Austria: compacted meaning

 

They say that good things come in small packages, and, with literature from 196 countries to read and blog about this year, I’m inclined to agree. So I was particularly pleased when the first book for this project arrived, courtesy of a recommendation from Heide Kunzelmann at the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature, to find that it was a mere 123 pages long.

Slender though it may be, Frozen Time rivals many a weightier tome for depth and scope. Written by South Korean-born Anna Kim, who moved to Austria from Germany aged seven and regards German as her mother tongue, the narrative follows a young researcher in Vienna’s Red Cross Tracing Service as she attempts to help a Kosovan man discover what happened to his wife during the war in former Yugoslavia.

The narrator finds herself drawn more and more into the man’s trauma, and, as the lines in their professional relationship become blurred, she is forced to confront unfinished business of her own in Kosovo.

Kim is one of those rare writers who manage to combine economy of language with rich significance. At times she condenses so much meaning into her spare sentences that they feel more like poetry than prose. This impression is strengthened by the way the layout and structure of the text reflect the shredding effects of loss on a psyche: sentences tail off into dashes, paragraphs hang broken on the page and the narrative leaps between times and perspectives, as though unable to stay focused on any one train of thought for long.

Kim’s presentation of the way trauma plays out in the mind is equally impressive. From the horrific images and memories that crash into mundane activities, to the paranoid projections that twist the memory of the beloved (reminiscent at times of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances), she provides a masterclass in dysfunction.

Translator Michael Mitchell writes about the difficulty of rendering some of the subtleties of meaning in the text — in particular the shift between the formal German ‘you’ (Sie) and the informal version (du) — in his introduction. Nevertheless, he has created a powerful version in which the frequent modulations between registers of language (formal, professional, intimate and child-like) mirror the mental shifts the text describes. Highly recommended.

Frozen Time by Anna Kim (translated from the German by Michael Mitchell). Publisher (this edition): Ariadne Press (2010)