This Book Belongs to My Mother is a stunning chronicle in which the author gives a voice to his mother, a simple farm girl from a remote, mountainous region of Austria close to the Czech border. Hackl reconstructs what his mother’s life must have been like in her modest native hamlet, conjuring both her inner life and her everyday home environment in a luminous prose that reads like poetry.
The narrative begins two generations before his mother’s birth and continues until the end of World War II, when she gets married at the age of twenty-five. The book illuminates some charming aspects of rural life in the mother’s hamlet and beyond but does not shy from dwelling on its darker side. Scenes of churchgoing, school-life and events at the local inn are set amid widespread child labour and a pervasive atmosphere of brutality. We observe attitudes towards gypsies, the suppression of women, and petty small-town cruelty. Everybody in the hamlet knows everybody else and their business, which includes a case of incest, a suspected paedophile, a devastating fire and a great-aunt killed in a botched abortion.
The life of this straightforward, plainspoken woman is portrayed through a series of vivid highlights that provide a panoramic social and historical view of a world determined by grinding poverty and hardship. She takes part in a magical trip to Vienna, has first-hand experience of Nazism before and after the annexation of Austria, and witnesses the burials of the hamlet’s fallen soldiers, the arrival of the – mainly Russian and French – Prisoners of War, the plight of the Jews and the ‘liberation’ by the Red Army, until she finally meets her husband, who takes her away from the village and changes her life. But the memory of all those years has stayed with her, waiting to be articulated by her son with an intelligibility and insight that she herself was incapable of.
Justly renowned for his literary-biographical talents, Erich Hackl’s latest book is both an intimate biography and a precisely described historical portrait of life as experienced by a small community during hard and uncertain times. Written in clear, spare language which is ideally suited to the mother’s uncomplicated view of the world, the book’s brevity belies the extraordinary richness of its subject matter.