Tauben fliegen auf is the title that won this year’s German Book Prize in early October, so my review comes rather late. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that the publishers, Austrian indie Jung und Jung, hadn’t anticipated demand and the book was pretty much sold out everywhere only hours after the award announcement. But it’s also a book that won’t be rushed – reading it was a slow process.
Melinda Nadj Abonji (the surname is a Serbian spelling of a Hungarian name, pronounced something like “nodge-abonyee”) comes from the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina, part of what is now Serbia. She has lived in Switzerland since her childhood and holds Swiss citizenship.
And that pretty much sets out the lie of the land in Tauben fliegen auf. The novel tells the story of a family from the Hungarian minority who leave the Vojvodina for a new life in Switzerland, and what faces them once they arrive and come to modest success, running a café. Contrasting scenes set in rural Yugoslavia and a wealthy Swiss village, Nadj Abonji narrates from the perspective of the older of the two daughters, Ildiko.
The author has stressed in interviews, such as this one in English for Deutsche Welle, that language is hugely important for her. And she also describes herself as interested in musical and political literature. Her novel has all these elements. Its language is lilting and musical, highly characteristic not just because of her Swiss-German linguistic background, I would say. Nadj Abonji’s sentences are often long and beautifully rhythmic, and she often addresses differences between Hungarian and German. Towards the end, Ildiko has a truncated relationship with a refugee – he speaks Serbian, she speaks Hungarian, and they communicate in English.
And yes, Tauben fliegen auf is very political. Extremely, unapologetically so. We learn about historical developments in Yugoslavia – in one very moving section, the girls’ grandmother tells them the story of how their grandfather was arrested by the Communists, having resisted advances from the Nazis, and the family farm was collectivized. Later we watch relations sour between the Bosnian Serb Dragana and the Croatian Glorija as they work in the family’s café.
But above all, Ildiko has a watchful eye for racism in Swiss society. She points out organized forms such as the Schwarzenbach Initiative to limit the number of foreign workers in the country, deliberate racism such as an aggressive incident when an unknown guest soils the gents’ toilet, and more subtle signs of prejudice as voiced by many of the cafés regulars.
This is a lovingly told story, with many of the Vojvodina scenes of childhood pleasures and fears and later visits to the family very moving. My favourite passage is in the middle of a sentence spanning several pages, describing the mother’s fiftieth birthday celebration. She holds a speech and tells her guests about the communion dress her mother made for her:
…I don’t want to bore you and describe how the dress looked, but I wore that dress until I was fifteen, my mother sewed it specially so that every time she loosened the seam a little, a new pattern appeared, and when there was no seam left she sewed a little strip of lace onto the dress (mother, illustrating the words with her hands, asking me to translate lace and seam into German), and when I really didn’t fit into the dress any more she made cushion covers out of the cloth…
The characters are affectionately drawn: a sensible mother, a hot-tempered father, Ildiko always worrying about something and her daring and more carefree sister Nomi, a warm grandmother and many, many minor figures in both settings. And Nadj Abonji manages to transport the fear, guilt and impotence the family feel when the war breaks out in Yugoslavia.
Yet the novel has two major flaws in my view. The passages set in Switzerland, while not uninteresting, don’t shine the way the Vojvodina scenes do. Perhaps I’m buying into the good old Balkan exoticism cliché, but I genuinely prefer reading about drunken celebrations and feuding neighbours than sitting through long drawn-out explanations of how to make good cappuccino with the right head of foam. And the whole “mother and father work hard to give us what they never had in life and then we don’t appreciate it” thing felt rather been there, read that to me. Perhaps it hasn’t been done quite so much to death in German-language literature as it has elsewhere, but that’s no great consolation if you’ve already read the same stuff fifty times over in English.
Secondly, and more importantly for my taste, Tauben fliegen auf is simply not plotted. There is no narrative tension – or where there is, such as when a cousin is called up to the army, it is never resolved. The Serbian lover simply disappears mid-relationship, one of a number of characters lost to oblivion. While we find out the family’s history in dribs and drabs, the author rather wastes an opportunity by using up this material about halfway through. The only major development is when Ildiko leaves home; yet far from a satisfying conclusion, this is a huge anti-climax to close the book. I can only assume that Nadj Abonji didn’t want to stray too far from the autobiographical material by writing a more rounded plot.
There are books that work very well in the German-language world but not everywhere else; this, I suspect, is one of them. For German-speaking readers, the lack of plot may well be only a minor irritation. And in contemporary German-language literature, fewer stories of emigration and arrival have been told so far. The political issues Melinda Nadj Abonji touches on are perhaps of more interest on the domestic market than elsewhere, too. It’s a shame, though, because the writing in Tauben fliegen auf really is incredibly beautiful, and would no doubt be a pleasure to read in any language.
You can read a sample, translated by Rafaël Newman, at sign and sight.