Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Teresa Präauer: Für den Herrscher aus Übersee

Teresa Präauer is an Austrian writer, currently staying in Berlin. Her name is quite hard to pronounce: Prray-hour is the closest I can get. She recently read at the LCB and surprised me with a very spirited performance, which was great fun to watch. So I bought her book, mispronouncing her name at the bookshop.

Her debut novel is called Für den Herrscher aus Übersee, and won the aspekte Prize for debut novels last year (which is a very good award and has gone to a lot of great writers). It's a very short book but not a quick read, because it wants you to linger. It wants you to bid the moment stay, it wants you to savour the reading: verweile doch, du bist so schön.

It's not the slightest bit Faustian though, really. But it does contain all sorts of snippets of stories. I spotted Nils Holgersson and The Wild Swans and also perhaps a tiny bit of Tilman Rammstedt's King of China (with postcards and a grandfather) and maybe The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Robinson Crusoe and a number of others. Or perhaps not as explicit as that, perhaps she just uses story ideas we're already familiar with and puts them into an unexpected context. But not in a creepy way, more like a collage made of scraps cut out of books, photos, magazines. In fact there's a gorgeous collage in the novel, with a wedding dress made of shredded postage stamps.

What is it about? It's about two siblings (one is definitely a boy, the other we don't know) staying with their grandparents, and about their grumpy ex-pilot grandfather's unlikely romance with a Japanese pilot woman during the war, and about a woman flying cross-country in some kind of flying device with a group of birds in the present-day, whenever that may be. That's all I want to tell you about the plot. It's not the important thing about the book, except that it adds to its all-round curiousness by being rather curious.

What Präauer does is work with language almost visually (she's an artist too). To give an example, her child protagonists are learning to read letter by letter, and she gives them this to help them along:
A V is easy to write and builds a road to W. Turned on its head, a V is almost an A and A Activates it All. And then there's I, that's easy as pie, but it doesn't spell eyes. A peacock's eyes sit on its feathers, blue, green and brown, and look round like lots of Os. O, my brother and I say with wide-open mouths.
Isn't that delightful? I cheated a bit with the translation; it's slightly simpler than that but it refused to work as well in English, but then again the English has some sneaky half-rhymes added in.

There are lots of pictures described in the novel, as befits a story with pre-school heroes, but her childish narrator isn't the slightest bit childish. Except that he or she does childish things, but then so do all the other characters. Plus she does another wonderful thing to interlink her strands but I don't want to tell you that because it made me gasp in admiration when I spotted it. And then Präauer peppers her prose with birds, in gardens and coops and aviaries and eggs and up in the air, of course. And all the flying - everyone in the book does a spot of flying, apart from the poor grandmother.

I am not at all doing a good job of writing about this book. It's a slippery character but one you will want to wrestle to the ground to stop it running away. If it wore clothes they would make up an outrageous outfit: a pilot's cap and goggles, a flowery apron, wire-and-paper wings, a jam-smeared pillow case, peacock feathers in its hair and a kimono covered in maps. It would definitely turn heads in the street. It's very good indeed.

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