Going Dutch with German Writers (7) : Why is Austria such a difficult place?

The Austrian writer Julya Rabinowich is not a drinker, but savours the smell of wine nonetheless. Katy Derbyshire meets her at a Swiss literary festival and invites her out on the town. Austrian literature, refugees, sex on anthills, how to be Russian and Jewish, and other typical female bonding subjects are discussed.

Morning-after-picture: Julya Rabinowich and Katy Derbyshire.
Morning-after-picture: Julya Rabinowich and Katy Derbyshire.Foto: Privat


Julya Rabinowich is an Austrian writer, born in St. Petersburg. She writes plays and has published three books so far, Spaltkopf (Splithead, trans. Tess Lewis), Herznovelle and Die Erdfresserin. She and I are both in the Swiss town of Solothurn over the weekend, for a delightful literary festival. We met by chance when her translator Tess introduced us, and we instantly got on – so I asked if she’d like to go out drinking with me. The answer was yes, except she doesn’t actually drink.


We start off at a meal for the writers and translators involved in the festival, upstairs at the Restaurant Kreuz, and move on to the lower-key Pizzeria Türk, Solothurn.


Red wine, water

What did we talk about?

It’s hard to say what we started talking about. We’d hit it off the night before because I told her she reminds me of my quasi-stepmother, who’s half-Czech and half-French and teaches English to refugees in London. Which brings us to the subject of Julya’s former work with refugees in Vienna, interpreting at therapy sessions. I think we were still at the Kreuz when we talked about Mikhail Shishkin, whose Venushaar/Maidenhair is about a Russian interpreter working with refugees in Switzerland. Everyone in the whole of Solothurn is besotted with Mikhail Shishkin because he’s an excellent writer and a charming person. Julya too (I haven’t read him but was impressed when I saw him talking here) – only his book made her feel rather sad because it came out before hers and dealt with a similar subject, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it hadn’t been excellent. Ah well. The Kreuz is very crowded and people keep moving around between the tables. It’s a difficult atmosphere, as we end up discussing later. There’s always a certain aspect of professional envy, with scope for mistrust and resentment, when lots of writers are in the same room. I find it similar (although less intense) with translators who work in the same direction as I do, but I think it’s worth making the effort to keep relations positive. What I forget to say at the time is that I do find literary translators incredibly supportive, for the main part. So we move on to the Türk, where there are fewer distractions.

Between the Kreuz and the Türk we slip into relationship talk, the staple stuff of female bonding. It’s hard to get out of it and back onto topics I can write about here. We order the Spanish red – it’s delicious. Julya sips it and sniffs it and enjoys it, but I’ve already promised not to make her drink, or else I’d have to take her to hospital. I try not to be too demonstrative about how delicious the wine is; it doesn’t seem to bother her though. Who does she read, I ask her, steering us back to safer territory. Bulgakov is her great passion – Julya Rabinowich is a woman who’s not afraid to call herself passionate, and it seems to fit. At one point she suggests I might be a passionate person too. It feels like a compliment. Her parents, she says, “exposed her to Bulgakov’s force of nature” when she was only seven. And she’s read and re-read him ever since, discovering new aspects and understanding things differently every time. Was it scary? Oh yes. I don’t tell my story about reading Last Exit to Brooklyn at too young an age; it seems redundant in contrast. Julya talks about how she’s afraid of a lot of things; she talks about panic attacks. But she does the things anyway. The fear is her Jewish side, she says, and the Russian side doesn’t give a shit and goes ahead and does stuff. It sounds like a good way to get things done, I say. It is, says Julya, but it makes life hard work.

We talk about her plays. One is about three people trapped inside: a Natascha Kampusch character, an illegal refugee hiding out for six months so she can roll out her asylum application again, and a child held responsible for his dead father’s crime by another clan, who runs the risk of being killed if he leaves his own four walls. She writes a lot about refugees, with a third-person eye for “the migrant experience” that I think is lacking in a lot of German-language writing. It’s a thin line, I suggest, because she’s not uncritical of some of the family structures she’s seen in place among refugees. It’s tempting, or it might be easier, to view refugees as victims pure and simple, but in fact they’re three-dimensional characters, of course. And there are parallels between these people hiding out in modern-day Vienna and the Jews living underground during the war. Yes, she says, being sent back to a war zone is likely to kill a person, especially if they’ve experienced torture. But she doesn’t draw those lines explicitly, and I think that’s a good thing.

The Blogger: Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator who moved to Berlin in 1996. She has translated many contemporary German writers, including Felicitas Hoppe, Francis Nenik, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Christa Wolf. She likes talking about books.