Dunkler Fluß des Lebens. - Barbara Neuwirth

These thirteen stories cover nearly all the subgenres of the fantastic, from science fiction of several sorts, to supernatural to literary fairy tale to psychological fantastic. They have more thematic than stylistic unity. Barbara Neuwirth zeroes in on issues of sexuality and the way it fits into social relations, gender and power relationships. Her observations of the means of women’s powerlessness are merciless; there is little relief or consolation here, though the epilogue, “Das wertvolle Geschenk”, ends the volume on an optimistic note. In a tale of political machinations, “Der schwarze Gold”, the protagonist attempts to do her job as a member of an investigative committee, but is thwarted because the people involved, men to whom she’s wife, lover, object of desire, can’t think of her in other than sexual terms. The husband in “Eklige Egel allerorts” is driven to violence against his wife because of his feeling of losing power in his life. Sex is not a mutual relation. In particular, for Neuwirth, science is entirely an extension of male exploitation (there are no female scientists in this volume). This is laid out in a somewhat heavy-handed, but well-crafted, fashion in “Die Stille Stadt”, and even more heavy-handed in “Columbina”; Neuwirth repeatedly equates scientific investigation with rape. In “Vertumnus”, a man leads (drugs?) a woman into becoming his wife so that he can use her as an unwitting vessel for development of a new technology, starkly showing that for him her pregnancy is a matter of ownership. For me, this portrayal of science was one of the few downsides of the book, as I consider it far too one-sided, and missing the point of science; but her observations of the attitudes of people involved are often acute, here as elsewhere in the book.

Very rarely are there decent men to be found in these stories, and any there are, are invariably killed during the course of the story. It’s a bleak vision, indeed; there are a few stories in which women end by gaining the upper hand, but only by killing their exploiters and abusers (except in the epilogue). But I don’t want to make the book sound unreadably unpleasant; it’s always involving because Neuwirth’s writing skill populates it with living characters, and brings their inner life so clearly into focus. There are a few weak stories, but on the whole the themes are interestingly explored. Besides the gender issues mentioned above, another constant thread running through the volume is the place of love and mutual sympathy in the characters’ lives. Lack of love dooms characters in “Unter dem Äquator” and “Besitzgier”; emotional generosity is never requited, and is a dangerous weakness. The main character of “Sieh mich an mit deinen gelben Augen” fears that she’s a freak, which the rest of humanity will destroy, because she’s capable of strong love. “Nimm diese Rosen, Schöne” is an attempt to explore the nature of love in lyrical, generalizing terms, probably less successful than the more grounded stories. “Der Tochter der Künstlerin” is an interestingly ambiguous investigation of the emotional costs totted up at the end of a childless writer’s life.

These are intelligent, varied, and occasionally excellent stories. Neuwirth has rarely been translated into English; some of them would definitely merit it. She wrote most of her short works in the early nineties, and has been involved in other sorts of literary projects since then. Furthermore, she was involved in running a feminist publishing company, and in editing anthologies; perhaps that’s where her main influence lies. Hers is a name I’ll watch out for in the future.