The internet has been a breeding ground for weird and wonderful literary ventures since it stretched its tentacles into most of our homes somewhere around the mid nineties. Whether you want to talk about, swap, write or analyse books – or even cut them up and make them into something else entirely – there is a site out there for you.
Few people, however, have been more dedicated to exploring the possibilities of marrying web and paper pages than Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform Readme.cc and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users. He is also General Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Culture, a daring project that capitalises on the fact Switzerland has no official ministry of culture (as its government members are known as federal councillors instead) to highlight the power of domain names.
Mazenauer gave me a fascinating list of Swiss titles I could read for this project. Several of the books on it were so tempting that I had to ask a colleague to help me choose. In the end, what made us decide on Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta was the intriguing and tragic life story of its author, Aglaja Veteranyi.
Born into a family of Romanian circus performers, Veteranyi spent her childhood travelling Europe performing tricks until she and her relatives were granted asylum in Switzerland, the country she came to adopt as her home. Illiterate because of her nomadic life, the teenage Veteranyi taught herself to read and write German before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in 1982. However, the abuse and exploitation of her early years had taken a lasting toll and the author drowned herself in Lake Zurich in 2002.
Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an autobiographical novel in which a child narrator describes the life of her itinerant circus family. In addition to walking the tightrope of childhood and adolescence, she must also negotiate the nightly fear that her mother, ‘THE WOMAN WITH THE STEEL HAIR,’ will fall from the winch from which she hangs in the big top, as well as the violence and sexual menace of her father and the risk that the family may be identified and sent back to Romania to be executed. She and her sister do this by masking one horror with another, creating a gruesome story about a child cooking alive in a vat of polenta, which they tell themselves for comfort when the world becomes too frightening.
The subject matter sounds grim, yet the narrative voice is light-hearted and even funny for much of the book. Filled with quirky insights and descriptions that capture the cadences and preoccupations of childhood to a tee, the novel fizzes with life. There is the car trip that ‘lasted several years’ and musings on knotty problems such as whether God speaks other languages, all of which make the succinct expressions of suffering all the more telling when they come: ‘I don’t scream. I’ve thrown my mouth away,’ says the narrator at one point, expressing more in eight words than pages of description could do.
The narrator’s striking perspective on the world is enhanced by the bold structural and formatting choices that run through the book. There are phrases picked out in capital letters, lists of repeated words, one-sentence chapters and even blank pages, which make the work feel more like a baggy poem at points and underline perfectly the disconcerting nature of a childhood where nothing can be relied upon and the most basic of rules do not apply.
At the root of this unease is the search for home and identity. To the narrator, ‘every country is in a foreign country’, and the family’s history and allegiances shift depending on who they are speaking to:
‘OUR STORY SOUNDS DIFFERENT EVERY TIME MY MOTHER TELLS IT.
‘We’re Orthodox, we’re Jewish, we’re international!
‘My grandfather owned a circus arena, he was a salesman, a captain, traveled from country to country, never left his own village and was a locomotive engineer. He was a Greek, a Romanian, a farmer, a Turk, a Jew, an aristocrat, a Gypsy, an Orthodox believer.
‘My mother was appearing in circuses even as a child so she could feed her whole family.
‘Another time she runs away to the circus with my father against her parents’ wishes.’
Out of this melting pot of conflicting accounts, Veteranyi concocts a rich and subtle meditation on childhood, belonging, nationality and truth. Wistful, tart and witty, the book achieves that fine balance of pathos and humour that only the very best childhood narratives share. It left me wanting more.
Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta (Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from the German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)