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Malina: A Novel


Novel by Ingeborg Bachmann, 1971

Ingeborg Bachmann's novel Malina, published in German in 1971 and in English translation in 1990, recounts one woman's "murder" at the hands of the three men closest to her: her Hungarian lover, who loves only his children (in the first chapter, "Happy with Ivan"); her abusive father and the fascist society he represents (in the second chapter, "The Third Man"); and, most pernicious of all, her other self, Malina, who shares her apartment and works at the arsenal in the Austrian Army Museum (in the third chapter, "Last Things").

The destruction of the nameless female, first-person narrator is so gradual as to be almost imperceptible, while on the novel's surface almost nothing appears to be happening: she smokes and waits for Ivan (chapter 1); she dreams and remembers her father's silencing of the past (chapter 2); she realizes her condition and disappears into a crack in the wall (chapter 3). Leading up to the final sentence, "It was murder"—which unequivocally attests to the criminal nature of her disappearance—each of the three chapters focuses on her relationship with a different "murderer."

In the novel's central chapter the narrator recounts "the dreams of last night." The first of these 36 nightmares opens with the image of a lake on which, she recalls, expressive men's choral societies had once stood when the water was frozen, a lake surrounded by many cemeteries, one of which is the "cemetery of the murdered daughters." This frightening landscape beneath a dark block of clouds leads to one of the most horrible scenes ever written, the dream of "the world's biggest gas chamber." A daughter has been locked in the chamber with her father, who then leaves her alone in the gas: "My father, I say to him, who is no longer there. I would not have betrayed you, I would not have told anyone. Here you do not resist."

This beginning of the dream chapter contains the prime scene of German literature after 1945. A child of the perpetrator generation asks about a way out of the world of the Holocaust and, in so doing, is abandoned by her father. Just as he pulls his hand back from her shoulder in the first dream when the old grave digger approaches them and tells her that this is the "cemetery of the murdered daughters," so does he leave her alone in the gas chamber in the second dream. With Bachmann it is no longer the son, but the daughter, who is separated from the world of the father, which in the German novel after 1945 is the world of the Holocaust.

The dreams document the many ways in which the daughter is silenced: her father writes no lines for her to sing in his grand opera; he takes paper and pencil away from her in prison and destroys her letters; he even tries to find the sentences she has hidden in her parched mouth and to take them into custody as she dies of thirst. At the same time the dreams also chronicle the daughter's repeated attempts at resistance, most of which, however, remain ineffectual. Words prove to be least effective of all, and she uses all of the words she has available: "I say: Ne! Ne! and in many languages: No! No! Non! Non! Nyet! Nyet! No! Ném! For in our language, too, I can only say no, I can't find any other word in any language." When she screams, her voice is without sound; she speaks, but no one hears her. Amid the daughter's repeated, futile attempts to be heard, the father offers a busy front to distract attention from the truth of his past.

The novel ends with the disappearance of the narrator into a crack in the wall, "a very old wall, a very strong wall … from which nothing can ever be heard again," as the novel's penultimate sentence announces. Unlike the novel's narrator, the writer Bachmann was not silenced by her father's world. Her work tells the story he struggled to keep her from writing.

—Karen R. Achberger

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