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  • “Der Blick über den Kulturzaun”: Perspectives on Multiculturalism in the Novels of Barbara Frischmuth
  • Edith Toegel

In a recent review of two new publications on women and Islam, Barbara Frischmuth points out the lack of objectivity in the perception of non-Western cultures (“Die Macht des westlichen Blicks”). She also refers to Julia Kristeva’s axiomatic statement that we must look inward first before we can attempt to understand the other. Considering Frischmuth’s knowledge of Islam and her own interest in the literary depiction of foreign cultures and societies, it is not surprising that her views on the subject are highly valued. “Mit Kulturen ist es wie mit Lebewesen,” she stated in a lecture on multiculturalism in contemporary German literature ten years ago, “sie versuchen ihre Einflußsphäre abzustecken, einander zu dominieren, zu bekämpfen.” And yet, “wie sehr sie einander auch über- oder unterschätzen mögen, sie haben einander zur Kenntnis zu nehmen” (Lützeler 10). Then, as now, Frischmuth emphasizes the importance of writers in any discussion regarding culture, race, and politics. Writers, she insists, have the natural tendency “zum Randgehen und zum Űbersteigen der verschiedensten Mauern und Grenzzäune” (Das Heimliche 16), which allows for a unique view of the other side of the metaphorical cultural fence. “Der Blick über den Kulturzaun ist [...] nötiger denn je, und ich glaube, die Literatur kann ihn am ehesten riskieren” (“Der Blick” 19, 27).

A turcologist by training, Frischmuth began her career as a linguist and a serious student of Islam. She studied Turkish and Hungarian languages in Graz, subsequently spent nine months at the University of Erzurum in Anatolia, and continued with Iranian and Islamic Studies at the Oriental Institute of the University of Vienna in the 1960s. Her first literary work of significance, and one of the first Austrian postwar texts dealing with Turkey, Das Verschwinden des Schattens in der Sonne, was published in 1973. Following an almost twenty-year hiatus, during which she established her status as one of the preeminent contemporary Austrian writers with such works as the Sternwieser and Demeter trilogies, Frischmuth returned to the topic of multiculturalism in her latest novels, Die Schrift des Freundes (1998), Die Entschlüsselung (2001), and Der Sommer, in dem Anna verschwunden war (2004). In a recent interview she cites her intellectual interests and the post-1989 political situation in [End Page 125] Austria as the main reasons for her return to a topic that, in many ways, began her literary career (see Yeşilada).

For the past fifteen years, questions of race, identity, community (Stacul, Moutsou, and Kopnina 5), and the need for a reevaluation of “Heim, Heimat, Nation” (Horváth, “The other culture” 486) have sparked politically charged debates in Europe. The intellectual and literary discussions in which Frischmuth participates have been equally vigorous. Frischmuth contends that in spite of the influx of a large number of immigrants in Austria and Germany since 1989 – the Turkish presence alone numbers 200,000 in Austria and over two million in Germany – attempts to understand the “other” remain minimal. She regrets that to this day “the Austrian culture of discussion is not very far developed [...] at any rate, not in a democratic way” (Sanford 144). Paul Michael Lützeler points out that although in many central European cities today as much as a third of the population is comprised of immigrants, “die Bereitschaft der Majorität [ist] gering, das Faktum der Multikultur im eigenen Land zu akzeptieren. Man ist [...] nur selten bereit, sich selbst als Segment einer kulturell fragmentierten Sozietät zu begreifen” (8). “Living with the other, with the foreigner, confronts us with the possibility [...] of being an other,” argues Kristeva (2; emphasis in the original), deep-seated fears that reinforce antiforeign feelings. To counteract these xenophobic tendencies, Kristeva calls on the human ability “to accept new modalities of otherness” (2). The answer is “not simply [...] a matter of our being able to accept the other, but of being in his place” (13; emphasis in the original), which presupposes the loss of one’s identity for the common good. Frischmuth most convincingly supports this sentiment in her novels Die Schrift des Freundes and Die Entschlüsselung...


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