Atapattama yesterday when I was young

"When I was young": The death of the bride

A wedding celebration can become the culmination of long repressed conflicts. This is also the case with the unequal couple that Franz has to photograph: The bride asks the photographer how often someone has changed his mind in front of the altar. The groom's mother considers her future daughter-in-law to be unworthy. In the course of the evening, a group of aggressive and boastful men appear who kidnap the bride and only bring her back late in the night - her ex-boyfriends, as it turns out later. The next morning, the young woman with a broken neck is found at the bottom of a slope. Whether her death was an accident, a suicide or even a murder is one of the leitmotiv questions that run in elegant loops through Norbert Gstrein's new novel. And the death of the bride will not be the only mysterious death in which the first-person narrator Franz is involved.

The Austrian Norbert Gstrein elevated the refusal of narrative clarity in his novels to an aesthetic program and refined it from book to book. Who owns a story? this was the title of a volume of essays from 2004 in which Gstrein examined the necessity of factual consistency in fictional texts. The facts in When i was young can be summarized as follows: Franz is the son of a hotelier who specializes in hosting weddings. After the bride's enigmatic death, Franz sets out for the USA, works as a ski instructor in the Rocky Mountains and returns to Tyrol 13 years later, where his brother has now taken over the hotel business. It could have been like that, but also completely different. Because Franz, who returns home failed and penniless, remains as opaque as a narrator as it is unreliable.

The inner engine that drives Gstrein's book, which is so incredibly successful, is a dark sexuality; a mixture of shame and violations of taboos. Associated with this are experiences of humiliation, border crossing and a smoke screen of rumors, accusations and suspicions. There is Sarah, a girl with whom Franz went to the mountain during one of the wedding celebrations and who haunts the novel as a diffuse longing being. Did Franz kiss her against her will? Or worse? Didn't he really know that she was only 13 years old at the time? There is Professor Moravec, a rocket researcher who emigrated from the Czech Republic, and Franz becomes his confidante and ski instructor in the USA. Was the professor's manic interest in a series of unexplained missing persons cases of young girls more than just a tad? That too will not be clear, because Moravec kills himself in a spectacular way right at the beginning of the novel. In a subordinate clause, on the other hand, Franz tells of his own experiences of abuse during his time at boarding school, which made him damaged himself. And finally: Was Franz actually on the night 13 years ago, in which the bride died, on the way, even near the abyss, like a sinister policeman, fueled by speculation, under Franz?

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Where the public discourse pretends to be able to produce clarity with catchphrases like "#MeToo" or "toxic masculinity" and at the same time switches to an indictment mode, Norbert Gstrein dissolves supposed moral superiority into literary accuracy. There is hardly an author who is able to penetrate so accurately into those spaces in which people become uncertain of themselves.

The art of this process consists in the fact that all ambiguities and ambivalences are enclosed in a tight structure of action and thought. Anyone who follows the beauty of Gstrein's long, winding sentences is easily in danger of overlooking the sophisticated concept behind them.

There is nothing whispering about the discomfort that reading creates. What drives Gstrein is the question of how much a person can know about himself, about his own abyss and about those of others. And to what extent this supposed knowledge is linguistically available. In the not exactly sympathetic Franz figure, a longing for self-extinction and overwriting appears.

"When I was young," writes Franz right at the beginning, "I believed in almost everything, and later in almost nothing, and at some point during this time I might have lost my belief, or lost my belief." The text we have before us is an attempt at self-rescue by rewriting a failed biography. It goes without saying that there are no guarantees. Accompanying Norbert Gstrein with reading on this project, which is a life project, is a gloomy pleasure.

Norbert Gstrein: When I was young. Novel; Hanser, Munich 2019; 350 pp., € 22, as an e-book € 16.99