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Paulus Hochgatterer: Der Tag, an dem mein Großvater ein Held war.

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The Day When My Grandfather Was A Hero.
Vienna: Deuticke Verlag, 2017.
112 S., geb.; 18,50 Euro.
ISBN 978-3-552-06360-0.

Paulus Hochgatterer


Were our grandfathers 'heroes'? Probably not really. In the now proverbial 'Age of Our Grandfathers', that is to say the time of the Nazis, heroes were rare in Germany and Austria. Paul Hochgatterer's story The Day When My Grandfather Was A Hero the question of what was – genuine or supposed – 'heroism' comes to a head in three weeks towards the end of the war in 1945, when the structures of the Nazi state were breaking down and a lawless state of affairs arose.

On a farm in Lower Austria the fates of locals, refugees and German soldiers are intertwined. The thirteen-year-old Nelly, an orphaned refugee girl from one of the German enclaves on the middle Danube, has found shelter with a farmer's family. The trusting child calls the farmer and his wife 'grandfather' and 'grandmother'. Nelly is very sensitive to the powers of attraction and rejection on the farm. She notices that Annemarie, the farmer's daughter, likes the young stranger with the funny accent who appears one day. But she also senses that the stranger is in danger and so claims that he too comes from one of those German settlements. It later turns out that Michail is an art student from Minsk and a prisoner of war who has escaped. She also shares a secret with Laurenz, the farmer's brother.

Hochgatterer, who by profession is a psychiatrist for children and young people, makes a formidable success of drawing Nelly's idiosyncracies – a pleasant mixture of a childlike desire for sensation, naivety, awakening sexual interest and an original way of looking at things.

Woven into the text there are several stories within the story, and these are told not from Nelly's perspective but in the third person. In all cases there is considerable doubt about their starting-points. Towards the end Mikail is marched off by three soldiers and is to be executed. Their path is blocked by the farmer, Nelly's 'grandfather'. Exactly what happens then in the end remains unclear. Does the farmer use his shovel to kill the German officer or to dig a grave for the prisoner of war? The two narrative voices in the book cannot agree on this point.

Paulus Hochgatterer's concise story raises many questions. Not only what heroism really means and how subjective perception influences the later narrative. It also calls into question the borders between fiction and so-called reality. Because so-called reality is itself mostly put together from stories, it can do no harm to remain sceptical about every story.

Abridged version of the review by Judith Leister, 2 October 2017.
Englisch translation by Leigh H. Bailey.

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