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Saturday 4 December 2010

Austrian/Israeli writer Doron Rabinovici reading from his acclaimed 2010 novel “Andernorts” ("Elsewhere") at the Literaturhaus in Salzburg, Austria

I am in Salzburg, the town where I was born, grew up. For my parents an unusual place to settle. Both, survivors of death camps, they found themselves in 1947 in the displaced persons camp “New Palestine” established by the allied forces in Salzburg after World War II. Most of the 10,000 people in the camp left for Israel and the USA. My parents stayed in Salzburg.

I return to Salzburg to visit good friends from my high school days. Friends from Vienna also made the 200- mile-journey to Salzburg, so we would be able to spend some time together. It did me good.

This evening, I go to see Doron Rabinovici read from his novel “Andernorts” ( translatable as “Elsewhere” but also denoting that this “elsewhere” is a particular place). I have discovered Rabinovici as a recommendation from my brother, a physician living in Zurich. There, I have heard Rabinovici deliver a talk at the ETH (The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). The talk was on “guilt and language”. His thesis in a nutshell: good literature is a better means for exploring the complexities of events giving rise to disputes, misdemeanours and crimes than a trial in a court of law ever can. Rabinovici is a historian of note, an astute political commentator, resolutely on the intelligent left of the political spectrum. He is committed, but nuanced in analysis and judgement. Above all, Rabinovici is a writer, a talented writer of novels to boot.

Rabinovici, born in Tel Aviv of Viennese parents in the early 1960s, came to Vienna as a child in the mid 60s. He is Israeli and Austrian; he writes in German - German literature in a clear elegant prose, that is a pleasure to read. About complicated relationships and feelings, sensitive issues, stories with action, stories that move right along. “Andernorts” has been short-listed for the 2010 German Bookprize, the equivalent for German literature of the Mann-Booker Prize in the UK for Commonwealth writers.

The reading takes place in the Literaturhaus Salzburg (which was opened long after I left Salzburg after my high-school final exams). The Literaturhaus is on the Strubergasse, the street I grew up in. To get there, I walk across the railway bridge traversing the Salzach River. In my time here, the bridge was right in front of our house - and exclusively for trains. As a child, I often imagined it becoming a pedestrians bridge, saving me meters and minutes on errands. I must have been suffering from premature Taylorism. Now, in 2010, my wish has come true. A safe and comfortable pedestrian walkway has been established between two sets of rails. It will take me to the Literaturhaus. The reading by Doron Rabinovici is co-organised by the Centre for Jewish Culture at Salzburg university. This has been founded and funded recently. To me, having grown up in Salzburg in the 1960s, it's name sounds like “FIFA Ethics Commission” – the epitome of a contradiction in terms. As I reach the other side of the bridge there is a new train station for local trains. Poignantly, the next train on the modern electronic indicators is for Braunau am Inn, Adolf Hitler's birthplace. Its first syllable “Braun” was the inspiration behind the brown colour of the swastika flag and the brown shirts of the “brown-shirts”. I don't take the train. I walk five minutes further to the Literaturhaus.

“Andernorts” is a hilarious and moving account of love-hate relationships between different people living their different multiple identities in their personal, individual very human ways. Its protagonist, Ethan Rozen, is an Israeli social scientist working at a university research centre in Vienna. His fatherly mentor Dov Zedek, who had to flee Vienna in the 1930s, has just died. Rozen returns to Vienna from the funeral in Israel. He has applied for a professorship in Vienna recently and is seen as the “logical” candidate. Rozen has been asked to write an obituary for Dov Zedek for an Austrian newspaper, but has refused that assignment. On the air plane he finds that Rudi Klausinger, an Austrian, non-Jewish expert on Jewish culture has been tasked with writing the obituary instead. Klausinger's piece and the talkative passengers with whom Ethan Rozen is forced to communicate, more or less reluctantly, set in train a series of events that will affect the personal and professional lives of Ethan Rozen and other protagonists in the novel.

The human tendency to tirelessly search for cause and effect, even for supernatural influence plays a role here. Attempts are made to divide nature from nurture, to mix religion with genetics, to look for pragmatic solutions to the most tricky interpersonal problems. All this gives the novel drive impetus, absurdity and humour – the ingredients of heightened realism and insight. The differences between Vienna and Tel Aviv are skilfully presented. Which problems will be openly discussed which kept secret? How do people seek to resolve conflicts in the academic, personal and political sphere? Viennese obliquity, Tel Aviv directness – both have to be navigated by the protagonists. So does the weight of their histories. All this is serious and very funny too.

Rabinovici is a skilful reader and teller of anecdotes. When answering questions from the audience, he is modest. He listens, has an eye and ear for detail. He approaches his readers as he approaches the characters in his novel, primarily as people who are complex, who are human, in their weaknesses and strength.
A sample English translation of the turbulent first pages of his book “Andernorts” (“Elsewhere”) is provided in the second link below. Information about the author in English from his publishing house Suhrkamp and a synopsis of his book are in the first link.

I hope all of “Andernorts” will be available in English soon. When I first heard Rabinovici, I was reading this year's Mann-Booker prize winning novel “The Finkler Question”, by Howard Jacobson. To my question, Doron Rabinovici says that he was unaware of The Finkler Question. The two books deal with similar issues, are serious, moving, funny. The ideas expressed, the protagonists, the influence of place, the impact of secrets in family and friendship – the similarities and the differences between these two books are worth exploring.

Foto: Doron Rabinovici

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