Martin Horváth

Martin Horváth: Mohr im Hemd

Review

Martin Horváth picked a rare narrator for his novel: an all-knowing, all-seeing first person narrator called Ali Idaulambo, who comes from a country in West Africa. He really does set out to save the world - the miniature world of the refugee home, which however has many parallels to the "outside world", the Austrian society.

The narrating protagonist is designed in such a way that he can easily switch between the adolescent fantasies of a 15-year-old and the intellectual level of an experienced 50-year-old. And so the author manages to portray the psychological hardship of the refugees, namely their search for security, acknowledgement and acceptance, on the one hand, and to polemicize against the racism, the prejudices and the policy towards foreigners in Austria, on the other.

In this way Horváth shows in his novel how the general mistrust towards asylum seekers hinders their integration into society. He thereby criticizes Austrian policy which allegedly puts great emphasis on the ability of foreigners to integrate, but at the same time systematically isolates asylum seekers from Austrian society. The asylum seekers are not allowed to work but live at the host country's expense; they must learn the language and culture of the country, but have hardly any contact with Austrians. Even the majority of the carers, who are supposed to familiarize the refugees with Austrian culture, are immigrants and have to fight against prejudices themselves.

Horváth's protagonist represents someone who fulfils all the requirements for successful integration, and yet has no hope of acceptance of his asylum request. Ali Idaulambo speaks fluent German, knows Vienna, German songs and Austrian customs, is very well informed in political matters and, like many Austrians, he loves the dessert "Mohr im Hemd" (lit: Moor in a shirt), a chocolate pudding with whipped cream. And he remains unwelcome in Austria because of his black skin colour.

The aspect that relates Martin Horváth's novel to Africa is Ali's unique status, which he has because of his skin colour both in the miniature world of the refugee home and in Austrian society. As a black African Ali, who has made it his goal to "bear witness to the activities of the people living in the home", is met with xenophobia and racism both in the refugee home and on the streets of Vienna.

When one day a new African asylum seeker comes to stay in the home, the East European Afrim says "whole [sic] Africans are coming to us". She thereby differentiates between the fate of black Africans and that of other foreigners and identifies herself with that part of Austrian society who opposes the immigration of people who are "noticeably" foreign. Subsequently "being black" becomes a paradigm of the universally unwelcome.

The first person narrator once meets an Austrian on the street and claims to be a Muslim in order to frighten him. He provokes him intentionally by saying, "A black Muslim is even more dangerous than a white Muslim." With these words Ali emphasizes that black Africans come first in the hierarchy of all those affected by prejudice.

Some of the convictions presented in this novel come across as rather extreme, but this was probably the author's intention, for the novel has a blatantly angry attitude towards the unfair treatment of the asylum seekers. However, at the end, the story takes an unexpected and conciliatory turn...

“Mohr im Hemd oder Wie ich auszog, die Welt zu retten” is a well-written, empathetically narrated novel on a contemporary topic in Europe.
James Ikobwa, 2012
translated by Eva-Melitta Raal