Writing Multiculturalism in Austria


In her 2008 travel novel, Vergiss Ägypten, Barbara Frischmuth presents a moment of self-irony in a scene that narrates an encounter between the Austrian protagonist Valerie Kutzer, an established writer and literary critic, and a young Egyptian graduate student who is planning to write her dissertation on the topic of multiculturalism. When the young student turns to Valerie for inspiration in selecting an Austrian author whose literature addresses such topics, Valerie is at a loss and struggles to find a satisfying answer to this inquiry. She asks whether the criteria in selecting an author was limited to one who writes about Arab cultures. When the student answers no, Valerie breathes a sigh of relief and is able to give the name of an Austrian author, Erich Hackl, who writes extensively about the Spanish-speaking world.

Those familiar with Frischmuth’s own work will recognize the ironic element, for Frischmuth herself would have been an obvious answer to such a question. Since the re-issuing of her early novel Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne (1973) in 1996, one can detect Frischmuth’s increased engagement in addressing social issues within contemporary Austria, as topics of immigration, integration and transcultural encounters within the public and private spheres of Austria surface as central foci of her recent writings. These are particularly evident in the novels Der Schrift des Freundes (1998), Die Entschlüsslung (2001) and Der Sommer, in dem Anna verschwunden war (2004) and two collections of essays Das Heimliche und das Unheimliche (1999)and Von Fremdeln und Eigentümeln (2008).

The fictional exchange between the author and graduate student in Vergiss Ägypten can be understood as a not-so-subltly embedded critique targeted at the literary landscape of Austria, where writers are perceived as less engaged with topics of transnationalism and multiculturalism than, for example, neighboring Germany. But is that really the case?

This fall I am putting together a panel to take place at the annual Northeastern Modern Language Association in March 2013 that asks precisely this question. While I have become quite familiar with Frischmuth’s works and even had the pleasure of meeting with her in Graz last February, I am curious to learn more about both non-minority and minority writers in Austria who grapple with questions related to integration and multiculturalism in the Second Republic. One of the questions that I find most intriguing and have included in my call for papers is the following: While similarities exist, the discussion of
multiculturalism in Austria has not run the same course as in Germany; how do these discussions in Austria remain distinct from those in Germany and why?

Are there perhaps underlying connections to the Habsburg Empire that shape the Austrian discourse on multiculturalism? Frischmuth’s novel seems to hint at this possibility–and I will return to it here in closing.

The conversation between Valerie and the Egyptian student ends with a twist that brings current topics of multiculturalism in Austria into relation with a curious incident rooted in the Habsburg era. Valerie’s Egyptian companion Lamis chimes into the conversation between Valerie and the graduate student with the following tale:

“Wien hat diesbezüglich eine eigene Geschichte, sagt sie. Österreich war ein Vielvölkerstaat, der die Multikulturalität gelebt hat, im Guten wie im Bösen. So hat man zur Zeit Joseph II. einen afrikanischen Prinzen, der als Sklave nach Europa verkauft worden war, es dann am Wiener Hof zu Ansehen, Auskommen und einer ehrbaren Ehefrau samt Kindern gebracht hat, nach seinem Tod ausstopfen lassen, um sein negroides Erscheinungsbild zur Aufklärung der Wissbegierigen über seinen Tod hinaus zu erhalten (182).”

The figure to whom Lamis is referring is Angelo Soliman (c. 1721-1796), who was sold as a slave from sub-Saharan to a Sicilian family. Enslaved as a personal attendant, soldier and confident to Field Marshal Prince Lobkowitz, Soliman later moved to Vienna in 1753. In Vienna, he served as a chamberlain to Prince Liechtenstein, caretaker for the prince’s children and frequently appeared in courtly circles as an exotic ‘showpiece’ for awe and excitement; he became known as the ‘court Moor’. Through a lucky course of events, he was able to free himself from servitude, marry and become a property owner. Though he enjoyed an unusually distinguished status amongst the Viennese during his lifetime, his corpse was subjected to desecration. Upon his death, his corpse was skinned and stuffed for a display in the imperial cabinet of natural curiosities, where it appeared as a half-naked savage exotically decorated with ostrich feathers and shells. It remained in the imperial cabinet until 1806, after which it was placed into storage, only to be destroyed in fire during the October revolution of 1848. The bizarre and macabre ending to Soliman’s story is likely why it has grown into a notorious legend of Viennese cultural history and urban mythology.

Soliman is the first non-European immigrant to Vienna whose life was sufficiently recorded and documented and continues to garner public interest to this day.[1] The story of Soliman is mentioned here in Vergiss Ägypten only in passing, yet it bears significance for the discussion on multiculturalism insofar as it represents the first documented experience of an African migrant within the space of imperial Vienna. In setting the incident of Soliman in relation to a fictionalized debate on contemporary multiculturalism within Austria, Frischmuth seems to be indicating that these current social discussions have deep roots in the material history of race during the era of the Habsburg monarchy. Often upheld in cultural memory as a heterogeneous structure comprised of multi-ethnic groups, a darker side of the Habsburg imperial legacy marked by racism, exoticism and slavery is briefly illuminated in this passage of Vergiss Ägypten.

If you are interested in pursuing these topics, I welcome your comments and feedback. My CFP can be found under the following link at the NeMLA website and I am accepting abstracts until September 30!

[1] A recent exhibition at the Wien Museum documented various manifestations of Soliman’s narrative as found in popular advertisements, contemporary art, literature, theater, and anti-racist activism “Angelo Soliman. Ein Afrikaner in Wien.“ 29.9.2011-29.1.2012.

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