta’s friend Wilhelmine, a cleaning woman, eyes his arrival with suspicion and jealousy. Early on the novel reads like farce as the narrative clomps around in time; the misdirection doesn’t generate much mystery but pays dividends as events unfold. Things pick up when the action skips ahead 15 years to the day Wilhelm and Wilhelmine, now unhappily married, debate the best time to “pay Berta a visit and cheer her up” in the mental hospital. Fritz layers in much beauty and tragedy to show how Berta’s life was undone by grief, rancor from Wilhelmine, parenting two difficult kids, and “yearning for an ideal.” Fritz puts on a stylistic show, the prose dancing in West’s translation from camp to romance to psychological horror amid name games and wild monologues that often hide the truth. The title is Berta’s name for the evil in the world that will crush innocence out of her children. The climax is a moral challenge to readers: the book's most sympathetic character commits its most horrific act. In a caged hospital ward, Berta is befriended by a woman called Wise Little Mother, who intones bons mots like, “life is hope and hope is a wound,” with a logic as beguiling and twisted as that motivating the sane in the outside world.
At times unwieldy but a harrowing book about the horrors of motherhood, jealousy, and war trauma.