- Splithead by Julya Rabinowich
In 2009, Russian-born Austrian playwright and artist Julya Rabinowich was awarded the prestigious Rauriser Literaturpreis for her debut novel Spaltkopf. This popular text with autobiographical emphasis now has an excellent English translation, published in 2011. The text’s major topics include the loss of [End Page 201] Heimat, the search for identity, the quest for belonging and recognition, and an examination and evaluation of her Jewish background.
Splithead has an intriguing narrative structure: Two first-person narrators tell the story of Mischka and her family’s migration from Russia to Vienna and their subsequent attempts to find a home in the Austrian capital. While Mischka, the main narrator, relates the story from a purely subjective position, Splithead, a mysterious and uncanny character, gives the readers insight into Mischka’s (Jewish) family history. He intervenes whenever one of the characters is plagued by anxieties. He coldly comments on all the members of Mischka’s family and exposes hidden fears and harrowing family memories. Moreover, his ghostlike presence is felt by Mischka as he hovers over her. On a more elementary level, he serves another function: used by the adults as a disciplinary tool, Splithead is supposed to keep unruly children in check. If they do not behave, he will eat their thoughts and suck out their souls. Only upon being spotted by his victims does he lose his grip over them.
Its originality notwithstanding, Rabinowich’s text has much in common with other migration stories, particularly Vladimir Vertlib’s Zwischenstationen, including the loss of one’s home and the daunting task of finding a home in a new country. Although Rabinowich employs irony and the narrator makes fun of herself, immense sadness and pain stemming from the uprootedness and feelings of loss burden her words. Despite having left Leningrad to escape anti-Semitism, Mischka’s parents never mentally arrive in Vienna. Mischka too is held back by her memories and finds herself suspended between two worlds. But this sense of non-belonging is also grounded in the fear of losing one’s identity. As Splithead puts it: “She hopes she can grow into the new country. Then once again, she is tormented by the thought that it could close seamlessly around her and crush her” (64). Similarly, Mischka articulates this paradox: “Faced with a choice between two stools, I take the bed of nails. I am tired. I’m not home. I have arrived” (7). Heimat as a place is incomplete, for the process of adjusting to the host culture moves forward slowly and only partially.
The feeling of not-belonging is also caused by an Austrian society reluctant to welcome migrants. In order to overcome her outsider status in school and to close the cultural gap between herself and the Austrians, Mischka seeks to free herself from the stigma of being a foreigner and distinguish herself from other migrant children. She acquires German in record time, finds an Austrian friend, and learns to “bitterly despise minorities” (72). And yet she is well aware of her problematic position. Lucidly, she writes: “I want to unload the contempt I feel for myself onto others as cheaply as possible” (72). [End Page 202] The ideal of the hybrid or transcultural identity, the fluid transition between self and the foreign persistently elude her.
To some extent, furthermore, Mischka’s tale is also a bildungsroman. Not only does Mischka search for a new home, we also accompany her through puberty and on her way to becoming an artist and writer. Ruthlessly honest, the protagonist reveals how her innermost thoughts and her budding sexuality involve her in a trench warfare that implicates the entire family. On her way to adulthood she experiences bingeing, depression, drug abuse, and a failed marriage but also embarks on an extraordinary journey in search for her family history.
And it is only when she visits St. Petersburg, her place of birth, that Mischka is finally able to gain more authority over her life. Nowhere in St. Petersburg does she encounter the warmth and sense of belonging she expected to recover after...