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Arno Geiger: Unter der Drachenwand.

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In the Shadow of the Drachenwand.
Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2018.

Arno Geiger


Will this book be read in the town of Mondsee in the Austrian Salzkammergut? For in his new novel Unter der Drachenwand ("In the Shadow of the Drachenwand", the mountain overlooking the lake, literally the "dragon's rock face"), Arno Geiger, born in Vorarlberg in 1968, paints a very gloomy picture of Mondsee at the beginning of the 1940s, in the middle of the Second World War.
The novel’s central character is Veit Kolbe, born in Vienna in 1920. When Hitler’s invasion of Poland triggers the outbreak of the Second World War, he has just graduated from secondary school and is doing his military service. From the very first day of the war, Kolbe, whose father is a teacher and has been a fervent National Socialist for almost twenty years, is thus a soldier. At the end of 1943 he is injured by shrapnel. Thanks to the help of his uncle, the war-weary and psychologically shattered Kolbe is permitted to go to Mondsee for his period of convalescence. He manages to stretch it out for almost a year, during which time he falls in love with Margot, a young woman from Darmstadt who has a baby and whose husband is a soldier at the front.

Geiger adds other voices to that of the first-person narrator Kolbe. In 1941, the Jew Alexander Milch is still living in Vienna with his wife and small son, stubbornly clinging to the illusion that nothing can happen to them if they simply behave well and keep quiet. Then there is Margot’s mother in Darmstadt, through whose letters her daughter experiences the almost complete obliteration of the town in southern Hesse. para
And then there is the seventeen-year-old Viennese boy Kurt, who has fallen in love with his thirteen-year-old cousin Annemarie. The two youngsters exchange passionate letters between Vienna and Mondsee. Then Annemarie disappears. In spite of a search lasting weeks, after a number of months her remains are found up on the Drachenwand. Was it an accident? Or suicide?
Towards the end of 1944, Kolbe is declared fit to return to the front and, like all the other figures in the novel, is compelled to face up to the all-consuming dragon of war for one last time. At the end, Geiger gives a concise account of who survived the war and who did not, and what paths the survivors followed when peace came.

The general character of Arno Geiger’s work so far makes it unusual to find him turning to the context of contemporary history. The idea for Unter der Drachenwand sprang from his accidentally coming across a collection of original documents, which he read and complemented with hundreds of other pieces of writing from the same period.
Arno Geiger gives a telling and sensitive account of people and war, of downfall, and of inner and outer devastation, his language oscillating skilfully between the rendering of emotions and visual impressions, with the latter increasingly reflecting the characters’ feelings as the novel nears its end.

Abbreviated version of the review by Alexander Kluy, 10 January 2018
English Translations: John Nicholson

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