Barbara Frischmuth: The Theory and Praxis of Mediating Cultures through Literature

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Francis Michael Sharp (University of the Pacific) [msharp@uop.edo]

Barbara Frischmuth: The Theory and Praxis of Mediating Cultures through Literature
While the Austrian writer Barbara Frischmuth has no illusions about the political effectiveness of literature in a postmodern world, she holds onto a belief in its social function. She had the following to say in a talk she gave in 1998:

Es ist uns wohl allen deutlich bewußt, daß die Literatur den Zenit ihrer politischen Wirksamkeit überschritten hat. Aber das heißt nicht, daß sie keinerlei Rolle mehr im Zusammenleben der Menschen spielt. Vielleicht keine so unmittelbare, wie wir es manchmal gerne hätten, aber auf Umwegen wirkt sie noch. ("Löcher" 69)

The indirect social role which Frischmuth's own fiction often plays is the demonstration of cultural rapprochement that is possible in complex human interchange, a peaceful, mutually accommodating interchange that takes place out of the media spotlight on ethnic, national, and cultural hostilities. Against the macro-backdrop of what social scientists have called "clashing civilizations" (Huntington), Frischmuth creates a micro-world in which characters form close human bonds not only in spite of, but often because of cultural differences. These fictional relationships seem to defy and deny the apocalyptic implications of a world hopelessly divided along the lines of mutually intolerant ideologies. They reflect in particular lives of imagined characters the centripetal forces of cultural interchange that contrast to the centrifugal forces at play in ideological abstractions on the larger stage.

The unknown and unfamiliar have been centrally attractive forces for the figures in Frischmuth's novels from her earliest to her most recent works. She has theorized that the allure of the other has been a powerful inducement for border crossers of world literature for centuries. It must have been, she said in another talk, "die heimliche Sehnsucht nach dem Unheimlichen" ("Das Heimliche" 7) which drew Abdallah, the earth dweller in Scheherazade's tale from the Arabian Nights, to the wonders of the ocean's depths. Accompanied by his underwater counterpart, a second Abdallah, he wanders for eighty days through these depths in a state of awe and amazement. But his fascination with the strange environment gradually gives way to his desire to return home to what is familiar. Despite his decision to leave, his friendship with the other Abdallah seems secure; secure, that is, until it ends in a dispute about religious beliefs: for the one culture, death is a time for celebrating, for the other, a time for mourning. The ruler of the earth dwellers formulates the kernel of wisdom in this allegorical tale: he reprimands Abdallah for having committed a foolish error in placing his need to be right over his friendship. The attachment to a familiar abstraction had proven stronger than the attachment to a person with an unfamiliar belief. The allure of the other had given way to the cultural ties that still held him bound.

With some creative embellishment of Scheherazade's tale Frischmuth relates Abdallah as a kind of archetypal figure to present-day literary migrants, especially those from the Islamic world now living in Europe. If Abdallah had possessed a talent for story telling, she conjectures, and if his hosts had been willing to listen, they might have learned that their own way of life was only one of the world's many variants. They would have enriched their self-knowledge by seeing themselves reflected in the unaccustomed perspective of his stories. Challenging pretentions of cultural superiority and holding up a mirror to their European hosts are fundamental tasks of those contemporary "Asylanten der Literatur," migrant writers living in Europe with the double vision of an acquired language and culture superimposed on their native language and culture. Their displacement has deepened their perceptual acuity for both self and other. Through the eyes of these asylum seekers, European writers too acquire a sense of displacement in perceiving themselves differently, a sense of the mutability of identity. Frischmuth considers such writers to be ideal negotiating partners in the project of cultural rapprochement. She writes: "Die geeignetsten Verbündeten beim Versuch einer Annäherung sind wahrscheinlich die jeweiligen Schriftsteller. Und je bessere Dichter diese Schriftsteller sind, desto eher taugen sie als Verbündete" ("Das Heimliche" 23-24).

These negotiations, driven by the experience and creative imaginations of participant writers, are literary in nature and represent fictional possibilities of accommodation and rapprochement. Frischmuth has taken part in these transactions since her first novel, Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne. Underlying her participation has always been a distinct sense of her own Austrian identity, a perception of self that forms a receptive but resilient basis for cross-cultural encounters. As Frischmuth has more recently pointed out with regard to displaced minorities such as the Moslem population in Europe, the strength of a native identity is crucial to all partners in cultural negotiations. Without western recognition and respect to shore up its non-western identity, the minority population will seal itself off further and drift toward greater fundamentalism (Sanford 145-146).

Frischmuth has described the central dilemma of her time in Turkey as a student as "how to come as close as possible to the Other without losing my own identity" ("Looking over the Fence" 460). Toward the end of the novel she wrote about her experience, her narrator also begins to feel - despite intense efforts to submerge her foreignness - that her sense of self is in jeopardy. Scholars have been divided about the stubborn persistence of this Eurocentric identity. Seen negatively, one writes, "Frischmuth's narrator bears a close resemblance to the traditional male Orientalist" and her novels repeat the cliché of nineteenth-century colonialist attitudes that "East remains East and West remains West" (Lorenz 274, 278). In the sense that the narrator remains immune to assimilation and that both she and her Turkish friends assert strongly inscribed identities, East and West do remain at arm's length. Significantly, however, the attitude of cultural condescension, also common in the traditional male Orientalist, is missing in Frischmuth's novel.

The first-person narrator of Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne suppresses her foreign identity to a large extent - she never mentions Austria or Europe, for example. What primarily marks her as an outsider are her actions and behavior, particularly her independence, her liberated sexual mores and her surprise at events which her Turkish friends take for granted. Another scholar has described her as a "resident alien" who attempts to suspend comprehension of her environment "in order not to preliminarily fit and fix the other into her own value system" (Shafi 245). By withholding judgement, keeping Eurocentric attitudes in abeyance and striving to conform to local customs - not always, as just noted - she is able to avoid "Western hegemonic paradigms" (Shafi 249). That the Turkish culture finally remains incomprehensible to her stems from her own limitations as an outsider - from her native cultural imprint - not from the essential enigma of the culture itself. A third scholar, referring to the novel as "ein Buch über die unaufhebare Fremdheit," also sees it essentially as the tale of failed cultural negotiations (Gellner 219). The narrator mistakenly believes that she has acquired a measure of bicultural identity by the simple addition of aspects of Turkish culture to her own. There is little sense of an eagerness to find the compromise implicit in genuine negotiations, to explore the 'give' as well as the 'take' of such transactions. She fails to recognize "daß wirkliche Begegnung mit dem Fremden erst aus der fruchtbaren Spannung zwischen Eigenem und Anderem möglich wird" (Gellner 225). Even though in residence, Frischmuth's narrator remains an alien.

In the novel Über die Verhältnisse, Frischmuth creates characters with various capacities for negotiating between inherited and acquired identities. Mela, a single mother with close personal and business ties to the political elite in Austria, is also the figure most inextricably bound to her Austrian identity. Her daughter Frô, however, whom she considers "eine andere Möglichkeit" (73), secretly marries Ayhan Heyn, an Austrian diplomat of mixed parentage, and runs off with him to Turkey. Mela follows her to what she calls "eine ANDERSWELT" (160) and finally entices her back to Vienna, although Frô's return is clearly only temporary. The process of her acculturation into the customs and behavior of her new family and society in Turkey had reached the point of no return, as even Mela could observe at a gathering of the Turkish relatives. At this party she is also startled at the ease with which Ahyan and his brother switch from one language and set of gestures to the other, equally at home in both. Ayhan embodies the novel's ideal of bicultural identity, an identity with roots in two cultures, nourished by both and limited to neither.

In the opening address which Frischmuth gave at the symposium "Wir und die anderen" in Vienna in 1998, the author relates those necessary "Vor-Urteile" in simple acts of human perception - "Ein Großteil der menschlichen Wahrnehmung basiert auf Vor-Urteilen, so funktioniert nun einmal unser Gehirn" to those "Vor-urteile" we carry with us when we look across cultural boundaries: "Auch ist Vor-urteil nicht gleich Vor-urteil" ("Löcher" 60, 61). For Frischmuth it is the source of "prejudices" brought to cross-cultural encounters that is problematic, not their inescapable presence. The doubly sensitized bicultural perspective of Ayhan in Über die Verhältnisse allows him greater tolerance for such "Vorurteile" but even less for clichés: "Dem HÜBEN und dem DRÜBEN verpflichtet zu sein, setzt die SCHMERZENSGRENZE für Klischees herab und die für VORURTEILE hinauf, weil man die beider Seiten kennt" (224). While the clichés of one culture about another operate by simplifying, by generalizing, and by neglecting the complexity of the other culture and its individual members, they are transparently unjust to those at home in both. But from this bicultural viewpoint, the tolerance level for "Vorurteile" increases since for Frischmuth they represent a kind of epistemological necessity for all border crossings between cultures.

Frischmuth's most recent excursions into the fiction of transcultural encounters - the short story "Das Lachen des Dalai Lama" (Hexenherz) and the novel Die Schrift des Freundes are set entirely in Vienna. Both are built on the contrast between the reactions of fictional characters to foreigners in their midst and the general atmosphere of xenophobia. The short story is a particularly intense narrative of confrontation between a gang of skinheads, a group of Islamic fundamentalists, and a Viennese woman on her way home from the theater. It is told in a fragmented, stream-of-consciousness style by the woman who lies dying on a subway station floor after being beaten by the gang for trying to help the four Turks. From the moment she had caught sight of the young thugs, she had tried to avoid them. Yet their clothes and hair style had triggered images of her own son at an earlier rebellious stage. The insignia they wore were the same banned symbols of the past she had found in his possession many years ago. These insignia - "die kleinen schwarz-weiß-roten Dinger" (164) - symbolically connect her son and the skinheads to the past, but remain strangely empty of significance for the narrator until she is attacked.

In her disjointed recollections, her imagined maternal ties had intensified to the point that she had incautiously tried to intervene on behalf of the Turkish young man and the three Turkish girls he had in tow. The gang members seemed to be nothing more than disobedient and disrespectful sons, children she felt duty bound to discipline. She finally pays for her well intentioned, yet naive intervention with her life. In her naïveté, she had failed to perceive the virulent xenophobia underlying the skinheads' attitudes toward the Turks until the hostility was redirected at her. Her anger at their misbehavior increases with their increasing recalcitrance until it is met with an even more profound rage:

Sie rüttelte an seinem Arm, der Empörung nicht achtend, die in eisigen Haß umschlug, alten Haß, von wer weiß welcher Mutter, welchem Vater, längst in diesen Blick eigespeichert. Ein Haß, an dem lange gebrütet worden war, der sich nun in eine Faust verlagerte. (168)

When she becomes their target, the shock of the fist in her face jolts her mentally as well as physically. The hostility underlying the behavior of the skinheads is more than adolescent rebellion and rooted more deeply in their psyches than she had realized. She is ill prepared for the shock of defamiliarization, of the loss of this imagined intimacy. The realization that these roots reach back to the unresolved past carries with it the emotional and psychological shock of what Freud called "das Unheimliche." The "uncanny," Freud wrote, "is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression" (148). It is not the sudden return of the past itself to consciousness that underlies the narrator's uncanny experience, but the return to consciousness of the violence attached to this past. The Nazi insignia take on full significance for the narrator only when she herself is attacked. What she thought to be familiar ("heimlich") in the ties she made in her mind between the skinheads and her son, suddenly becomes "unheimlich." The skinheads had been nothing worse than disobedient sons, other versions of her own until they prove otherwise with their violent rejection of her parental authority. Channeled through the generations, the hatred finds an explosive outlet and the fist returns with swift and sure authority the repressed xenophobic violence of the Nazi past. What had seemed to her like adolescent harassment of the Turks explodes in its true fury on the narrator.

The feelings of intimacy that initially develop between the woman and these Viennese youths contrasts starkly with the alienation that separates her from the four Turks. There is nothing familiar or knowing in her descriptions of the three young women or the young man. She is unable to go beyond stereotypical allusions to their appearance, the women's headscarves, their long black coats, and the man's moustache. They are the resident aliens of her familiar surroundings, figures in constant physical proximity to her on the streets and public transportation of Vienna, yet unknown and unknowable as human beings. In her dying moments at the end of "Das Lachen des Dalai Lama," however, the narrator experiences a change of attitude toward these alien human beings. She finds solace in the Dalai Lama's transcendent laughter and calls on her husband to relay the moral imperative of greater compassion to their son. Filled with despair at her aloneness at the precise moment when she longs for any final touch and voice, she formulates the paradox of her need in the face of such human abundance: "So viele Menschen überall, auf der Welt, in dem Land, in dieser Stadt, daß man sie RAUS haben will" (173). Why not one of the many here, she questions. At this extreme moment, when the simple desire for the presence of an other is paramount, xenophobia becomes absurd.

Despite the narrator's visceral sympathy for the four Turks, she knows them only as clichés and the focus of her attention remains fixed on what she senses as familiar in the skinheads. She had not, as Frischmuth advises in the essay "Looking over the Fence," cast her gaze over the fence in her own backyard, to enagage with the other close at hand. Nor does the central figure of Die Schrift des Freundes - another Viennese native - take the initiative herself to engage the migrant population of the other in Vienna. Anna Margotti, a twenty-three-year-old Viennese computer programmer is drawn into it by what, at first sight, seems to be a "stone" (49) lying in front of her apartment door. After her vision has cleared - her Austrian lover had given her a mind-altering drug for her birthday - the "stone" turns out to be a Turkish migrant waiting for friends in the building. In the ensuing story of love and intrigue, he metamorphoses from stone-like anonymity into an individual with a name, Hikmet, a family and ties to the Alevis, one of many ethnic groups within a complex Turkish society known for both its deep roots in the past as well as its revival in the late twentieth century. Hikmet's sudden disappearance for much of the novel turns him from from the object of Anna's desire into an obsession.

With the help of her Lebanese colleague Jussuf, an expert in computers and the Middle East, Anna is able to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. What long seems unfathomable acquires a rationale in the Alevis' practice of mutual assistance: Hikmet had dropped from sight so that his papers could be used by a newly arrived illegal Turkish immigrant. As his ties to the Alevi and their practices gradually become transparent to Anna and the reader, the figure of Hikmet, initially perceived as inert matter, takes on cultural complexity and richness. The shroud of mystery clinging to this other dissolves and the contours of its individuality take shape. The identity of the man who at first sight appeared unapproachably alien explodes the semantic boundaries of cliché and becomes accessible, even though - in Frischmuth's terms - over the fence of a cultural divide.

Frischmuth's tale of romantic attraction across this divide is played off against the larger backdrop of governmental suspicion, distrust, and exclusion. The collective animosities between nations and religions combined with a herd instinct for stasis and an uneasiness with diversity in the abstract is a powerfully inhibiting force to the construction of intercultural bonds between persons. The wall between the Islamic and domestic population in Europe, Frischmuth has written, has been built from both sides ("Löcher" 58-60). Anna and Hikmet find each other just long enough for one night of passion before the government agency responsible for tracking migrant populations drives him to his death. Anna unwittingly contributes to this successful pursuit by her own work on the government's computerized surveillance program. Hired by the Interior Ministry, her firm enters the raw data of the various foreign groups into the program and searches for possible mutual hostilities as well as hostilities directed at the West. Such intelligence has an obvious rationale in maintaining domestic tranquility, but serves as well to shore up the ideological wall and has insufficient capacity for reading nuance between multiple others. Frischmuth illustrates this lack of nuanced decoding on the lives of her characters. Hikmet is killed as a direct result of the intensification of peace-keeping efforts following bombings that turn out to have been planted by homegrown terrorists. His father had been killed four years previously in spite of these efforts by a fanatical Islamic group. Their deaths take on a tragic irony for Frischmuth since father and son were associated with the Alevi, a large ethnic minority particularly suited by recent history and customs to a rapprochement with the West. Jussuf, the author's mouthpiece about this group whose history and modern revival she has been following since her student days in Turkey, enlightens Anna about the characteristics of the Alevi in the local context that make them amenable to cultural negotiation. Most importantly, they represent an "Alternative zum orthodoxen Islam und zum sogenannten Fundamentalismus" (Die Schrift 182).1 The Austrian intelligence, on the other hand, views the threat of the other as monolithic. Taken out of the historical context of their struggle for renewal in Turkey in the eighties and nineties, the contemporary Alevi have roots in leftist politics that leave them tainted in the official perspective (Gellner 215).

In the cultural negotiations between Islamic minorities and Europe, literature has the task of countering what Frischmuth sees as the "polarized and polarizing" forces of religious fundamentalism on the one side and political ideology on the other ("Löcher" 62). When the dominant society fails to recognize the religious and cultural identity of minorities and expects them to be absorbed into the larger whole, they are driven even further into otherness toward radical fundamentalism. Political ideology increases the distance across the divide in its attempt to abstract an essential other from multifarious others. The work of fiction must first recognize and reflect the other as distinct from the familiar, as worthy of existence in its own right. Secondly, literary depiction must counter the essentialism of ideology with the inherent complexity and mutability of the other, a complexity and mutability taken for granted in the familiar.2 Although Frischmuth disclaims any direct political aspirations for literature, she places her hopes for its effectiveness where all political literature takes aim, that is, in the experience of the reader. It is here, she writes, that the consciousness of "'das andere' als die Kehrseite der eigenen Medaille" ("Löcher" 63) develops, where the human connection beyond all cultural disjunctions is formed.WORKS CITED

Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny." Trans. Alix Strachey. On

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