Author: Maja Haderlap
Translator: Aaron Carpenter
Mountain locales have a mysterious effect on me. They start a mechanism of remembering in me and at the same time awake my instinct to take flight.
In each mountain village, I automatically keep an eye out for streets and paths leading out of the area into the valley or elsewhere. Mountain villages make me uneasy, because they remind me of my childhood and of how much I am searching for a location, for a point of departure in my texts, so I can leave it immediately, because going away and coming back retraces the movement of my writing, in a manner not always known to me.
I know that the mountain locales I have conjured up exist only very rarely, that by now many mountain villages have transformed into summer and tourist communities, that they have discarded their histories and memories. And yet it is exactly the mountain locations with their exposed topographies that represent walking, traversing passes, chasms, and crossings; wandering in impassable terrain between languages and borders, which in turn dictate my existence as an author. The mountain locations with their references to tradition also sharpen one’s sense of change, of transformation, of the character of memory.
The instant I arrive in a mountain village, I remember the childhood smells that I carry in my memories, stories that I believed were forgotten and that I find again rolled into bundles in my pocket. During my explorations of locations and memories, the histories of discarding an old culture, an old language, of words left behind gain contours. In a depopulated mountain village, you unintentionally reproduce cultural change. How else could you explain the desire to want to morph into something else after a trek through the mountains? As soon as you climb down from the mountain, you want to exchange the mountain face for something urban, put on more comfortable shoes, like when you quickly applied mascara to your eyelashes as a schoolgirl or put on different pants before getting on the bus that went into the city.
At this point, I want to take up a narrative thread from my novel Angel of Oblivion that at first glance is not recognizable. It is a tale of the loss of one language and gliding into another that was always there, even if it wasn’t spoken in my immediate family. It is the story of a transition, a metamorphosis, perhaps of a loss, that doesn’t concern just me but should fundamentally make us consider whether the changing of a culture, the leaving of a language, makes us richer or poorer. Where do the transitions lead, to cultural richness or to spiritual impoverishment, desertification?
The example of the Slovenes can make this change visible. The Slovenian language is spoken or understood by around 12,000 people in Carinthia. This language has been struggling to survive for decades. It is struggling for its function in everyday society and for recognition as the second official language. It is struggling to be a self-evident part of public life and to not have to first draw attention through loud protests. It asserts itself in families and in village communities, but leads the life of an outsider in the political and cultural institutions of this country. It is still a political issue, which means that it must be subordinate to a principle of allegiance: you can be for or against it, you make a statement with it. In recent decades, it has suffered the loss of lissomness and liveliness. But it also gained empowerment through bilingual educational institutions. Carinthian Slovenes defend themselves tenaciously against the daily erosion of their language, against the silencing of communication in Slovenian. They protect themselves, but don’t have the financial, economic, and political means to assert themselves as a socially influential group. They are on the defensive.
I have been a witness to the loss of the Slovenian language in Carinthia for as long as I can remember. Slovenian always seemed to be against the spirit of time and on the cusp of erosion in political and societal contexts. It was always the persistent ones who held onto it, and the ones who were insecure who gave it up. Those concerned have long suspected that a language lives only when it is used, but it will disappear if treated as a jewel in a museum. A language cannot just struggle with the past; to insist on its rights, it must insist on its presence in daily life. Because memory is not hereditary. The language of the collective and its memory do not simply proliferate. They must always be acquired, imparted, established, and kept alive with purposeful practices and measures.
People’s command of Slovenian in Carinthia is visibly shifting to a passive competence, with gratifying exceptions, but as we know, the exceptions are not the rule.
With this background, for many years there has been something of a conjuring about the language of Carinthian Slovene literature. In literary texts, the Slovenian language is imagined and celebrated. Authors claim that Slovenian is a kind of embossed seal that has been unalterably burned into their cultural memory and must therefore define writing. I too thought this way more than ten years ago. I too wanted to set a political example through my writing in Slovenian and fight against the disappearance of the Slovenian language in Carinthia. But what has happened in the meantime? What shifts have occurred in my writing?
With my departure from my home enclaves, I apparently began to peel off the Slovenian words, to put on the clothes of a new language, to see myself in new stories and contexts. I kept a lookout for another written language that is not entirely foreign to me and that allows me the greatest possible freedom of thought. The German language grew on me, it helped me. I felt freer and less bound in it than in Slovenian, since Slovenian was burdened with the guilty consciences of those who had left.
However, I have never migrated from the inner core of Slovenian history. I still see myself as anchored in it. Which brings me back to a sense of place, to a sense of individual belonging. In Angel of Oblivion I attempted to transfer the collective experiences of the Slovenes inherent in the memories native to the Slovenian language into the German language. A transfer of experience took place, which may also have contributed to the feeling many people had that the text spoke to them, in a special way to those too who still carry remnants of Slovenian cultural memory, but due to assimilation and the repression of the Slovene language had lost the living connection with it.
I too was only able to approach these painful memories through the German language; I regained my body’s memories and returned to the smells of childhood. Through language, a new nerve cord grew in me, which was able to overcome and outsmart all burying and encrusting of emotion.
I see the great advantage of lively bilingualism in the fact that when you switch from one language to the other, you don’t feel any rupture or foreignness, and that one’s personal starting point is also doubled through the lively exchange between the languages. So, I see myself standing with both feet in two languages, although I must admit that my Slovenian leg wobbles a bit every now and then. In Carinthia, it is difficult to maintain the playful balance between the languages because the relationship between the two languages is not balanced.
Sometimes when I walk through my mountain places, the words run after me like playful puppies who have left their nest in high spirits. They wag their tails and lick my feet so that I will pick them up and nuzzle them. Sometimes the words collide in my head, or they combine, overlap, form a new word animal, cast shadows in the other language.
Writing is a process that keeps going, that is full of promises but also loaded with fears. For me it is a process of rewriting, a transition, a border crossing, a departure. In the movement of my writing, I keep commemorating my first language, Slovenian, like in the following poem:
memory, forget-me-not, monument
what the torn-up field before which
I stand has sown. the autumn sun
is already throwing magnificent colors at
the clouds. even with my eyelids closed,
its flaming complexion blazes.
near the farms that I circle,
i look for words that have been
discarded, like scrapped implements,
scooping them up like one picks up dry twigs
from the forest paths and piles them
by the wayside. from the valleys
the mountain ridges grow up to higher peaks.
the old language crystallizes in
my voice and memorizes the ciphers of
memory: spomin, spominčica, spomenik.
memory, forget-me-not, monument.
Maja Haderlap, “Übergänge” in “Kakanien – Neue Heimaten,” burgtheater.at, 2014.