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April 2023
Raphaela Edelbauer: THE LIQUID LAND

Book cover: The Liquid Land
© Scribe Publications

With its imaginative setting and surreal, claustrophobic atmosphere, The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer offers an absurdist portrait of Austria with hints of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.

This month’s recommendation takes us to my adopted home of Austria – where very peculiar things are going on. Raphaela Edelbauer’s stunning debut, The Liquid Land, with which she proved herself a highly inventive and perceptive young writer, was published in 2019 to great acclaim and instantly shot on to the German Book Prize shortlist. Set in the fictional town of Greater Einland, which is slowly collapsing into an ever-growing hole, this bizarre and hugely engaging novel explores collective memory, historical guilt and the legacy of the Second World War.

With her wildly imaginative style of storytelling – available in English in Jen Calleja’s rollicking translation – Edelbauer calls to mind the more experimental works of British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Like The Buried Giant, Edelbauer’s novel is concerned with memory and wilful forgetting, yet what makes it stand out is its dreamlike atmosphere, the frightening, claustrophobic sense of being trapped in a place you know to be unreasonable and yet cannot escape. To read The Liquid Land is to be unable to wake from a dream, a state familiar to readers of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.

It all begins innocently enough, when brilliant young physicist Ruth Schwarz learns that her parents have died in a car crash. Obliged to arrange a funeral and order their affairs, as well as being curious about the past they had largely kept from her, she sets off for their hometown of Greater Einland, somewhere in the depths of rural Austria. Not only does the place prove remarkably hard to locate, but when she arrives she finds herself plunged into an absurdly archaic society – governed by a system of IOUs, ‘Potemkin village’ supermarkets and questionable morals, all overseen by the mysterious and bafflingly idiosyncratic Countess.

What’s more, Greater Einland is built above an enormous crater, which is slowly widening and causing the town to subside. Ruth is conscripted by the Countess to shore up the town; overwhelmed by a mix of filial duty, morbid curiosity and sheer inability to leave, she duly does so. But even as Ruth works on a kind of cement with which she plans to fill the chasm, the town is arranging a festival to launch the hole as a tourist attraction. And as Ruth delves into Greater Einland’s history, she uncovers a web of silence and conspiracy linked to the Second World War.

The Countess – a kind of robust, worldlier Miss Havisham – is not the only fantastic character to stride through the pages of The Liquid Land. There is Schlaf the Hat-Maker, who carries his own crystal tumbler from which to drink 100-year-old madeira, amateur scientist and wannabe time-traveller Sister Elfriede, and Frau Erna, proprietor of the Jolly Pumpkin, not to mention Ruth herself. As with other aspects of the novel – chocolate-box houses, hunting trophies, traditional dress – they all have roots in the specific reality of rural Austria, but also hark back to some unspecified era, giving the novel the discombobulating sense of being entirely outside time.

The Second World War looms large in Austria, yet very often simply isn’t discussed. Literature has long tried to offer a corrective to this general amnesia, and Edelbauer boldly assumes the mantle for her generation. Though it certainly isn’t the first time an Austrian author has looked at the conflict through the lens of surrealism, Edelbauer’s sharp ironies, compelling characters and masterful use of suspense put her novel in a league of its own. In its unique, mildly terrifying, absurdist manner, The Liquid Land is a thoroughly accurate portrait of modern-day Austria.

About the author

Eleanor Updegraff is a committed bookworm with a particular penchant for literature in translation. She makes her living from words in all forms: as a ghostwriter, German–English translator, copy-editor and book reviewer, and author of short stories and creative non-fiction. She grew up in the UK and has lived in Austria in 2015, where she’s often to be found in a coffee shop or running around a lake.

London library: Borrow the original German title of Das flüssige Land.

London library: Borrow the English translation of The Liquid Land.

E-Library: Borrow the original German title Das flüssige Land digitally.

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