A young boy accompanies his grandmother to the “Panorama”, a kind of slide-show where pictures of far-off continents are shown through peep-holes. That initial chapter (a “Vorbild” as Adler refers to it) sets the scene for H.G. Adler’s monumental novel of the same name, translated into English for the first time in 2011 by Peter Filkins but first published in 1966. Told in “ten pictures”, the novel follows Josef from childhood to boarding school, through his professional experiences, forced labour and finally to a concentration camp, drawing on the author’s own experiences.
H.G. Adler not only uses the Panorama as a metaphor for life but also as the structuring element of his narrative: The chapters are only connected through their main protagonist, Josef. Just as the Panorama shows many different images, the chapters of the book, referred to as “pictures”, are set in different locations and feature a cast of different characters, none of whom are ever encountered again. At the end of each chapter Josef always falls asleep, mirroring the period of darkness between one picture in the Panorama and the next.
Just as the images of the panorama convey a lot of detail but little explanation or context, Adler develops an almost microscopic insight into each chapter’s landscapes, characters and settings. At the same time he omits, downplays or hides seemingly essential information such as the exact location of some of his chapters or references to the political changes of the 20th century. In this way, Adler constantly undermines reader expectations: The things that are missing provide a subtext to the narrative, forcing the reader to look for clues or to contextualize events as they unfold. This is particularly true of the chapter dealing with Josef’s time at boarding school: Adler describes minutely how the school works, how the pupils are being broken into “real men”, how domination, degradation and constraints shape life in this institution, steeped in a sense of Germanic superiority and thoughts of revenge for the lost war. Yet when Josef runs afoul of the system (by calling a fellow pupil a “German pig” in retaliation), he is reacting not to an anti-Semitic, but an anti-Czech slur. Anti-Semitism in general is curiously absent from this book, yet it is hard to believe that Adler, obviously a keen observer of his time, was unaware of it, and indeed the educational chapters seem to explain more clearly than any study how Hitler and the Third Reich were possible.
Not all chapters are equally dark – of the first four, the two dealing with boarding school and early childhood paint pictures of oppression and dominance, whereas “In Umlowitz” and “Burg Landstein” are imbued with an almost idyllic evocation of nature and countryside. The middle chapters, dealing with Josef’s life as an adult before the war, are satirical – hilarious parodies of bourgeois pretentiousness, vanity and self-importance. They pose a sharp contrast to the following two pictures that place Josef in a forced labour camp and later in a concentration camp, culminating in a despairing, gut-wrenching description of life under the iron heel of the “conquerors” and “conspirators”.
A central theme of the book is the individual’s lack of choice. From an early age, Josef is forced to do things he does not want to do, forced to behave in a certain way, and denied the things he wants to do. Even the more positive chapters dealing with his time in Umlowitz and as a kind of boy scout are not free of rules, domination or constraints: In the former, Josef is forced to repeat a year of school because of the teacher’s petty dislike of urban schools, in the latter he has to agree with the rules of his group, despite his protests about carrying a pennant. These constraints are shown in all their violence in the chapters about the boarding school and the concentration camp, neither leaving any margin for the individual. But even Josef’s brushes with working life offer neither choice nor freedom. They are delivered as hilariously funny character portraits of Frau Börsenrat and Professor Rumpler, archetypes of the upper middle class housewife and the self-important boss, but neither of these characters allows Josef any kind of agency.
Above everything it is Adler’s use of language that sets the novel apart. Stringing together main clause after main clause, subordinate clause on subordinate clause, connecting and separating with commas and semi-colons, the text takes on a breathless quality. Shifting from authorial narration to free indirect speech, also shifting from the narrator’s point of view to Josef’s and even to other characters’, switching from description to commentary, the text also changes modes frequently, interspersing ironic passages with satire, philosophical thoughts, commonplace utterances and occasional, almost lyrical descriptions of nature.
Adler’s novel is often challenging, sometimes puzzling, yet fascinating and riveting. The novel, esp. the somewhat rambling last chapter, might have profited from more stringent editing here or there, but these minor quibbles do not detract from the overall quality of the work of a writer who obviously was ahead of his time and who deserves to be re-discovered.
About the author: Dr. Elisabeth Attlmayr is Austrian Academic Exchange Lektorin at the University of Hull.