EUROPEAN BOOK CLUB | AUSTRIAN SESSION
JULYA RABINOWICH | SPLITHEAD
THURSDAY, SEP 29 2011, 06:30 PM
The novel Splithead revolves around the 7 year old girl Mischka, the main character and narrator of the story, who escapes from the political turmoil of the USSR and its communist oppression to Vienna in the 1970s with her family. Settling down in their new hometown, the family’s ability to come to terms with the new situation increasingly diverges. Whereas Mischka’s parents suffer from the discord between East and West, past and future, young Mischka seems to adapt to the new situation quickly. Enjoying the previously unknown possibilities of Western materialism, such as Barbie dolls and “hideous jeans,” Mischka engages in successful assimilation with the children surrounding her. Despite her greatest efforts, the young heroine is aware that there is a part of her that will never totally escape her Russian homeland, with its insidious anti-Semitism, old family secrets, and terrifying folktales. The latter evoke the story’s title and second narrator, Splithead, a figure from Russian mythology. His perspective reflects the political implications of the Cold War and thus complements Mischka’s straight and vivid impression of her new life. Rabinowich's tendency to flit constantly from one narrator to the next – between Mischka and the author herself, who ironically comments on her own very similar past, and further, between past, present and future – resists a smooth and chronological narration of events.
Eventually, Mischka’s parents split up, her sister retreats into silence, and the now young woman must find her own way. From awkward teen to blue-haired adult punk, from eating disorders to a relationship with a latent gay man, she manages to develop new and charming personas in search of her real identity. What Rabinowich’s novel provides is not only a vivid picture of what it meant to be a Jewish family having to face the experience of exile, disillusion, and alienation in the context of Cold War; but, and most particularly, it provides insight into the enthralling character Mischka.
Author Julya Rabinowich was born in St. Petersburg in 1970, and has lived in Vienna since 1977. She studied translation, painting, and philosophy and has established herself as a critically acclaimed novelist, playwright, and painter. Besides her artistic career, Rabinowich works as an interpreter for refugees and asylum seekers at the Vienna Integrationshaus (House for Integration). Her first book, Spaltkopf (Splithead), published in Austria in 2008, has been a major success, as it received the renowned Rauriser Literature Prize for the best German debut novel of 2009. The book was published in English by Portobello Books in February 2011 (translated by Tess Lewis). Rabinowich’s plays, including Romeo + Julia (2008) and Stück ohne Juden (2010, A Play without Jews), have being staged in renowned theaters in Vienna. Her latest novel, Herznovelle, was published in Austria in 2011. Rabinowich lives with her daughter in Vienna.
This session of the European Book Club will be moderated by Hannah Liko, Deputy Director of the ACFNY and Head of its Literature, Drama and Debates Department. For more information on New York's European Book Club, please visit europeanbookclub.org
Splithead, by Julya Rabinowich (Portobello Books, 2001). Translated by Tess Lewis.
The book is available through amazon.com.
Praise for Splithead:
”A novel about exile, new departures and dead ends. Bewitching, refreshing and utterly unexpected.” - United Agents UK
“A clever, snappy novel suffused with comedy, proverbial wisdom and fairy tale.” - The Guardian
“Though hardly action-packed, Splithead nonetheless offers a thrilling glimpse of a period and places known to most of us principally through major figures and big events.” - The Jewish Chronicle
“The book isn't exactly action-packed, but it's hard to put down once you're caught up in what is a very human, sometimes poignant, sometimes wryly amusing psycho-thriller set in a family trapped in limbo.” - Deutsche Welle